If Gumbo is yo' thang .......

Discussion in 'Good Eats' started by cadillacattack, Apr 28, 2004.

  1. cadillacattack

    cadillacattack Illegitimi non carborundum est

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  2. Bengal B

    Bengal B Founding Member

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    says page cannot be displayed
     
  3. cadillacattack

    cadillacattack Illegitimi non carborundum est

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    here ya' go

    Roux the day
    Wednesday, April 28, 2004
    In recent years, I have become quite the fan of the Food Network, in particular the "Iron Chef" series. You know the show. It pits a pair of professional chefs in a timed, head-to-head cooking competition before a large audience. With nothing more at stake than pure honor, the two really put it all on the line in this very competitive match.

    On Saturday morning in Bayou La Batre, a group of cooks will take part in their own version of this popular show. Instead of "Iron Chef," it will be our own unique interpretation -- I like to call it "Cast Iron Chef."

    As part of the 55th annual Blessing of the Fleet festivities, some of the region's finest cooks will go shrimp head to shrimp head in a gumbo-making extravaganza.

    What makes this contest stand out is the setting: Bayou La Batre, the cradle of gumbo-making in Lower Alabama. Down in the south end of the county, they take their gumbo very seriously and recipes are not so much rendered as they are handed down from one generation of cooks to the next.

    Gumbo cooking is serious business here, where twisted oaks line the narrow lanes and bayous snake their way through the flat landscape.

    For the purposes of this first-ever contest, organizers decided to make the rules fairly simple. There are only two:

    Rule No. 1: Contestants must create their own roux -- no store-bought, pre-packaged ingredients are allowed.

    Rule No. 2: Obey all rules.

    That's pretty much it.

    There are a few other minor requirements, like providing your own tables, cooking utensils and fire source, said Arlen Lyons, who is heading up the gumbo cookoff for the fleet blessing committee. But mainly it's just show up and cook at least four gallons of gumbo.

    You read that right: There is no entry fee. Lyons said the commitee decided at the last minute to do away with the fee to try and enlarge the field.

    If you're interested in fielding a team, call Lyons at 824-4459. For information on the fleet blessing event in general, call St. Margaret Catholic Church at 824-2415.

    If you're not interested in cooking, show up at 11 a.m. Saturday, pony up $5 and eat your fill. You will also receive a token, which Lyons explained will be used to vote for your favorite gumbo.

    "A bowl will be placed on each entrant's table and, at the end of the day, the team with the most tokens will be declared the winner," he said. The winner gets a smooth $300 for their effort, but more than that, they get bragging rights.

    Lyons said the idea of a gumbo-making contest is not a new one. "They did it about 12 to 15 years ago and it went over fairly good," he said. Back then, there was no entry fee and there was no charge for the gumbo.

    For some reason, he said, the contest was dropped, until the idea resurfaced recently while church members and planners discussed ways to jazz up this year's event. "We thought we'd give it a try and see what happens," Lyons said last week while sitting on his front porch in Bayou LaBatre.

    Oh, there is one more rule that is very important: You must include at least one seafood ingredient in your gumbo. It can be fish, it can be oysters or crabs, it doesn't matter.

    One would expect no less in a town that proudly proclaims itself the Seafood Capitol of Alabama and is home to a large fleet of fishing vessels.

    After that, the cupboard is open to any and all interpretations on this timeless Gulf Coast classic. You can throw in the kitchen sink if that's the way Mama fixed it; it's all up to you.

    And that, after all, is what good gumbo-making is all about. Experimentation, trial-and-error, whatever you want to call it, proper gumbo preparation requires a measure of experience to make it all come together in the proper melange of flavors.

    But just exactly what makes a good gumbo?

    Several years ago, when I was about to embark on a personal quest to find the best gumbo in our area, one letter-writer captured the true spirit of gumbo-making in a nutshell.

    "You realize gumbo has that certain flavor, that specific taste that just reaches beyond every taste bud you imagined," she wrote, describing her favorite gumbo.

    She went on to describe how one doesn't "make" gumbo, but rather "creates" that magical, dark brown mixture of shrimp, crab, oysters, chicken, sausage, okra, tomatoes and whatever else the enterprising chef can come up with.

    And every gumbo is unique, as different as the cook who prepared it. Some cooks wouldn't dream of making gumbo without liberal doses of file powder as a thickening agent, while others claim that gumbo ain't gumbo without okra to add body to the soup.

    Likewise, purists argue that authentic seafood gumbo can't contain sausage or other meat products, while others argue just as hard that a little andouille sausage enrichens the broth with a layer of smoky goodness.

    The same argument applies to the age-old discussion of whether tomatoes or chickens belong in gumbo.

    Therein lies the beauty of a bowl of gumbo: Everybody is right. You can put in whatever you like because it's your recipe.

    Another beautiful thing about gumbo is its timelessness. This recipe is from a fabulous cookbook that I only recently came across, and it dates back to 1881.

    It was written by Mrs. Abby Fisher, a remarkable woman who really is still largely unrecognized for her role in spotlighting the food of Mobile. She was born into slavery and spent much of her adult life in Mobile, working in the kitchens of her owners.

    After the end of the Civil War, she and her husband went west, where they settled in San Francisco.



    Oyster Gumbo Soup




    Take an old chicken, cut into small pieces, salt and black pepper. Dip it well in flour, and put it on to fry, over a slow fire, till brown; don't let it burn.

    Cut half of a small onion very fine and sprinkle on chicken while frying. Then place chicken in soup pot, add two quarts of water and let boil to three pints.

    Have one quart of fresh oysters with all the liquor that belongs to them, and before dishing up soup, add oysters and let come to a boil the second time, then stir into soup one tablespoonful of gumbo (filé powder) quickly.

    Dish up and send to table. Have parsley chopped very fine and put in tureen on dishing up soup. Have dry boiled rice to go to table with gumbo in separate dish. Serve one tablespoonful of rice to a plate of gumbo.

    Note that she specifies an "old chicken." If you've ever cooked a similar fricassee dish, you know what she means. An old chicken won't fall apart under the intense cooking required.

    And her reference to "gumbo" is actually what we now know is filé powder, which is actually ground up sassafras leaves.



    Lyons said that even though the roux you use must be your own, you can make it ahead of time. That's fair enough.

    As any worthy gumbo cook will attest, it all starts with the manufacture of a good roux. If seafood is the lifeblood of a gumbo, a really fine, dark roux is its soul.

    Roux is nothing more than oil and flour that have been cooked slowly and tenderly over a medium heat so that the end result is a rich, nutty-flavored concoction that adds body and stamina to a gumbo.

    Making a roux is fairly simple with a large cast iron skillet, a steady heat source, a wooden spoon and a good arm for stirring. But patience is probably more important than any of the above necessities; speeding up the process only results in burned roux and hurt feelings.



    Basic Roux




    2 cups all-purpose flour

    2 cups vegetable oil or shortening

    Heat oil in a large cast iron skillet over medium heat. When oil is hot, gradually add flour, stirring constantly until it is incorporated completely. (Note: It should look like thin pudding now.)

    Lower heat to mediulow and continue to stir with wooden spoon until the roux turns a rich, dark chocolate color, about 40-45 minutes. Remove from heat and continue stirring.

    Remove roux to another pot off the heat. Store leftovers covered in refrigerator.


    Now, a few notes about roux. For starters, it is extremely hot to the touch. You want avoid, at all costs, putting your skin in contact with the hot flouoil combination at any time.

    Second, the term "stirring continuously" means just that. Don't take a break and go check on your soap opera or have a cigarette. When you're planning to cook roux, clear you social calendar for at least an hour and a half.

    Third, a cast iron skillet, once hot, tends to remain hot for a long, long time. Just because you removed the pot from the heat doesn't mean that the roux is no longer cooking; it is.

    Therefore, it's imperative to remove the roux to another container as soon as possible to prevent scorching. Seasoned roux-makers know when to stop cooking far enough in advance that after it's removed from the fire it coasts to a stop gently under its own steam. This, though, takes practice.

    A note on scorching: If you see black flecks of burned roux start to show up while stirring, it's a pretty good chance that you've burned it. At that point, the only thing you can do is sit down, have a good cry, allow the roux to cool and then throw the whole mess out and start over.

    One of the cardinal rules of roux-making is you can't save or salvage a burnt roux. Tossing it is the only option, however painful.

    Another good way to slow the cooking process is to toss in your vegetables -- onions, celery and bell pepper -- and let them draw some of the heat from the mixture. Cooking your vegetables in the hot roux also helps them release more flavor into the pot, effectively infusing the roux with their sweet goodness.


    So the rules are fairly minimal, but that's by design. The folks who reside in the lower portion of Mobile County like to do things at a more relaxed pace.

    Still, if Lyons had his way there would be one more requirement for contestants. "I'd love it if they would put a big old helping of potato salad with each bowl," he said, in acknowledging that the mingling of potatoes, mayonnaise, mustard and relish is the universally accepted side dish for gumbo in these parts.

    But in true Bayou LaBatre fashion, he stopped himself. "That would be asking too much," he said.
     
  4. Bengal B

    Bengal B Founding Member

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    I am tempted to enter the contest and bring all the seafood from here in Louisiana except for one thing. I lived in Mobile for parts of 1994 and 1995. One night I went to a restaurant that had all the boiled shrimp you could eat. The shimp tasted like they were boiled in nothing more than salt water with no seasonings. When I confronted the owner about it he said "People around here don't like all them spices."
     

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