Monday, February 23, 2009

Celebrating Mardi Gras My Way

Our friends Jen and Jason were joining us for Sunday dinner and I wanted to do something special. Given that it is time for Mardi Gras celebrations, I thought the menu should reflect Creole or Cajun cooking from NOLA.

Jen and Jason are foodies. They both have blogs; Jen has Eating Plum, while Jason writes Cooking For My Wife. (Don't ya love newlyweds?) Jen worked for FoodBuzz before heading off to culinary school. She has been enrolled in the Tante Marie's Cooking School in San Francisco since last September, slaving away over mirapoix, roux, confit and a million other techniques and dishes. This means I have to challenge myself to make something a little different, something a little better, something that will please me, my family, and our guests.

I was fortunate enough to go to New Orleans the year before Hurricane Katrina hit the southern coast and devastated the city. While there, we walked the French Quarter, ate in little holes-in the-wall as well as better-known establishments, and I took a cooking course from Chiqui Collier at the New Orleans Cooking Experience.

It may have been raining outside, but it was pure sunshine inside The House on Bayou Road. Four home chefs, as well as a chef-in-training, were experiencing the joy and happiness elicited by Creole and Cajun food. Located in a renovated French-style plantation house that also serves as a B&B, the cooking school is a down-home low-key series of classes to teach us Northerners how to do it right.

Although terms like jambalaya, gumbo, dirty rice, and grits are common, and foods I have eaten many times, my experiences in the kitchen with these foods had been limited to boxed Jambalaya mix found on the local Safeway shelf. Add a little smoked sausage and you have a meal in 30 minutes, which as a working mother of three was a godsend. The taste, however, is nothing like homemade and after spending time in NO, I feel that I have tortured my children for the last ten years serving them something other than the real thing.

If only I had known all those years what I was really missing, I would have run, not sauntered to Louisiana to this hands-on course. The teaching menu is based on what is in season and fresh – no frozen crawfish here. My learning experience included Oyster Pan Roast with Garlic Croustades, Sausage and Chicken Gumbo, Pecan-crusted Catfish Meuniere, and Noni’s Bread Pudding with Rum Sauce.

Our instructor, Chiqui Collier, is a NO native, learned to cook from her mother and grandma. runs a catering business, and knows how to throw a good party. (Although it seems that everyone in NO knows how to do this and needs very little excuse to do so.) Chiqui not only taught us how to cook the dishes, she showed us a few other tricks, as well as enlightening us with historical facts and food tips. In addition to the lesson, you get to eat the fruit of your labors, and sip on wine while doing all of it. Well worth the half day and money spent, I assure you.

I decided to make the gumbo I learned to make on that excursion. Gumbo can be a time-consuming chore. I don't mind spending hours in the kitchen, chopping, stirring, rocking out to music, but should you want to skip much of the prep work, you can make this wonderful dish in much less time. (See Shortcut Hints below).

The biggest trick to making a gumbo is the roux. This flour-and-fat mixture must darken to the point of looking burned. It cooks and cooks, getting darker and nuttier as it goes along. Catching it past the milk chocolate point but before it burns is the key. Dark chocolate in color is what you want. Many cooks pull the roux too soon. While you will still have an excellent gumbo using a milk chocolate roux, the darker roux is more authentic. The other key is the fat you use. You can use Crisco, lard, vegetable oil, or bacon fat drippings. I didn't have quite enough bacon drippings, so I added in a bit a vegetable oil to make the full cup. Not exactly the heart-healthy thing to do, but it approximates real gumbo and besides, I write enough healthy cooking posts over at HealthNews. Sometimes I just need some old-fashioned, artery-clogging goodness.

I chose to make everything from scratch, from frying bacon (for the bacon grease), cooking the chicken (used the same pan as the bacon), chopping everything, and slow cooking the concoction. I also decided to make it a day ahead, to let the flavors meld.

Served over white rice, the gumbo was dark, full of flavor, with a little kick from the andouille and hot sauce. (For milder gumbo, use smoked sausage and omit hot sauce). It garnered good reviews from all at the table. The pictures probably don't do it justice, but that's because we all wanted to dig in and had to rush the picture-taking.

If you're thinking about celebrating Mardi Gras, this is the way to do it.

Chicken and Sausage Gumbo
1 cup flour
1 cup bacon drippings
1 gallon chicken stock
1 ½ cups chopped celery
1 ½ cups chopped onion
1 ½ cups chopped bell pepper
1 bunch green onions, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
2 tablespoons Worcestershire
1 tablespoon hot sauce
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
salt to taste
1 pound andouille sausage, sliced and lightly browned
1 pound sliced okra, fresh or frozen, sautéed in vegetable oil
3 pounds smoked or grilled chicken, diced or shredded
4 tablespoons flat leaf parsley, coarsely chopped

Add oil or bacon fat to heavy-bottomed 2-3 gallon soup pot. Adjust heat to high; when oil is to the smoking point, very carefully stir in flour using a wooden spoon; reduce heat to medium high. Use extreme care while stirring the roux. Continue to cook the roux, stirring constantly, making sure the roux is not sticking or burning. Stir the roux until it reaches a dark chocolate color. Carefully add vegetables, garlic, spices and approximately 1 1.2 teaspoons of salt. Stir the roux and vegetable mixture to insure than all is well combined. Cook for 4-5 minutes over medium heat, while stirring until the vegetables are soft. Add the browned sausage and the sautéed okra and whisk in the chicken stock slowly. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and cook for approximately 1 hour, skimming any oil or foam that rises to the top. After an hour, adjust for salt, add hot sauce and Worcestershire. Just before serving, add chicken and cook until thoroughly heated. Ladle gumbo over cooked white rice. Garnish with parsley.

Shortcut Hints: The basis for much of the stews and dishes is the trinity: celery, onion and bell pepper. All of these can be purchased in your supermarket already chopped. Instead of cooking your own chicken, you can buy a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken and chop up the meat yourself, and the andouille sausage does not have to be browned first You can just chop and toss it in. All of this will save you considerable time.

Next up: The killer dessert…..


Tea said...

Wow, you are on a posting roll!

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Anonymous said...
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Brilliant Daughter said...

This wasn't just good, it was FANTASTIC. The whole meal was a winner. Too bad it all takes so long!