Creole Gumbo-Southern Food Challenge 6

Calvin came into town this past weekend to hang out, spend time in NYC, and celebrate his birthday with us.  Of all the things we miss about our life in California, spending time with Calvin is near the top of the list. So, as usual when we do see him, we took the opportunity and crammed about a month’s worth of hanging out into one long weekend. I think we may have crammed about a month’s worth of eating into one weekend too. I had my first ShackBurger in Madison Square Park and my first John’s Pizza on Bleeker Street. Eataly was a culinary mosh pit; we got espresso and dodged elbows. We drank beer at the Blind Tiger and the Ginger Man. We got cannolis and lobster tails at Georgio’s across the street. For Calvin’s birthday, we took him to a little Japanese “soul food” restaurant we tried for Scott’s birthday called Hakata Tonton.  The three of us shared their signature hot-pot, full of vegetables, pork belly and feet, dumplings and goji berries in an amazingly unctuous broth. And before we put him on the train back out to JFK, we had lunch at  Ippudo, the best bowl of ramen I have ever eaten. I had tonkotsu ramen in Hong Kong for the first time last year; the creamy white pork broth and dark garlic oil with chewy ramen noodles, so lip-smacking and savory and have been craving it since……I ate so much I felt like a pork belly myself.

It made me think about the nitty-gritty of what it is that makes great soup really great. I think it is unarguably the broth. It’s the bones and cartilage and collagen and meat that slowly infuse their essence into water, creating something that tastes incredibly rich without fat. In beauty, one hears about having “good bones”; stock is literally the “good bones” of beautiful flavor.  I’m not asserting that good soup can’t be made with bottled chicken broth or water and aromatics, but every once in a while, it’s worth it to go the extra mile to make a rich, collagen filled stock, full of the most intense essential flavors and make a special meal superlative.

The easiest entry point for stock has to be fish (or seafood) stock. Using the shells, heads, and bones of the seafood going into this gumbo to make a simple stock creates a layer of flavor that deepens and echoes the sweetness of the shrimp and fish in every rich, spicy bite.

Creole Seafood Gumbo

1 pound of head-on shell-on shrimp

1-2 pound fish, fileted, bones and head reserved (I used red snapper)

about 1 cup bay scallops

1/3 to ½ pound of andouille

roux

1 medium white or yellow onion, diced

2 stalks celery diced (celery leaves have lots of flavor, chop them up too!)

½ green bell pepper, diced

2 fat cloves garlic, minced or micro-planed

¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes

½ teaspoon thyme

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

1 bay leaf

salt

1 can diced tomatoes, undrained

2 cups sliced okra (frozen works well off-season)

1 ½ quarts fish stock*

hot rice

hot sauce

Rinse the shrimp and fish. De-head and peel the shrimp. If you’re hard-core like me, filet the fish, slicing the filets into bite-sized pieces. Keep all the bones and shells for the stock. If you get a whole fish from a market and have the fishmongers do the dirty work of fileting, specify that you want to keep the bones and head. Some stores will sell packages of fish trimmings for stock; get a white-fleshed fish for this recipe.

Make a roux

I use less roux for seafood gumbo than for meatier gumbos. For this recipe, I used about ¼ cup each of flour and oil.

After the roux is dark enough, add the Trinity of diced onion, celery, and bell pepper (similar to mirepoix, onion, celery, carrot) to the roux and stir until the vegetables are softened.

Slice and quarter about a link’s worth of smoked andouille (maybe 1/3 pound). The only brand I could find here in town this week was D’ Artagnan; I don’t prefer their seasoning though. Stir it into the roux in the pan, getting it to brown a little on the edges.

When the sausage begins to render a little of it’s fat, add the garlic and spices; I usually gently toast spices for a moment before I add any liquid. When I began learning about Indian cooking and their treatment of spices, I started assimilating the technique of dry toasting or frying spices and herbs often along with the aromatic vegetables and it really seems to bloom and infuse their flavor and fragrance better.

Add the tomatoes, okra and stock. Bring to a simmer and stir until the roux is smoothly incorporated into the stock and cook it until the okra is tender. It shouldn’t take too long, maybe 20 minutes, but cook it slowly and gently so that the assembled throng has time to mingle their flavors. Taste for salt.

Finally- and I mean finally so as not to overcook- stir the scallops, shrimp and fish into the soup. Heat just to a simmer, very gently stirring the seafood into the broth so that it is just opaque and barely cooked through. Be gentle with the fish so the pieces don’t get too broken up

When the seafood is cooked, scoop some hot rice into a bowl and pour the gumbo over. Shake a bit of hot sauce on top.

*Make this basic seafood stock with the fish bones and head and shrimp shells and heads, a little onion and celery. I used the shells and heads of 1 pound of shrimp and the bones and head of a 2 pound red snapper, a stalk of celery and ¼ onion and two quarts of water. Bring it all to a simmer, covered and let it burble away for about 20 -30 minutes. Strain out the solids and reduce the stock to about 1 ½ quarts.

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Pad Thai

I have travel envy. My sister Grace is on an island in Thailand. She met a friend in Bangkok, arriving just in time for things to heat up politically, and they migrated south to Kho Chang where it’s a little more chill, in temperament if not temperature. She says it is really hot and the food is hotter. Apparently, when she’s not island hopping to find good snorkeling spots or lounging on the beach overlooking the Sea of Siam, she’s eating food on sticks from hawker stalls, fish cakes, fiery green curry, and sweet strong Thai coffee.

I guess if I can’t go to Thailand, then Thailand must come to me. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you

Pad Thai

Don’t be intimidated by the length of the ingredient list; some items may be a little exotic, but they keep well and I use fish sauce and mirin in enough recipes not to begrudge the space it takes in my pantry.

Ingredients:

1/2 package of dry rice noodles, soaked and drained

The sauce:

4 teaspoons fish sauce

2 teaspoons mirin

2 teaspoons rice vinegar

1 minced red chili

½ grated piloncillo or 2 teaspoons palm or brown sugar

2 tablespoons tamarind sauce

Everything else:

1/3 cup finely ground roast cashews or peanuts

oil

large handfuls of mung bean sprouts

3 scallions, sliced

3-4 garlic cloves, minced

1 medium hot red chili

1/3 block firm tofu (sliced into strips and pressed between paper towels to remove water)

6 ounces peeled and tailed shrimp

1 egg

handful cilantro leaves, chilis, and coarsely chopped cashews or peanuts

The sauce, I mixed up earlier in the day. I have used a couple of different types of tamarind paste- one the blocks of tamarind that still have all of the seeds and fiber that you have to soak and strain to a ketchup consistency, and TamiCon, a little pot of what looks like tar but is actually  Tamarind Concentrate. Clever name, no? I got it at an Indian grocery store and it will stay good practically forever in my pantry. The pulpy stuff had the nicest sharp tangy molassesy flavor, but made me feel like I was squelching my hands around in the bottom of a swamp. TamiCon is convenient and easy to keep on hand, but with a flatter  more cooked flavor and less texture. So, I’m still looking for my happy tamarind medium.

My brother Israel gave me a great wok for Christmas. The only other wok I’ve owned was basically like cooking in aluminum foil in the shape of a wok which resulted in many bitter tears being shed on my part over scorched food at the bottom and raw food up the sides.  I’m enjoying the process of learning how to really use this great piece of equipment. This recipe is perfect for wok cooking because the vessel’s shape helps keep everything moving and cooking evenly. I’m also discovering what happens when you don’t get the wrist flip right. Fortunately, I keep a lot of paper towels handy.

 

Before you heat the oil in your wok or pan, make sure you have everything rinsed, diced, chopped, ready to go. The cooking moves quickly once you get started so best not to have to stop midway through to rummage through the fridge for something.  Sauté the  scallions, chili, and garlic in hot oil over medium-high heat for a few seconds until their fragrance is released. Then add a handful of mung bean sprouts and about 4 ounces of firm tofu . A big spoonful of the sauce goes in now to infuse the tofu, then add the shrimp and more of the sauce. Stir or flip (if you dare) to keep everything moving so that it is cooking evenly. Add the noodles. After a couple of seconds, test a noodle for lightly chewy doneness and add a little water if they feel too firm. Pour in any remaining sauce. Rice noodles can get really gummy if they are overcooked, so stay vigilant. Make a little empty space in the bottom of the pan and  crack the egg into the empty spot, quickly scrambling it and then stirring it into the rest of the ingredients. Sprinkle the finely ground cashews or peanuts over and toss to coat. Take the pan off the heat and tumble on the cilantro, remaining sprouts, and dust with chopped nuts.