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on going slow, commitment, and roux

There’s something so simple, so basic about gumbo that it’s easy to forget just how damn long a proper gumbo takes to cook. That delicious cacophony of sausage, chicken, peppers, onions, and okra mixed and simmered in a highly spiced roux and broth– that doesn’t come quick or easy, which I found out the hard way yesterday. If I thought I had made gumbo before, I was dead wrong. This dish is something that takes a whole lotta time and a commitment to being in the kitchen that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone but the most committed (or crazy) of home cooks.

That dark brown color you see there? I’ve never made a gumbo that dark before, and that’s all because I had never made a proper oil roux before, either. This recipe, taken from Donald Link’s incredible Real Cajun cookbook, called for a serious roux, that had extra depth of flavor due to the fact that you fry the chicken for the gumbo in the oil first.

For this first part- you basically fry up your chicken pieces (I used 6 skin- and bone-on chicken legs, seasoned with salt and pepper, dredged in flour) in a cup of oil heated medium-high in a sturdy cast iron pot. Once the chicken is browned (not totally cooked through), remove from oil and set aside.

That’s the easy part. Hopefully you, like me, have the whole day ahead of you and have queued up some good shows on the DVR to listen to; hopefully you, unlike me, have strong wrists and no nagging carpal tunnel or other nerve issues that won’t flare up after making the roux. Because, again, this roux is not playing around. To the cup of oil that’s now warmed at the bottom of your pot, add 3/4 cup flour and start whisking slowly, for a damn long time. Start on medium heat, and incrementally lower the heat as the roux begins to thicken and change colors, until finally the heat is on low and your roux is a deep dark brown, almost black.

I’m sure there are plenty better descriptions of making roux than I’ve offered above– I’ve read quite a few myself over the years– but all I can say is that you won’t ever know how to make a roux until you just do it yourself. Watching it change from a dark to a medium brown back to dark brown again, thickening all the time, became truly hypnotic and helped the hour(!!!) of stirring go by relatively quickly. It’s impossible to have a gumbo with this kind of depth of flavor– no matter how fresh your vegetables or how well-raised your meats– if your roux isn’t done right. Being able to complete this process myself, with my own two hands, was incredibly satisfying, and taught me a few things about my capacities as a cook (and a person) that I hadn’t really thought through before.

For all you wannabe Top Chefs out there, making a roux the long way offers pretty quick reality check– a potent reminder of why we as home cooks are not, and will never be, cut out for a professional kitchen. I wasn’t kidding when I tweeted that my hands were shaking when I finally stopped stirring the roux– they kept on shaking the rest of the afternoon as I finished up the dish and well after. Even as I fantasize of one day going to culinary school and wearing chef whites, I’m pretty sure I won’t be seeing the inside of Momofuku’s kitchen any time soon. I’m just not cut out for the life and the work of cooking full-time.

I am already committed to being a professor, however, and making this roux, and the entire gumbo (which, if you want the full recipe, you’ll have to find in the Real Cajun cookbook that I’ve gushed about many times before) served as a necessary kind of head clearing that I’ve needed for a while now. As I try to write my dissertation– a long, slow-going and often demoralizing process– I can’t help but try to take shortcuts, to find the easy way out of really working through difficult questions that I know I don’t have the answers to, right now. Like making proper gumbo, though, writing and research is a slow process, and to do it right you’ve got to sit with it for a long while, and be ready to commit. If I can commit a day to cooking one dish that will be eaten in a few short days, then I think I should offer the same level of care and work into a written piece with my name attached to it that will exist in perpetuity…. Thanks, Donald Link, for helping me regain sight of that with a simple, not-so-simple gumbo recipe.

really?

How it it possibly the tail end of May already?  I must be dreaming that I blog, because I swear I’ve posted on here since then… yikes. What a shame I’m such a terrible blogger too, because it’s been an amazing few months, food-wise, that I really should have been telling you all about.

The most amazing was the ten-hour jambalaya I made back in April, recipe courtesy of Donald Link’s Real Cajun cookbook (It just recently won the James Beard Award– I called it!).

Look at this gorgeousness:

I’m not kidding when I say 10 hour process! We started by roasting a whole organic chicken in the slow cooker for five hours until done; then made chicken stock from the bones and veggies for another hour; followed by another 3-4 hours of prepping, simmering, etc. the rest of the meal. My god, it was the best jambalaya I’ve ever made (and some of the best I’ve ever had, even compared to my favorite Nola spots) but, damn. Next time I make this I’m splitting the work over a few days!

So good, here’s another picture of it, plated next to my signature maque choux corn recipe.

(On a more serious note, just a few days after I made this meal, that terrible BP oil spill started in the Gulf of Mexico. I still can’t believe how little BP has done to clean up this mess– I don’t believe for a second that they’ve “done all they can” to stem the damage. Having grown up half my life in the Gulf Coast, I am enraged and saddened by the damage this spill is doing not only to the ecosystem, but to the health and livelihood of fisherfolk and residents throughout Louisiana and its neighbors. Please please please continue to pressure BP and the US government to not only clean up this mess, but to stop offshore drilling! )

As for my other half, he’s been getting into making ice cream, frozen yogurt, and sorbets, with the help of our awesome KitchenAid mixer attachment and recipes courtesy of David Lebovitz’s Perfect Scoop cookbook and his blog. My favorite creation so far was this amazingly fresh strawberry frozen yogurt, made with the BEST STRAWBERRIES EVAH, from our CSA (J.R. Organics).

Now that it’s berry season, I can’t wait to see what the Mister whips up next. There’s some blackberries in the fridge as we speak… hmmm.

Since I’ve been blabbering about our latest food adventures with cookbooks, I guess I’ll end this post by sharing with you my latest deal. On a recent trip to New York’s famous book emporium, the Strand, I got a copy of La Cucina for a really great price (ok, which I now see is close to the Amazon 1/2 off price, but whatever, it was exciting at the time!). Have you seen this cookbook, folks? It’s huge- Bible-sized!- and covers everything you wanted to know and more about regional Italian cooking. No Giada Laurentis Italian-Americanish stuff here. I’m talking the offal, the eels, the vegetables you have never heard of in the States. Moreover, the recipes by and large and totally accessible (except for the ones calling for chamois, etc. but substitute!). They’re not overdone, pretentious,  but can be replicated by the home chef.

As someone who loves Italian food but 1. Lives somewhere where Italian food is sadly (and often, badly) underrepresented, and 2. can’t do more than make spaghetti, risotto, and lasagna, this book is a revelation. Whenever I get a random new veggie in my CSA box I don’t know what to do with, this cookbook is one of my first resources, and it hasn’t done me wrong yet.

No pictures of the things I’ve made, sadly, but trust me– this book’s a keeper. Just make sure you have enough shelf space for it- I’m not kidding when I said it was huge!

Now that the school year is almost over (thank jeebus!), I may actually start posting. Hell, I  NEED to since… uh… my dissertation is all about food (or the lack thereof). I’m going to start using this space to begin working out a few ideas/thoughts on organic agriculture, the food justice movement, women and agriculture, and so on. It might mean a few less food porn pictures (I hope not, though!) but I’ll see where this goes.

How goes it with you, foodies?

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