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


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


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.


Baby, it’s cold outside: Posole Roja

We had our first snow flurries of the season this morning. People keep telling me “Oh, this isn’t really cold yet” but when I walked down Washington Street, wrapped to the chin in a pashmina, long coat, boots and 3/4 length gloves, to New Hoboken Farm for some radishes and apples, it only took a couple of blocks for my face and ears to stop hurting and just go numb. I’m already deep into my wooliest winter wardrobe and am going to need a lot more layers if it gets any colder. And I’m not really sure what to do about my  lips. They won’t stop peeling. And my nose looks like Rudolph’s most of the time. If this isn’t cold, then I clearly have not developed the Life Skill set nor the wardrobe necessary to cope with actual cold weather.

One polar climate Life Skill I do have, however, is making soup. I put a couple of desultory afternoon’s worth of effort into what may be the ideal “cold, but not as cold as it’s gonna get” soup: Posole Roja. This Mexican winter soup is in the spirit of chili con carne, but without the weight. Hominy soaks up the rich spicy berry flavor of dried ancho chilis and savory garlicky pork stock like tiny dumplings; fresh cabbage, scallions, and radishes add a fresh crunch; and squeezing lime wedges into the steaming bowl of spicy broth is like taking an IV drip of sunshine straight to the veins.

Posole Roja

3 pounds of pork neck with bones

1 pound pork hock or shank, cut into thick slices

6 whole cloves garlic

about 1 tablespoon onion powder ( I have some  I got at Penzey’s and it has a nice sweet concentrated flavor)

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin

generous pinch Mexican oregano

6 dried ancho chiles

3 dried serrano chiles

1 large onion, chopped



2 cans white hominy

Napa cabbage, cabbage, or lettuce, shredded

radishes, sliced thin

sliced scallions

lime wedges

This posole is made in two basic steps. The  first step is to make a pork stock and cook the pork. Rinse all the meat and put it into a large stock pot; add the garlic cloves, cumin, onion granules, and Mexican oregano. Cover with at least 2 quarts of water and bring up to a low boil. Lower to a simmer. There will be some gray foam that starts floating to the surface. Scoop that off as it shows up; it will gradually disappear. Alternately, if you won’t be able to keep a close eye on the stock making process, you can blanch the pork in boiling water for about ten minutes, then pour out the water, rinse the scum out of the pot and start over with the seasonings and water. I’m usually puttering around close by when I make stock, so I don’t bother with that step.  Simmer, maybe partially covered, for at least 2 and up to 4 hours, until the meat is so tender that the mere impact of your glance causes it to fall off the bone (or at least until fork-tender). Strain the meat and bones out of the stock and let everything cool down – I put the stock out on the fire escape for a couple of hours which was great because it was colder out there than inside the fridge and didn’t heat everything else up. I let everything chill separately overnight to make it easy to de-fat the stock and remove the meat from the bones.

OK, step two: bringing all the elements together. Pour about 2 cups of boiling water over the dried chilis (take the stems off, leave the seeds) and soak them for a couple of hours, making sure they stay submerged, until they are rehydrated. Meanwhile, put the defatted stock back onto the heat. Taste to see if it needs to be reduced for a richer flavor and check the salt. Drain and rinse the hominy and pour it into the warm stock, along with the chopped onion. Put the softened chilis and soaking water into a blender or food processor and blend into a smooth red paste. Pass the chili paste through a sieve into the pot of stock; use a spatula or the back of a spoon to press as much of the paste through as you can. This step will keep the tough skins and seeds out of the soup. Add the shredded pork back into the soup and simmer everything together to get all of the flavors acquainted.

Once the flavors have become thoroughly acquainted and shown each other pictures of their children and become friends on Facebook, ladle it into bowls and bring it to the table. In the same spirit that a big bowl of fragrant ph is customized to the eater’s specifications, mix in the cabbage, radishes onions and lime in whatever amounts you desire.

I think this is the sort of thing that is great to make a big batch of and put half into a freezer bag for a wretchedly cold day when there isn’t time to go through the long (but not necessarily involved) process from scratch. Its flavor certainly improves after a night of mingling in the fridge.

I’m also pretty confident that this could be made over a couple days using a big crock pot. I don’t have a crock pot at the moment, but previous experience makes me think that if you make the stock  and soak the chilis to make the paste the first day, you could put everything back into the pot the next morning and come home to a pretty fabulous smelling house at the end of the day. Any of you slow cookers out there, give it a try and let me know how it goes.

Another note- I got the pork at my local grocery store, but if pork neck and hocks are hard to find, using cubed pork shoulder or butt should be fine. I think that stocks made with bones and cuts like the hock that are rich with natural gelatin are substantially superior, but if it’s the difference between your making this soup or not, I’m not going to quibble. It will still be plenty good.

How to not cook a turtle


I had a bowl of gorgeous turtle soup at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen a long long time ago back when I still lived in the South. It was dark and rich and intriguing, spicy and earthy and had a nice whiff of sherry in it. I loved it. The thing is, I don’t run across a lot of turtles and if I did, I can’t say I could fathom cooking one of them, having only just conquered the crab. But that flavor has always stayed in my memory, waiting to be recreated.  The trigger on that idea got pulled recently. Here in NJ where I live, there are grocery aisles dedicated to Caribbean ingredients like adobo seasoning, lard colored with annatto, beans and rice, yucca chips. There are at least five Caribbean restaurants here in my mile-square town. Seeing pumpkin soup and black beans on menus and then eating some good jerk during TMRVacationEver got me thinking- rich, earthy, sweet, spicy. Spices like cumin, allspice, thyme and Habanero  are straight out of a jerk marinade recipe and pumpkin and black beans balance that earthy/sweet flavor combo. I’m not going to say that this soup tastes like that turtle soup I had, but it makes me feel like that soup did. And I didn’t have to cook a turtle.


Black Bean and Pumpkin Soup

1 ½ cups dried black beans, soaked and drained

1 onion large diced

3 cloves garlic minced

1 small knob ginger smashed (end of thumb size)

I medium heat green chili diced (can of chilis would work)

1 small Habanero deseeded and cut in half

oil (or butter) to sauté the onion

1 allspice berry, crushed (or  tiny pinch of ground allspice)

small pinch of dried thyme

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 packet Goya ham base or whatever smoked ham stock you like

4-6 cups water

¼ calabaza pumpkin, seeds removed and roasted until soft

¾ cup diced tomato

1/2- 2/3  cups diced or shredded smoked ham

1/3-1/2 cup dry sherry

garnish with avocado, feta or cotija cheese, or sour cream, or toasted pumpkin seeds


Saute’ the onion, chilis, ginger and garlic in oil until soft. Add the cumin, thyme and allspice and warm in the oil for a minute. Add the drained beans and the ham stock if desired. Otherwise , cover generously with water and simmer until the beans are soft and creamy. Don’t fear the Habanero. If you are tasting the soup as you go, you can easily fish the pepper out when you are happy with the heat level. I just think that the fruity heat of the Habanero adds a specific flavor that cayenne or jalapeno doesn’t have.


I roasted the pumpkin on a dish in the oven, lightly covered, at 350 for a few hours. Since everything is going to be blended, you can’t really overcook it.  I used calabaza because it was easy to find here, but I’d also make it with butternut squash or kabocha pumpkin; they both have dense, sweet flesh that intensifies as it is cooked down. Scrape the pumpkin flesh off of the skin and add to the black bean along with the tomatoes. Simmer together, adding additional water if needed. Adjust the seasoning for salt.

Pour in the sherry and bring back to a good simmer, to let some of the alcohol cook off. Using an immersion blender, blend the soup until smooth. Stir in the smoky shreds of ham (or put it in the bottom of each bowl before pouring in the soup). Scoop some avocado, cheese or sour cream on top.


If you are disinclined to do the whole “from dried beans and whole pumpkin” route,  try it with canned beans and pumpkin. Use about 1 can of pumpkin puree and 2 cans of drained black beans.  After the onions and spices are cooked, add the beans, pumpkin and stock, tomatoes, and cook it all together . Letting it sit overnight before blending will probably help the flavors integrate more thoroughly.


Potato Leek Soup

It is Allium season. All of the plants that spent the rainy winter in the ground are burgeoning in the warm weather, blooming and ripening. In the garden and farmers markets, broad hipped rosy red onions, mauve puffball chive blossoms, elegant jade leeks, sweet cloveless young garlic.

Weyland from a couple of plots over offered me some of his leeks. He had a beautiful row of slender leeks he planted last Fall and said he didn’t really know what to do with them. I told him how to make potato leek soup, how easy and good it was so he took them home to try the recipe. A few days later, I asked him how the soup had turned out and he said it was great, they had made it 3 times. He was digging more leeks (and not offering me any) so I guilted him into giving me a nice handful.

I think the reason that the Mesdames Child and Beck began Mastering the Art of French Cooking with a recipe for potato leek soup is that it is the sort of recipe that can be related while standing in a garden with a shovel in your hand. It is essentially simple without being plain, and delicious without being difficult.  It always pains me to see new cooks start out with a difficult dish and then become discouraged when it doesn’t turn out well. This soup on the other hand is a great confidence builder.

While the basic recipe requires only five ingredients- potatoes, leeks, water, salt, and cream- I sometimes augment or adapt it by adding some turnips and substituting chicken stock for water or milk for cream. The crucial step is to get all of the vegetables scrupulously clean. Leeks are notorious for hiding grit amongst its cracks and crevices. I get it all squeaky clean by first cutting off the darker green tops of the leeks, then quartering them and rinsing them in a bowl of water deep enough for the dirt to settle on the bottom while the leeks are being swished around above them.  Be thorough, because “earthy” isn’t the flavor we’re going for this time.

After the leeks are clean, chop them into chunks. Peel and cut the potatoes into large chunks. Dump them into a pot; add a generous amount of salt (although you will want to leave room to adjust it later) and just cover with water. Cover the pot and bring it to a low boil and cook for 20 minutes or so, until the leeks have softened and the potatoes are tender enough to crush with a fork. Using an immersion blender or canister blender, puree until quite smooth. Pour in cream, bit by bit, tasting as you go. I tend to use very little cream, just enough to enrich with out obscuring the flavor of the vegetables. Taste for salt and soup is ready. I drizzled a little olive oil and chives on top- but that embellishment is entirely optional.

It was a super bowl

I’m not going to say that I choose my Super Bowl team based on the city with the most appealing gustatory traditions, but if someone wants to draw that conclusion based on my making gumbo today, I can offer only a half-hearted defense. What do Colts eat? I don’t know, but I do know that I’ve had gumbo on the brain for weeks.

Last Friday found me in Old Oakland at the Friday farmer’s market and the Old   Housewives  Market.  A bustling farmer’s market in February is one of the loveliest things about living in this area. It was full of greens and citrus, cruciferous and root vegetables. I briefly considered what looked like a rubber chicken which was actually a real chicken complete with head and feet and suitable for stock-making, but I was single-minded and on my way to Taylor’s Sausage for some hot smoked sausage, then on to Ranch 99 for a duck.

My gumbo today was based loosely on Southern Living’s Chicken and Sausage Gumbo recipe with several notable differences. When I made the roux, I used a couple of tablespoons of bacon fat that I had in the refrigerator to add a little smoky depth to my peanut butter colored roux. The duck had been broken down and the bits and bones made into stock. The breast and legs were poached in the stock and shredded and the stock de-fatted before pouring it into the roux and vegetables.

While I love okra and tomatoes in gumbo, I was looking for a deep smoky winter gumbo. The dark roux added so much body and flavor to the soup that it didn’t miss the okra thickener.

Let’s just say that if we had had a cooler full of icy Gatorade lying around the house this evening, it would not have been inappropriate to douse me with it after supper, cause, baby, that gumbo was a winner!

Soup of the day- Kabocha Pumpkin Soup

Rifling through the freezer today, I found a couple of Ziploc bags of kabocha pumpkin that I had roasted and pureed. Kabocha is a little gnarly green pumpkin with very sweet slightly grainy flesh. It’s flavor is intensified by roasting and I like to keep some cooked in the freezer for risotto, soup, or quick bread.

Tonight, I’m making a very traditionally and simply seasoned pumpkin soup.

Kabocha Pumpkin Soup

Tools you’ll need


Cutting board

Soup pot- about 3 quarts

Spoon or spatula to stir

Immersion blender or regular blender


2 cups roasted kabocha

1 stalk of celery minced

½ yellow onion, minced

1 shallot, minced

6 dried sage leaves, chopped or ground

Dash of cayenne

1 tablespoon of butter and a splash of olive oil

Chicken stock- I used about 2 cups

Cream or half and half- I used about 4 tablespoons



Start by mincing all of the aromatic vegetables, celery, onion, and shallot; meanwhile, melt the butter and olive oil in the soup pot. Add all of the minced vegetables and the chopped or ground sage, a dash of cayenne, and a nice pinch of salt and sweat it slowly over low heat until everything is soft. Add the pumpkin and about half of the chicken stock. Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes to infuse the flavor of the aromatics into the pumpkin and stock. Check the consistency and add enough of the additional stock to make a fairly loose mixture; add the cream of half and half. Using an immersion blender or regular blender, process the soup until it is very smooth. Check the seasoning for salt.

A bowl of this rich saffron-colored sweet and savory soup is incredibly satisfying with a little Brie grilled cheese alongside. We had licked-clean bowls at our house.

Jet lag

I knew I was in trouble when my eyes slammed irrevocably open at 4 AM. There is no sheep counting or backwards counting from 100 with jet lag. I’m just awake and will be until I fall prey to narcoleptic–like somnolence at around 7 PM, crashing hard, dizzily trying to keep myself awake until something a little past a toddler’s bedtime.

This is the price I pay for my jet set life style. It’s not pretty, but it’s worth it and I try to make the best of it. I spent the dark pre dawn trying to decide what I’d cook for supper since I was past my limit for consecutive meals eaten out and have been looking forward to the comforting routine of my own kitchen.  I knew I would need something familiar that I could cook with half my brain tied behind my back, something savory, and since the weather has been raw and rainy, beef stew sounded perfect.

Beef stew is familiar and comforting, something I’ve made my whole life and refined as my taste and skills have improved. I’m able to move easily through the process, browning peppery pieces of beef chuck, adding garlic and shallots and then deglazing the pan with wine and tomatoes before putting it into a  low oven with a spoonful of harissa paste and a bay leaf.  About an hour before we eat, I’ll add the vegetables I’ve prepped- cubes of white turnips and creamy yellow potatoes, discs of carrot and snapped green beans.  Add biscuits or cornbread and it’s simple and satisfying, definitely a meal worth coming home for.