(Note: This blog is a repeat from the past that is back by popular demand. This time it even includes the recipe that I use to make gumbo for my Christmas Day dinner. Enjoy!)
I still haven’t quite learned how to take it easy at Christmastime. I don’t get stressed out like I used to as much as tuckered out. I cling to so many traditions that I am not yet ready to eliminate. So far I am hanging in there but I secretly worry that the day will come when I just can’t do all of the things that I insist on accomplishing. My right knee keeps screaming at me to take it easy but I refuse to give in even though my doctor tells me to listen to my body. Besides, I’ve found a new weapon this year. I’ve taught Mike how to cook.
He is fascinated with the culinary arts anyway. I can visit Williams Sonoma with him anytime that I wish. He walks up and down the same aisles over and over again and never appears to tire of looking for new gadgets, cutlery, and cookware. If I put such items from the store on my wish list I’m almost certain to receive them. I have one of the best stocked kitchens in the city. I have literally reached a point where there is very little that is left to purchase and Mike is bursting with pride over the quality of my implements. On major occasions I have all the equipment that I need to prepare a feast for forty people. The only thing that has been lacking of late is the old energy that I used to possess.
I’ve experimented a great deal with the Christmas dinner that I prepare for my ever growing extended family and never really felt satisfied until last year. My brother roasts the best turkey ever on Thanksgiving so my attempts to go in that route always felt lackluster. I’ve tried roasts and hams and have concocted an assortment of sides. A few years back I think that I actually found the perfect combination but I had to spend days on end cooking and by the time my guests arrived I was too pooped to even care. So last year I made a major decision. I was going to create a new and crazy tradition unlike anything that I had ever before done.
I make a very good gumbo. I’ve slowly but surely perfected the technique and it’s all done from scratch. I have a great recipe that I have tweaked a bit here and there and I generally have incredible results. The only trouble is that I have to use certain pots or the brew doesn’t quite taste right. That means that I can’t double the recipe and I am actually a bit wary of doing that anyway lest it change the chemistry of my ingredients. All of that means that I must meticulously make the gumbo one batch at a time, something I did last season that nearly put me in bed on Christmas Day. I spent well over sixteen hours straight cooking my famous seafood and chicken stews on December 23, and by the end of my marathon I was limping to bed.
For all of this year I have tried to determine how to streamline my process and without warning it came to me that if I were to enlist Mike as my chef in training I would be able to concoct two batches of gumbo at a time and still maintain the integrity of the process. I was absolutely right in guessing that he would thoroughly enjoy the task. What I had dreaded turned into a most enjoyable day for the two of us.
Mike likes to create an atmosphere. He always has. When we were dating he devised a way to have a steady stream of music in his car by carrying a tape player in the backseat. He deftly changed from one prerecorded hour of music to another by reaching behind his seat. Eventually he caught up with modernity by installing an eight track tape player on the dashboard thus allowing him to hold my hand while he drove. I always thought that he was quite clever in finding ways to make ordinary evenings more special. So it didn’t surprise me at all when he found some Christmas in New Orleans music to accompany our cooking session yesterday.
We boiled two pots of shrimp shells and two of blue crabs while we sliced and diced fresh okra, onions, green pepper, celery and garlic. He is so much better with a knife than I am. I think it frustrated him to watch me fumbling with the blades and wearing a protective mesh glove to make sure that I didn’t cut my fingers. He used our chef’s knife like a pro and had his half of the chopping done in half of the time it took me. I think that he secretly enjoyed showing off his skills.
Once we had a steaming seafood broth we gently browned the okra until the ropiness was gone. It was finally time to make the roux. I gently instructed Mike in the process and was soon enough reminded that he is a quick learner. I tend to worry too much about burning the concoction and all too often I pull the plug before the mixture is dark enough. Mike, on the other hand, decided to risk it all by letting his roux turn an ever deeper brown color. The result was perfection. I have to admit that I was quite impressed.
We put in the vegetables and cooked them until they were soft and sticking to the bottom of our pans. We added the tomatoes and the spices to create an even more tantalizing base. Finally we added the broth from the crabs and shrimp and let our heavenly gumbos simmer for an hour. I checked on the progress every fifteen minutes and found that Mike had created a perfect dish on his very first try. All that was left was to add the crabs and the shrimp that we had set aside earlier. After a little more than three hours we had two steaming hot pots of gumbo fit for a king. Even better, we had enjoyed a day of laughter and silly conversation with some great Christmas jazz playing in the background. Somehow it felt perfect.
Mike and I will enjoy another cooking session this afternoon. I have some huge containers to hold the rich stew and I will freeze our creations until the big day. Best of all I will have some delicious fare to offer my guests without putting myself into an early grave. I’ve found the secret at last!
As Mike and I age I think that I will have pre-Christmas gumbo making parties with some of my children and grandchildren. They will learn how to make my most famous dish and I will get the help that I need. Besides we need to keep the recipe in the family. The ingredients are easy enough to find in a book but as with all cooking I tweak the process a bit here and there based on my experiences with perfecting the taste. I add a few little things that seem to enhance the flavors even more.
I’m excited that I now have a gumbo making intern. I can already tell that Mike is ready to try new cooking adventures. I’ve tapped into a side of him that I didn’t know was there. Maybe he will ultimately push me aside and take over the kitchen. I don’t know why it never occurred to me before to invite him into my domain. I suppose that I should have picked up on all of the hints that he was leaving me whenever we made those visits to cookware stores. He was always as intrigued by the implements there as he is when we go to Harbor Freight. I think that he has been longing to receive an invitation into the culinary world but my control freak personality had frightened him away. It’s taken me far too long to let things go but I am slowly but surely altering my personality to be more easy going.
We had a ton of fun working together. The hours passed so quickly and the job felt more like entertainment than toil. We ended our cooking marathon with a viewing of A Christmas Carol and felt a sense of wonder at our grand accomplishment. It feels good to finally have this thing called Christmas figured out. My next phase is going to be to farm out the cleanup duties. That may be a harder sell but I’m ready. I’ve put my white glove of perfection away and learned how to enjoy the moment.
For those of you who have been asking, here is the recipe for the Seafood Gumbo with a nod to The Gumbo Shop in New Orleans for the basic ideas. I’ll send out the Chicken and Sausage recipe tomorrow.
2 lbs of shrimp (I buy the frozen package from HEB that is always as good as fresh shrimp and easier to keep on hand.)
2 or 3 small blue crabs (HEB has a package of frozen crabs that work well)
3 quarts water
2 Tbls. cooking oil
1 quart of okra (Again HEB comes to the rescue with frozen and cut okra)
2/3 cup cooking oil
1 medium onion
1 green bell pepper
1 stem of celery
2 cloves of garlic
16 ounces of diced tomatoes
2 bay leaves
2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. white pepper
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
small container of cooked crab meat
Peel and devein the the shrimp and set aside the raw shrimp in a bowl in the refrigerator. (If you purchase the frozen variety from HEB it will already be deveined.) Place the shrimp shells and heads in a stock pot with 2 quarts of water. (I add a 2 or 3 tablespoons of Louisiana powdered crab and shrimp boil just to give the broth an extra kick.) Bring the water to a boil and then simmer for 30 to 45 minutes. Once the broth is done drain the mixture into a bowl using a colander. Save the broth and discard the shells. Set aside for later use. At the same time as you are boiling the shrimp shells and heads place the crabs in a pot with one quart of water. (I add a tablespoon of crab and shrimp boil to this as well.) Bring to a boil and then simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Strain being sure to save both the stock and the crabs. Set the cooked crabs aside along with the broth.
While the two broths are cooking chop all of the vegetables and line up the remaining ingredients so that you will be able to grab them quickly during the cooking process.
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a heavy skillet and saute the okra on medium heat until the ropiness is gone. This may take 10 to 15 minutes. Stir frequently to keep the okra from burning.
Now it’s time to make the roux. Put 2/3 cup of oil in a heavy pot and let it heat up just a bit then add the 1/2 cup of flour. Stir the mixture of oil and flour constantly. As the process continues bubbles will begin to form and the mixture will smell like popcorn. Keep stirring until a nice dark brown color is achieved. Be careful not to burn the roux.
Once you have a color that you like add the onions, green pepper, celery and garlic. Saute them in the mixture until they are tender. Scrape the bottom of the pan if the vegetables begin to stick.
When the vegetables are tender add the tomatoes and all of the spices. Cook this mixture for about 10 minutes continuing to stir and scrape the bottom of the pan. Add the sauteed okra and cook for 10 more minutes.
Now add all of the crab stock and one quart of the shrimp stock to the pot. (You should have about two quarts of liquid in the pot.) Bring the mixture to a boil while stirring constantly. Reduce the heat and simmer in a covered pot for one hour, checking the mixture frequently and stirring. You can add more spices during the cooking process according to your taste. After an hour add the crabs and let them cook for 10 minutes then put in the shrimp and let them cook for 5 minutes. I also add some crab meat from the small container to give the gumbo more texture and flavor.
Feel free to adjust the spices. My crew likes their gumbo hot so I don’t hold back but I sample the mixture throughout the cooking process until it seems just right.
The gumbo always tastes better if you allow it to sit in the pot in the refrigerator for a day before serving. I often freeze the gumbo to use later. I thaw it in the refrigerator the day before I intend to use it. It heats up nicely. Just be sure not to overcook the shrimp. I take out the crab bodies and legs because my grandchildren don’t like having to work around them but some people like to keep them in the gumbo for effect. You can remove the meat from the crab shells and put it in the pot if you wish.
Serve the gumbo over rice with a green salad and either French or garlic bread.