Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Collinsport Cooking: BIG LOU'S GUMBO


“Hey, we have a chicken carcass?!”

So it’s another Saturday night at the Collinsport Historical Society headquarters.  Let me start out by saying that while I’ll admit to being a fairly accomplished home cook, I flunk a lot of foodie tests.  I’m the most hypocritical carnivore around; I eat plenty of meat but just cannot deal with the actual physicality of bones and skin and chewy bits and stuff.  I know, I know, it’s by far the most economical choice, we ought to be roasting a chicken on the weekend and eating leftovers the rest of the week and urrrrgh, no.  It’s vanishingly rare for me to bring home anything that isn’t boneless and skinless, but I couldn’t pass up a really good coupon on a whole chicken.  Mostly because it had been a while since I had to deal with all that gross stuff and I’d forgotten how much I can’t stand it.  So after I roasted it and we ate the breasts which is all we really wanted anyway, Wallace asked if I wanted to make Louis Edmonds’ gumbo from Craig Hamrick’s BIG LOU: THE LIFE AND CAREER OF ACTOR LOUIS EDMONDS.  After all, who can resist a recipe where the first ingredient contains the word “carcass”?

Me.  I can.  But we already had a carcass on hand so I couldn’t think of a plausible excuse.

And then I saw how horribly this recipe is written and I had to make the gumbo just so I could fix the recipe.  Seriously, this is awful.  The sausage disappears halfway through.  It doesn’t bother to mention that step one is “make chicken stock” (although it does explain how to make a roux, thereby sidestepping the cardinal sin of recipe writers.)  I did a little research to see if anybody else had some comments on it and found that it appears in almost exactly the same wording in Diana Millay’s memoir, so I suspect this is what Edmonds wrote down on a cocktail napkin for somebody and then a total non-cook stuck it in a book.  You can find the recipe HERE.

I spent an afternoon trying to extrapolate a gumbo from that - not just a gumbo that I knew would be good but specifically Edmonds’ gumbo.  I hope I came fairly close; it definitely ended up tasty.  You know how good it was?  It was so good we accidentally found ourselves in an Olive Garden commercial.  We threw a spontaneous dinner party.  For introverts.  Who all showed up.  There were hugs.  You know how many times we’ve done that?  Never.  Never times.  So this was good stuff.

I’ll give narrative instructions and then at the end of this post a clear recipe.

I’m really not sure what he’s up to with the chicken carcass.  He doesn’t cook it long enough to really make stock, and if you only have a carcass you won’t have any meat to throw in the gumbo later, which you’re going to want.  And ain’t nobody got time for that anyway - I really only had time to either make gumbo or make stock.  So I scavenged the rest of the meat from our, ugh, do we have to keep saying “carcass”?  Anyway, I saved the meat and threw the rest in a pot to make stock to freeze and used the storebought stuff for the gumbo.

By the way, did you know Cooks Illustrated’s choice for storebought stock is now that Better than Bouillon jarred concentrate?  Evidently all the stock in the grocery store is from concentrate anyway, and it’s cheaper, tastes as good, and doesn’t go bad in the fridge like the stuff in the boxes does.  Everybody wins.  I had to guess on the quantity but I figured eight cups would have been enough to cover the chicken if we were making our own, so let’s say you’ll need eight cups of stock plus one for messing around with the roux.  Homemade, mixed up from concentrate, or aseptically packaged in a box (and get the lower sodium kind while you’re at it).  Just never that canned stuff.  Canned stock is nasty and it makes the baby Jesus cry. 

Haul out your dutch oven (you do have a dutch oven, right?) and start by slicing and sauteing a pound of smoked spicy sausage.  Now this is critical - you’ve got to get good sausage.  Andouille would be traditional, but they’ve just started stocking Gaspar’s Chourico in Publix, and that shit is awesome.  A friend of ours gave us some once and I’ve been craving it ever since - it’s a Portugese sausage with some spice but a lot of rich flavor.  It ended up being a lot of the flavor of the finished gumbo, so don’t cheap out on crappy sausage.  You won’t need any oil in the pan; there’s plenty of fat in the sausage.

Take the sausage out (pro tip: if you’re cooking something you intend to cover with a lid and have to do things in batches or brown meat and then take it out for a while, use the pot lid upside down as a plate for whatever you’re holding - that way you have one less bowl to clean) and sautee a bell pepper, an onion, and three cloves of garlic, all chopped.  If you were using okra you’d put it in now too, but okra is nasty.  We used file powder at the end instead only I forgot to put it on mine.  It was fine anyway.  (Gumbo has to have one or the other, but never both.  It’s a thickener because you’ll be using a dark roux.)  I’m assuming the basil and thyme are dried because he puts them in now, and the bay leaves.

When you’ve got your onions translucent, throw in two tomatoes which you’ve chopped or a can of them diced or pureed.  Unless it’s July, canned tomatoes are almost certainly going to be better.  Put down the pink grocery store tomato and back away.

For some reason you let this simmer for fifteen minutes.  I think it’s so you can make yourself a drink.  That’s what I did, anyway.

Add your eight cups of stock, reserving the ninth.  If you  have a little more or a little less that’s fine, but eight worked fine for me.  Put the sausage back in and throw your chicken in too - it’s fine if it’s cooked like ours was, but raw would be fine too, or browned.  I’d put in about a pound - I wish I’d had a bit more chicken in ours.  Bring it all up to boil and then turn it down to simmer.

The roux begins.
Now you’ll make a roux.  Chill out, a roux is a bit tedious but it isn’t at all hard.  I don’t know why people are so scared of it - of all the things I don’t understand in the grocery store, the gravy crap takes the cake for me.  It’s even worse than pancake mix, and pancake mix is for people who wear Velcro shoes.  Gravy packets, cans of gravy, gravy helper - what is that crap?  It all tastes like salty ass and you can make your own even if you don’t have pan drippings with a little flour and fat and broth and it will taste a million times better and not give you a heart attack in your forties.  If you can make a roux you can make any number of classical sauces like bechamel or veloute, you can make your own gravy, you can thicken things - it’s very versatile and not at all difficult.  The thickening power of a roux is inversely proportionate to its flavor, however, so a dark roux like we’re going to make here isn’t going to do much thickening.  That’s why gumbos also have either okra or file.  (If you’re using file, you do it individually at the table because it doesn’t do well in heat.  Unless you forget to, like I did.  Then you can at least say you tried and isn’t it authentic?)

The almost-finished roux.
So all you do is heat up about three tablespoons of vegetable oil in a good thick bottomed pan. (Edmonds suggests cast iron - that’s because cast iron heats very evenly which makes it harder to burn your flour in.  I used a good All-Clad pan because you can see what you’re doing in there - the important thing is that you need to buy a good pan because you’re not in college anymore.  A cheap pan will make this a lot harder because if your flour burns you have to throw it out and start all over again.)  Slowly add three tablespoons of flour to your oil, stirring constantly.  It might clump up at first but then relax; that’s okay.  And then keep stirring.  And keep stirring.  Don’t stop stirring or it will burn.  It will not “take 3 to 5 minutes”, recipe.  It took at least ten for mine to turn the color of milk chocolate, which is when I pulled the plug - you can and probably should go quite a bit darker, but I got bored.  Once you’ve gotten it to the desired color, you can turn the heat off and slowly, a bit at a time, add in the cup of stock you’ve reserved (heat it up in the microwave.)  It’s going to freak out.  Don’t worry about it, just keep stirring and it’ll sort itself out.  Once you’ve got that combined and it isn’t all weird and clumpy (keep stirring if it is) you can add that whole thing into your gumbo pot.

Now simmer that bad boy two or three hours.  Go knit or something.  If you like you can toss in other meat (the recipe suggests seafood) but we didn’t.  Stir it every so often just to make sure it’s okay, and taste it to adjust seasonings.  You might or might not need more salt, depending on your broth.  You might as well tell people that you’re going to be home for the evening and then have them start to assemble in your living room.  And start the rice if you’re serving it over rice.  At some point, shrug and take the bay leaves out and call it done.  It served seven comfortably but I’m not sure how many people got seconds before it ran out.

1 lb spicy smoked sausage, sliced into rounds
2 cups okra, sliced (if you must) or file powder at the table
1 bell pepper, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
3 bay leaves
1 tsp dried basil
2 tsp dried thyme
1 14 oz can diced or pureed tomatoes, or 2 fresh tomatoes chopped
9 cups chicken stock (reserve 1 cup for roux)
1 lb chicken parts, cooked or uncooked
3 tbsp vegetable oil
3 tbsp flour
Salt and pepper to taste
Optional seafood

In large dutch oven, fry sausage rounds over medium heat. 

Remove sausage from pot and saute okra, pepper, onion, garlic, basil, and thyme until softened and onions become transparent.  Add tomatoes with their liquid and bay leaves and bring to simmer, stirring frequently.

Add 8 cups stock and chicken.  Return sausage to pot.  Bring to boil and then reduce to simmer.

In separate small saucepan, heat vegetable oil over medium heat.  Slowly add flour, stirring constantly.  Continuing to stir, cook roux until dark brown (at least milk chocolate color).  Turn off heat and slowly, gradually pour reserved cup of stock (warmed) into saucepan while continuing to stir.  Once stock is incorporated and mixture is free of clumps, add to large gumbo pot.

Add optional seafood if desired.  Simmer two to three hours, tasting to adjust salt and pepper.

Serve over rice.

Sara Shiver McBride is qualified to neither speak nor write about film, but once lost on Jeopardy. She makes up one half of the podcast team of DAY DRINKING WITH SARA AND ALEXIS.

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