Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A helping hand and a bowl of gumbo

Regretfully, this is my final food column for the Times-News. Due to budget constraints, the newspaper was forced to drop my column. So it goes in the newspaper industry these days.

Gulf Coast gave us gumbo, now we can return the favor

Talk about timing.
Weeks ago, I decided to do this month’s column on gumbo. Not only was I going to extol the many virtues of the classic bayou dish, but I would use the column to remind people about the difficulties the folks down on the Gulf Coast still face three years after Hurricane Katrina.
Gustav and Ike took care of that for me.
As if to mark Katrina’s three-year anniversary, Gustav rolled over the Louisiana coast reminding residents and the rest of us that life on the Gulf Coast can get pretty rough. Last week, Hurricane Ike pounded Texas.
To heck with the gators and snakes, it’s Mother Nature that you have to watch out for down there.
Fortunately, generations of immigrants, Indians, slaves, settlers and a few pirates weathered the storms and cultivated a culture as uniquely American as it is unique. And from that culture, gumbo was born – a savory soup of ingredients and influences that is the mother dish of the American Gulf Coast.
Louisiana and the city of New Orleans may be the birthplace of gumbo, but pots of that delicious dark concoction can be found bubbling away in homes and restaurants from Pensacola, Fla., to Port Arthur, Texas.
But New Orleans is the epicenter. The French influenced, former Spanish port town attracted people from all over the world. Thankfully, these people brought with them a myriad of tastes and cooking techniques, and deposited them in the Big Easy. From the roux that forms the base of the gumbo (a French technique), to the filé powder that seasons it at the end (thanks to the Choctaw Indians), gumbo is the result of this conflagration of influences.
Oh, and let's not forget about the hot sauce. We can thank the Africans, Caribbean islanders and, of course, Edmund McIlhenny, inventer of Tabasco sauce, for that.
Aside from the roux and the "trinity" (onion, celery and green bell pepper), which make up the base of all gumbos, there are a number of ways to make the dark, rich soup. More often than not, I make a seafood gumbo using a dark roux made from flour and bacon fat. Right before I ladel the gumbo into waiting bowls of steaming rice, I load the pot with fresh crab meat, oysters, shrimp, and if I can find them, mudbugs (crawfish).
Technically, I should use a light roux with seafood (and a dark roux with meat), but no one seems to complain. I think it's because of the bacon.
If seafood isn’t your thing, consider making an andouille sausage and chicken gumbo, or gumbo ya-ya with hard-boiled or poached eggs.
Of all the meals that I’ve made and received – and there have been a lot of them – gumbo is by far my favorite. No dish is as unique and few as delicious. Every bowl reminds me of the last one I ate and makes me look forward to the next.
There is no other dish like it and there is no culture like the one that gave it to us.
So when Hurricane Katrina buried New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast in debris and flood water, my heart went out to the millions of victims. Here at The Times-News, we launched Operation Gulfport to support the people of Gulfport, Miss., who were as affected by Katrina as anyone. Many of us also dug deeper to help other communities, including New Orleans, which became the face of the storm’s aftermath.
In time, the flood waters receded and life slowly moved toward normalcy. However, life on the Gulf Coast hasn't reached normal yet. National Guard troops still patrol New Orleans' empty neighborhoods and the rebuilding – and repopulation – is far from complete.
Thanks to Gustav and Ike, there’s even more work to do – in Louisiana and Texas.
As before, our attention will soon turn back to the presidential election and the odds and ends that make up every day life. But before we completely forget about the folks on the Gulf Coast, consider supporting one of the many charities helping residents rebuild their communities and their lives.
The following are just a few aid organizations helping folks in Louisiana and Texas:
Alabama Seafood Gumbo
(Adapted from Jessie Tirsch's "A Taste of the Gulf Coast")
(Makes 12 generous servings)

I've made this recipe more times than I can count. There are other ways to make gumbo, but this is a good one. For this batch, I threw in one soft shell crab per serving and added a whack of Tabasco sauce, as always.

8 strips of bacon, diced
¼ cup all-purpose flour
4 cups finely chopped onions (about 4 large)
1 cup finely chopped green bell peppers (about 1 large)
1 tbs. minced garlic (6 medium cloves)
3 cups chopped okra (about ¾ pounds)
5 cups peeled, chopped plum tomatoes
4 bay leaves
1 tbs. salt
5 turns freshly ground black pepper
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
1 1/2 quarts chicken stock
2 pounds medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 pound lump crab meat
1 pound freshly shucked oysters, with their liquor
Tabasco to taste (optional)
12 soft shell crabs (optional)
12 cups hot cooked long-grain white rice (3 cups uncooked)

Place a large, heavy pot, preferably cast iron, over medium-low heat until hot. Add the bacon, stirring constantly, until the bacon is crisp and the fat is rendered, 5 to 6 minutes.

Discard the bacon. Add the flour and cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot constantly, until the roux is a deep cocoa color, 7 to 8 minutes. (Be careful not to splatter yourself with the hot roux.)

Stir in the onions, bell peppers, celery and garlic – the mixture will get clumpy as the roux suddenly cools. Increase the heat to medium and cook, stirring and scraping frequently to keep the flour from sticking, until the onions are tender and golden, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Increase the heat to medium-high. Stir in the okra and cook, stirring frequently, until the liquid from the okra stops oozing, about 2 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, bay leaves, salt, black pepper and cayenne (and Tabasco if you like).
Stir in the stock and bring to a boil. Cover partially and reduce the heat to low. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the soup is thickened and the vegetables are tender, about 1 hour.

Increase the heat to medium-high. (If you're including the soft shell crabs, add them in and cook for 5 minutes.) Add the shrimp and crabmeat, being careful not to break up the crabmeat as you stir it into the gumbo, and simmer just until the shrimp turn pink, about 1 minute. Right before serving, stir in the oysters and their liquor, and cook just until the edges curl, about 1 to 2 minutes.
Serve in shallow bowls over rice.

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