Archive for May, 2009

The Best Gumbo Ever

May 12, 2009

I’ve had stuff in my freezer for months waiting to go into my next big pot of badass gumbo, and finally I decided to clean out the freezer and do it—leftover turkey from Thanksgiving, turkey stock (I thought), shrimp, sausage, and a couple of squirrels from Terry my neighbor (the same one who gave me the trout in an earlier posting).

The squirrels were the wild card here—new for me—but sheesh, they more or less have parts like a chicken, right, except for arms where wings would be? And except for the fact that they kind of look vaguely fetus-like…

I started out with what now has become a normal gumbo beginning—first you make a roux.
(Traditionally gumbo could be thickened with roux, or okra, or filé powder, but not all three. Today, roux-based gumbos are common, with okra thrown in, and filé as a kind of condiment seasoning at the end.)

A gumbo roux is dark, and it’s easy to burn, so I keep the fire low. I used 10 tablespoons each of olive oil and flour. It takes two hours for me to produce a good roux on low heat, but at least I don’t ruin it. Here’s the roux at the beginning

and the end of the two hours.

Then into the roux went 4 cups of chopped onion, bell pepper, and celery, and that cooked for 10 minutes.

Then in went what I thought was frozen turkey stock—except that it wasn’t. It was another roux + vegetables gumbo base that I had frozen for a quick start next time. So now I had a gumbo base cooking that was as thick as paste. I had to thin it out with lots more canned stock and chopped tomatoes (and a bottle of beer), which gave me a lot of liquid to work with. This was going to be a big pot o’ gumbo, really big.

All I could do is try to fill the void with whatever I had—in this case, two pounds of smoked sausage, two pounds of shrimp, two squirrels, 8 cups of chopped turkey. In case it wasn’t enough, I took out the fryer I had and began to thaw that.

The shrimp I boiled for 5 minutes, cut each in half horizontally (to allow more shrimp pieces to permeate the soup), and boiled the shrimp water down to concentrate the flavor before putting it in the gumbo.

A classic formula for gumbo has a trio of meats: a red meat, a fowl, and a fish or shellfish. The squirrel was an odd West Virginia touch—Creole meets Mountaineer.

I had no experience with squirrel, so I tried first just cooking the whole squirrels in the gumbo liquid for 30 minutes and then trying to cut them up. I wasn’t very efficient, so I put all the mutilated parts into a strainer and continued to cook the squirrel in the gumbo. Twenty minutes later, they were still tough, so I took the parts out and braised them in a separate pot with some wine. The meat is very lean, but not at all gamey.

The whole process took most of Mother’s Day, but since my recently deceased mother was a great cook, she would have been right there with me. And she was. OK, except that mother only made seafood gumbo, with shrimp, crabs, and oysters, and she might have winced at the squirrel carcasses.

I like serving gumbo with the rice on top for color contrast, garnished with chopped parsley and green onions. And in this case, a bit of braised squirrel in the bowl.

Happy mother’s day, mother. Except for the sausage, turkey, and squirrel, my gumbo is your gumbo.

Pineapple Palate

May 7, 2009

I really love fresh pineapple, but whenever it’s served in restaurants or on buffets, it’s either canned or never ripe enough. To get really good, sweet pineapple—assuming you don’t live in a pineapple growing region—you have to let it ripen at home past the point you think is long enough. Most information about pineapples say that they do not get sweeter as they ripen off the stalk.

That has not been my experience. But to get the best taste, I’ve found that there should be no green anywhere on the fruit. Yellows and browns and oranges are the right, ripe colors. It can take two weeks after I bring a pineapple home before I cut it, because most supermarkets sell green fruit, not bush-ripened fruit.

The first picture is a pineapple I bought a couple of days ago. It’s mostly green with a bit of yellow toward the bottom. Buy a pineapple with some color at the bottom and it will ripen better than a completely green one. Still, if I tried to eat it now, it would be hard and too acidic—and frankly, flavorless.
The next picture is of a pineapple I’ve had sitting around for over 2 weeks. There is no green left at all. It had a very strong pineapple aroma. You have to be careful it doesn’t overripen, but if it does, just cut out any brown areas you see after you cut it, and it’s fine.

It ripens from bottom to top, so the bottom of the pineapple will always be sweeter than the top. Some websites say to ripen a pineapple upside down so the sugars get more distributed. I don’t know if this is true, but it can’t hurt, assuming you can find a place to hang or stand it upside down.

You can cut a fresh, ripe pineapple into slices and then peel and core them, or peel it first and then slice and core. Grill some slices with a bit of honey and bbq sauce and it’s a wonderful accompaniment to barbequed pork or chicken.

Warning: Pineapple contains a protein enzyme, which means it can be used to tenderize meat, but some people are also sensitive to fresh pineapple’s enzymes. My friend Mark says that if he eats fresh pineapple, his mouth and throat swell. If you cook pineapple, it eliminates the problem.

I’m glad my palate is pineapple friendly.