Thursday, March 22, 2012
Down the Big Easy
Louisiana is a prime example of this trait: originally founded by the French, sold to the American colonies, then populated by Spaniards and African slaves, who formed what is Creole culture, while the Acadian refugees formed the Cajun country. Everybody intermingled reluctantly with local tribes, but survival demanded that they all learned from each other. The mix of cultures intermixed techniques and necessity, and a constant battering of heat and storms birthed blues and one of the most occult culture in the Americas.
If you were to ask what is the signature dish of Louisiana, the majority would claim gumbo their relief, tho jambalaya is a close second. Creole/cajun cuisine has been described as hard to pull off, and I'd lay the blame at the cajun roux, which a mixture of flour cooked in butter until it is a hair's breath from burning. That is certainly a skill that could be well-worth developing, but I've decided to skip that lesson for now and just move on to make a delicious and hearty dish that never fails to please.
The first thing that you have to consider when you make gumbo is what your thickener will be; that is the purpose of the roux after all. You have in fact three other options: onions, tomatoes and okra. I will tend to use all three myself, both for flavor as for what they bring to the mix.
Start with a couple of good white onions that have been either thinly sliced or finely chopped, either works. You are going to poach them in a good quantity of fairly neutral fat; basic vegetable oil or ghee works fine. Add some chopped celery and a bell pepper or two (one green, and one red or yellow, for variety) and stir, getting it to soften. If you are going to use okra, this is the time to add it in. Its better to use pre-cut frozen stuff, it just makes things easier. Stir until soft, then add garlic to taste. Add meats like sausage, bacon cubes, or other bits of meat in small bite-size. Brown, then add tomatoes. Finally pour in as much stock as you want, keeping in mind whether you want to make it a stew or a soup.
Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer, for a good forty-five minutes. Towards the end of the cooking time, add whatever seafood you happen to have on hand. What flavoring you add will entirely depend on what you have at hand, but try to keep it simple: a light touch of kosher salt, ground black pepper, oregano, thyme. I'd suggest experimenting, but don't overdo it, or you'll drown out the other flavors. Serve with rice or biscuit.
This is one seriously easy dish; in fact, you get so into it that your loved ones will most likely ask you to stop making it because they have had enough for a while. You can use different meats, all depending what you happen to have at hand. The minimal ingredients I would say comes down to onion, bell pepper, celery, meat and stock. This is a great way to get some use of vegetable odds and ends, like that half tomato you used for lunch and those potatoes that are sprouting legs and are trying to escape. Clean the lot and toss in!