Thursday, January 19, 2006

Jambalaya, Crawfish Pie, File Gumbo....

When I was first learning to cook, I had a friend whose family came from Ville Platte. It was from them I learned to love Cajun food, which is about as far from Irish cooking as you can get and not leave the galaxy.

One feature of Cajun that is true of many country dishes is that it tends to be cooked in one pot and it features local food. So for Cajuns, that means fish, pork, fowl, and lots of vegetables. Rice, of course, since Louisiana has all those rice paddies.

Warning: most Cajun recipes begin with “first you make a roux.” This means brown roux, which in reality is pretty near the color of chocolate. I’ve heard tell you can buy ready-made roux, but I never have. It’s just not something I think of when I go to the grocery store.

Here’s how to make roux. It takes about forty five minutes altogether (having a book to read while you stand/sit on a stool stirring the pan will alleviate the tedium some. Or you could think good thoughts).

First thing, you need a cast iron frying pan. Nothing else can distribute the heat the way it does. Second thing you need is some fat. I use (heaven forefend!) lard or clarified butter. Bacon grease was often used in traditional brown roux. Even oil works, but you can’t darken it as much and I think the flavor is shallow.

1 cup lard
1 cup flour
1 cast iron pan

Heat pan on medium to low and add fat. Let it melt completely and then stir in the flour. Stir the mixture constantly (I use a wire whip since it seems to keep things moving more efficiently).

The lower setting takes longer for the roux to brown, but it avoids making black spots, which turns the roux bitter and inedible.

The roux will darken slowly, and then darken some more, and then a little darker. The first time you’ll be a bit nervous, thinking you’re going to leave it on too long. You probably won’t because it’s so damn tedious.

Just before you think it’s dark enough --as it's moving past a caramel color--take the pan off the burner and continue stirring for a few minutes longer. That cast iron really holds heat and if you just let the mixture sit, you’ll get burned bits, so keep stirring for awhile.

When the pan is cool, scrape the roux into a jar. It will keep for ages in the refrigerator.
That’s the hard part. Now comes the rest of the story, which is my recipe for gumbo. Lots of ingredients, but easy to prepare. This probably serves ten or twelve people, depending on size of diner and size of appetite. It freezes well and it tastes better if you make it a day ahead.

DYMPHNA’S GUMBO (filé powder expunged)

Red and green peppers, sliced or diced
Several onions, same way
Chopped celery, a cup or more
Enough oil or spray to sauté them on low for awhile in a big pot. Let the vegetables brown lightly, but not much. And do it slowly on low.

While they’re cooking, use the cast iron pan you made the roux in to sauté:

1 pound sausages, cut into pieces,
1 chicken, or 4 chicken breasts
1 pound ham, uncooked, cut in chunks.
Brown the meat lightly and leave aside.

To the large pot of veggies, add

8 diced tomatoes or two large cans of diced tomatoes
2 cups chicken broth
2 or 3 tablespoons brown roux (real Cajuns use half a cup, but you don’t need that much)
some thyme — be generous
celery seed, if you have it
Creole seasoning (make your own or buy it. The commercial kind has salt, so be careful)
1 jar clam juice

Let that cook slowly for about ten minutes and then add the meats from the frying pan. Cook until the meats are done, about half an hour to forty five minutes.

Now add either fresh or frozen okra — about a pound or so. It’s not crucial. In fact, some people don’t like it so they leave it out. If you do that, we’ll have to talk about filé powder.

Let the okra cook for about ten minutes. By the way, if you use whole okra, then people who don't like it can pick it out. Then add

1 lb shelled, raw shrimp. Size doesn’t matter, but stir and watch carefully that you don’t overcook the shrimp. They don’t take to it and get all mushy.

That’s it, except for cooked rice. Some people put the rice in the pot when the vegetables are cooking. Some put cooked rice in the bottom of the bowl (pasta bowls are good) and put the gumbo on that. Those who don’t eat starches can skip the rice.
NOTE: filé powder is made from dried sassafras leaves. There are some ersatz-science claims that sassafras leaves are carcinogenic but it’s one of those things where you’d have to eat more than you’ll ever put in a gumbo. The thing is, you can only use it when the gumbo is hot, sprinkled on separate servings. If you boil it, ugghhh — you have ropes instead of thickening. Okra’s better.

And, of course, here's the accompanying music:

Jambalaya, Crawfish Pie, File Gumbo....
Goodbye Joe, he gotta go, me oh my oh
He gotta go pole the pirogue down the bayou.
His Yvonne sweetest one me oh my oh
Son of a gun we'll have big fun on the bayou.

Thibadeaux Fountaineaux the place is buzzin'
Kin folk come to see Yvonne by the dozen
Dressed in style they go hogwild me oh my oh
Son of a gun we'll have big fun on the bayou.

Jambalaya crawfish pie file gumbo
For tonight I'm gonna see ma cher-o me oh
Pick guitar fill fruit jar and be gay-o
Son of a gun we'll have big fun on the bayou.

Settle down far from home get him a pirogue
And he'll catch all the fish on the bayou
Swap his mon to buy Yvonne what she need-o
Son of a gun we'll have big fun on the bayou

Repeat. Or, as they say down there, "allez encore..."


At 5:59 AM, Blogger Wally Ballou said...

I can certify that it is darn good gumbo. You'd never know it had a Mick cook (ducking behind my chair)

At 4:34 PM, Blogger Bill said...

I once did a gumbo off the top of my head after seeing Emeril do it. Your recipe confirms what I did was legit. Making the roux is indeed the hard part, and it was an real eye-opener to me. First time I had ever made something with real depth of flavor. I have since been quite careful about making sure meats are carmelized and there is proper browning.

I am an intuitive cook. I read cookbooks for principles then wing it in the kitchen, even when company is coming.

Emeril would say that if a son came home talking about a girl, the mother would ask, "Who's her mother, and can she make a roux?"

At 10:37 PM, Blogger Dymphna said...

The thing about gumbo is that if you don't use the rice, it's fairly low carb. We'll ignore the flour in the roux, since the Cajuns have much too heavy a hand with it anyway. Don't need no half a cup!


The Irish say "what's her father do" followed by "what's their address?" No snob like an oppressed snob.

At 8:46 AM, Blogger Wally Ballou said...

you know, D - on your way to Iceland you should visit Ireland. It's a happening place these days. They have pissed off the rest of Europe by embracing free markets and supply-side economics ("unfair!", cry the gnomes of Zurich and the busybodies of Berlin).

Remember when this was a joke:

Q: What's the richest country in the world?

A: Ireland, because its capital is always Dublin

That joke has been made meaningless by events - just like the phase "dollars to doughnuts".

At 11:35 PM, Blogger TulipGirl said...

I remember when my Mom taught me how to make a roux. . . I remember watching MawMaw make gumbo.

Making gumbo is not easy to explain in typed words, but your recipe looks great!


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