Gumbo Wasn’t Easy

This will be a long post. If you are just reading for the method and ingredients just scroll down. It’s ok, I won’t be offended.

I have been asked by Kristian (psst check his blog out for some mystery short stories that will have you scratching your head trying to figure them out before the reveal) for my Gumbo recipe and it’s a great opportunity to share my story of how I came to learn to make it. A little back history: I am a born and raised Texas girl where southern hospitality is extended in my northern home (moved here for…ok that’s another post for another time) and my pride in my upbringing is something that cannot be taken away. My children, all born in the south, still receive ridicule for accents, manners, having a strict upbringing or just being born south of the Mason-Dixon line but we all find comfort in my cooking. Southern women take pride in our cooking and it’s how we show our love and other emotions. Lost a loved one? We are showing up with a casserole and time. It’s hot outside but we want to visit? Sweet tea, some sort of cookie, and a front porch are in order. Sunday dinner? Fried chicken. It’s your turn to feed an oil field’s worth of workers? Crawfish boil. Crowd to feed, Christmas gathering (not eve or the day just during the month) or it’s cold outside? GUMBO!

Before I jump into the list of ingredients and method of cooking there is a difference between Cajun Gumbo and Creole Gumbo. I found a lovely article that explains in simple detail about the two. Now, every house has its own version of a gumbo recipe just like fried chicken (yup I have my own) but it’s not really the recipe that matters so much but rather the method in which it’s cooked. Believe it or not my grandmother didn’t teach me to make gumbo, and old Cajun woman that was friends with my grandmother taught me. We would leave Texas and drive a few hours over into Louisianna and sit and visit for a spell and this is what allowed me to learn so much in that kitchen. From here on out there was NEVER a recipe written down and passed to me. It was a method taught and a few scribbles that I managed on my hand with a horribly, ‘close to drying up pen’ decades ago that I have people ask for all the time (the recipe that is, but no one is will to sit in the kitchen with me to learn).

It was a cold fall day and I was only a 12-year-old girl that loved to be in the kitchen with the older women. That’s when I also learned what it meant to have an old soul which that’s what they told me all the time. The subject came up about how the temperature was going to drop down into the 50’s (yup, I’m cold when it’s 70° out) and the debate over what type of soup to serve everyone came about. Sissy was going to teach me how to make HER gumbo recipe. The baton is being passed and it’s a great responsibility and not to be taken lightly. My young-self thought I was going to be handed a recipe card and just watch. Boy, was I wrong! I’m not going to have you go and slaughter your own chicken or use your grandpa’s meat grinder to make your own Cajun sausage so some things are substituted. Sissy said, ‘I’m not going to give you a card.’ In a Cajun accent, I could barely understand, ‘I’m going to teach you the secrets of my gumbo. You’re not going to watch you’re going to cook. I’ll show and help you ONE time.’ I learned that it literally is about taste, sight, feels, and love.

I was amazed at all the different ingredients she had on her counter and thought, ‘This SO isn’t worth the time.’ and wanted to give up there. This is an ALL day affair too, so be prepared to become one with your kitchen. But here is my updated list of ingredients that you’ll need:

Mess and Scants of Ingredients

  • One Whole Chicken – Boil until done and pick your chicken and set aside. KEEP YOUR BROTH! You will need that and water (enough to give you about 8 cups total liquid). If you cheat this step, Sissy can tell (I tried one time and she spat it out and said she could taste the can). But if you’re on a time crunch 8 cups of good chicken stock and a rotisserie chicken picked clean will work.
  • Yellow Onions-Dice your onions. How much you ask? Sometimes I dice up 1 sometimes 2. For this, I’ll say 2 smallish to medium onions or 1 large onion.
  • Celery-diced. Sissy used an entire bunch but I’ve been known to do as little as 6 stalks. Secret time: PEEL the celery before dicing. I know it sounds weird but I’ve learned that it’s just better when peeled-IN ANYTHING really.
  • Green onions! Trust me, an entire bunch of these beauties needs to be diced for this dish.
  • 1 super large bell or 2 smallish bells-Bell peppers that is. Take out the seeds and white veiny parts. Slice and dice.
  • Garlic-Peeled and finely diced. Don’t be afraid to use this! I normally do about 5-6 cloves worth but since it’s your first time start with 4.
  • Cajun or Creole seasoning. I’m heavy handed with the seasoning but start with 1 1/2 tbsps. You can always add but you can’t take out. ‘Slap Ya Mama’ is good and so is ‘Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning’. I personally use Tony’s when I’m feeling lazy and want to cut a corner but you can follow any seasoning recipe online. I still adjust the premixed seasoning but it’s a good start. It took many years to get it how I like it but start with a basic seasoning.
  • Okra-This is where it gets a little tricky with the thickening. If you can’t get fresh okra frozen will be ok to add but will add more liquid and no thickening. If you are able to get fresh okra it will thicken nicely and not as much roux will be needed.
  • Fresh Shrimp or crab or both- If not available frozen will do but more liquid will be added. Account for this with the thickening agents. About a pound will do of the seafood.
  • Boudin Sausage-This is a cajun sausage and is hard to come by. I do order it specially when my family isn’t able to bring some from back home when visiting. If neither of those options will work, Andouille sausage is good to use and if that’s not available, another cajun spiced sausage will work. IF neither of those is available a smoked sausage such as Hillshire brand will work. Slice the sausage and brown on both sides. Trust me, the level of flavor goes up a notch and the added texture breaks through the stew. Oh, about a pound will do.
  • Roux makings-In reality this is eyeing and adding a little more of this and a little more of that. I use butter but vegetable oil will work and All Purpose flour.
    To make your roux you’re going to want to with a 1 part butter/oil to two parts flour. On a medium-low heat stir and cook until it’s a beautiful chocolate brown. This works double duty giving your gumbo a nutty flavor while thickening. Remember the tricky parts and possible extra liquid additions? This is where you are going to want to make a little extra roux to add to thicken the stew. You can make the roux in advance or the day of. I do it the day of because cooking for me is therapeutic and get’s me back to a time when things weren’t complicated or when I was…well, me.
  • 1 small can of tomato sauce (this helps when you are feeding little ones or you can’t handle as much spice).

Sissy’s Method (I tried my best giving measurements but again I still cook it the way I was shown)

Imagine you’ve already slaughtered your chicken and have it boiling in a pot (add enough water to cover your chicken and boil until the chicken is done). Sissy: You ready for some chicken-pickin’? When your chicken is done just pick the meat off the bones and set both the ‘chicken water’ and meat aside. Peel and chop the veggies. Sissy: These came from the garden and the herbs from the neighbor when we are done we’ll have a mess that we can take to the neighbors. Girl, add some of that chicken water to the pan and scrape up them flavor bits and add to the pot of chicken water. You can do this OR (which I do) is saute the veggies in the sausage drippings for a little more flavor then add a little broth to deglaze the yumminess and add to my ‘chicken water.’ In the same pan add ingredients for the roux. When you have your roux at the right color and consistency (thick like frosting and a chocolate color). In the chicken water add veggies, sausage, chicken, seasoning, and roux. If you can’t get fresh okra, more roux. If you can’t get fresh seafood and need to use frozen, more roux. At this point, you’re probably wondering how much roux is needed. Always make too much roux. You can save leftovers for about a while in an airtight container in the fridge or freezer. The only time I’ve thrown it away is when the oil separates. You want to obtain a thick stew consistency. I usually cook on low heat for about 4-5 hours stirring here and there. Don’t let it stick. After a while, take a taste out of the bowl of magic. Does it need more spices? Add a scant, stir, cook for a few minutes and repeat until you have faith in its healing powers. Is it too spicy? Don’t toss it. Add the tomato sauce, stir, cook and taste again. If it’s still too spicy and more tomato sauce. Still to spicy? I don’t know what to tell you other than, ‘Why did you add so much seasoning if you knew you couldn’t handle it?’ But I do have one more trick that will help. When you are satisfied with the level of spice, add the seafood and cook until the seafood is done.

When your pot of soul touching goodness is ready, serve over white rice or dump the rice on top. Whichever you choose. For the, ‘It’s still to spicy crowd,’ add some cold butter to your rice and pour the gumbo on top. The butter will help cut the spice and have some milk on hand.

It took me cooking this method of Sissy’s for 4 years until she deemed it as good as her mama’s. Every time we visited I bought the necessary ingredients and would slave over her stove (both summer and winter) for hours just for her to tell me, ‘No, close but you’re missing the soul. Where’s the love?’ I think what she really wanted was for me to have pride in my gumbo and serve it with love to the people I love. Give it a try and if you get stuck or have any questions send them my way. I won’t be harsh like Sissy but can help. Take pride in the tradition of gumbo creation and serving hospitality to strangers and loved ones.

Kristian, please let me know how it turns out or anyone else that tries for that matter. ENJOY!

August 29th, 2017

Finding Comfort

With money being tight after shopping for school supplies and clothes for three kids I’ve had to become resourceful with dinners and what’s left of our funds until payday. I’ve made oven fried chicken, jambalaya, hamburger vegetable stew and tonight something with ground chicken. It can be a little stressful trying to make ends meet when they are no where near a mile within each other but it is what it is. I can write about all the ways to have a better stocked pantry or buying on a budget or better financial health but I’ll leave that to the experts. What I can tell you is the amazing amount of comfort that I have found in cooking.

Working two jobs and spending time away from my family hasn’t done my mental health any good either and has even made me feel worse-like a failure. I can’t tell you how many times I have picked up my sketchbook and pencils and what little motivation I had to even do that only to put them back down. This is my depression, my ever constant steadfast companion holding my hand and reminding me of a darkness that is always next to me.

There are times that I find light and it comes in my son’s voice asking me what’s for dinner. The look on his face, trusting. This look reminds me that I can’t give in or give up and a basic need he has, he trusts that I won’t let him down. We both make a decision about what we will turn a few ingredients from the cupboard and freezer into a meal. There is my comfort. My light through the darkness. It may sound small and trivial to some but to me it’s my light. I’m able to provide as a mother to my son. This is where I turn my back on my companion and with every stroke of the knife against the vegetable and stir of the protein in the pan and the voice of my son, ‘Mommy that smells awesome!’ is a step away from my dark guiding friend.

Have you thought about what brings you comfort and light away from the darkness? I would love to hear.

Oven Fried Consolment

“Fried chicken just tend to make you feel better about life” ~ Minnie ‘The Help’

This couldn’t be more true or at least make you feel better about the shit day you’re having. I grew up under my grandmother’s apron and learned real quick the healing powers of a home cooked meal that involves chicken. One (in my family at least) is chicken and dumplin’s and that’s when it was cold and she had to feed a mess of men from working in the oil field but the other one was fried chicken.  Now she had two ways to fry her chicken: 1-in the oven and 2-in a frying pan. When she fried in the cast iron it was usually just for our family or just a few people. But when she had a whole lot of people to feed and only had a just enough time for chicken to get done, she did it in the oven.

Ladies-Drop the Shake N Bake!

Here it is, her secret to oven fried chicken. She actually used Crisco lard and actually fried it in the oven! I know, it sounds like a grease fire in the oven waiting to happen but it works and with less of a mess to clean up (stove top, cupboards, back splash…etc) and specially if you have a self cleaning oven. So pull out your grandmother’s coating recipe for fried chicken and try this.

You will need:

  • Deep casserole dish (the bigger the better)
  • 3-4 cups of Crisco (blue can)
  • Chicken
  • Flour and spices of your choice
  • Wash of your choice (eggs and water, water, milk, or buttermilk)
  • Chicken legs and thighs
  • Courage to try something new

Now you want to preheat your oven to 375°. While the oven is preheating set up your flour and wash station and prep your chicken (pat dry and what not). Grab your Crisco and plop in 3-4 cups of lard. It really depends on the size of your casserole dish but you want enough (melted) to come 1/2 way up the side of your chicken. Start out with your best guess but don’t worry-you can always add more or take a little out but once you use your dish you’ll know how much lard to use from here on out. Place the casserole dish in the oven to allow the lard to melt and come up to temp to fry the chicken.

While the lard is melting-coat your chicken. Another secret, if you want crispier chicken add 1/8 of a teaspoon of corn starch. It doesn’t sound like much but a little goes a long way. When the casserole dish has a pool of melted goodness add your chicken. Carefully slide out the oven rack or pull out the casserole dish and place on oven top for the next part. To test if your grease is hot enough for the sizzle just sprinkle in a little flour. IF it starts to sizzle and float around, you’re good. Add your chicken carefully so you don’t splash grease on yourself. Slide back into the oven and walk away. About 1/2 way until the chicken is done, turn. When done just pull out the chicken and place on paper towels to drain or a rack. Sprinkle with salt while it’s still hot. Another tip: With your leftover grease you can spoon a little out and add to a pot to make gravy. So much YUM and done with little effort. There is no babysitting, turning, or standing over a hot stove.

Having a bad day and need to feel better, fry chicken!

Homesick Shrimp

As I posted in my journal entry my family and I are house hunting. It’s exciting to think that one day we will be able to own our own home. Then I got to thinking about where I called home for the LONGEST time. The South! So I made the mistake at looking at houses back home and was pleasantly surprised. The houses were bigger at a better price than up here in Wisconsin. Bigger homes, more land, more space, etc…for a WHOLE lot less. Well-WTF, why are we thinking about buying here for? Oh yeah, our jobs are here. The kids are going to school here. We started building lives here. I was homesick instantly after looking at houses and decided to make something that resonated the south in my northern kitchen.

Cajun Style Shrimp Boil (without the big boiling pot)

Ok-maybe just a little boiling but I get more flavor cooking the traditional southern dish in the oven. This may also be know for others as a ‘Low Country Boil’ of someone wants to look up an ‘official’ recipe. But what I like about this is there isn’t an ‘official’ recipe, just some staple ingredients. But I have a two stick butter twist. Just follow me. I used:

  • 3 lbs bag red taters (chose the one with the smallest ones)
  • 4 ears of corn (If a gal can get a hold of fresh sweet living in Wisconsin-I’m gonna)
  • 2lbs of tail on large shrimp – thawed (I’m not in Texas so I have to use frozen but it still works)
  • A mess of Old Bay seasoning (this is for taste and color)
  • 4 cloves of garlic-chopped (I used more hehe)
  • 2 sticks of butter
  • 2 lbs of smoked sausage

That’s it! Now to get to work. Chop the taters in quarters but for the tiny ones you can leave whole. I parboiled those until (insert slight voice and drawn out word here—>) ‘barely’ fork tender. This is so the shrimp doesn’t over cook. I shucked the corn and chopped into thirds. Chopped the garlic and set aside. I grabbed my toss-away foil pan (a girl LOVES easy clean up) and threw in two WHOLE sticks of butter. Sliced the smoked sausage and threw on top of the butter along with the corn and garlic. The taters were ready at this point and tossed those in. I sprinkled in the seasoning. OK, confession. I dumped in about 1/4 cup seasoning and maybe a little more than that on top and tossed it all together. Covered this pan of awesomeness with tin foil and placed in a 350° oven. When the taters and corn were ready to be gnawed on that’s when I pulled the pan out, threw in the shrimp, added a little more seasoning and tossed together and back in the oven until shrimp was pink! The butter-garlic-Old Bay juices tasted like cajun nectar from the Gods!

We enjoyed this with some cheddar biscuits and complained about being full 5 minutes later.

A little taste of home to help keep the homesickness away.

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