Thursday, August 2, 2007

A Gumbo Recipe; Pre-Katrina Style

Cut up a chicken or two. Go ahead and start making a big old pot of stock with the scraps. Better crack a beer -- this is going to take a while. Probably best put on some music -- if you're not in New Orleans, you need to pretend you're listening to WWOZ, so put on some Professor Longhair or Clifton Chenier. It's mandatory, or obligatory, or demandevilled, as Fess might've said.

Dredge the chicken parts in flour seasoned with black pepper, white pepper, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, and salt. Fry 'em golden. (If you're in New Orleans, just go ahead on and get it at Mackenzie's Bakery on Elysian Fields over by Allen Toussaint's Sea-Saint Studios. You're never in life going to make any fried chicken that great, so why mess around? (Cue: "Do The Mess Around,' by Professor Longhair.) That's the only Mackenzie's that has chicken, so don't confuse everybody by going to some other Mackenzie's Bakery and asking for fried chicken. They're going to look at you like you lost your damn mind. If it's before Mardi Gras, best get you a king cake too. )

Make sure and save that leftover seasoned flour -- you need it for the roux. Start chopping up three or four good-sized yellow onions, three or four green peppers, four or five stalks of celery, four or five or six or seven cloves of garlic. You don't have to dice them evenly; a little coarseness in the chopping will add texture as you cook 'em down. Throw all the scraps in the stock. Mix those vegetables together. Season them with cayenne pepper, black pepper, maybe white pepper too, and salt. Color 'em up.

When the chicken's done, do you a good nice thorough job of draining it off. Take most of that oil and save it in a jar. You can use it again, if you mark it as "Chicken Oil." Put it up there next to the White Truffle Oil or something. Leave some oil in the skillet, and all of those chicken batter crumbs. Scrape around down in the skillet to loosen them so they don't stick to the bottom while you make the Roux.

Shake that bag (paper, not plastic) of seasoned flour one time for luck. If you forgot to close it up before shaking, that's a bad sign. No more beers for you, buster. Heat that oil you left in the skillet. (Either go make the roux outside, on the Cajun rocket-launcher,  or else crank the fan and open all the windows or else live to learn with the consequences.) Just before it wants to start smoking, add that seasoned flour. Okay, right here's where life gets real interesting, so stick around.

You snooze, you burn the roux. We're going for a dark-ass roux here, somewhere between dark chocolate color and burned. Any lighter than that and the charming spouse will be forced to mention — usually publicly — that last time's batch was, well, smokier . . . although this gumbo's nice, in its little way. Not quite as rich and smoky, though. So keep stirring, and watching. It's going to sneak up on you the minute you answer the phone, or go feed the cats (who get all stirred up by that ritual chopping of the chicken), so don't. The darker it gets, the faster it gets darker. So just watch it and keep stirring.

It's sort of like that Staples Singers song, "As An Eagle Stirreth Her Nest," the one that goes "God in His own mysterious way/Stirs up His people/To watch, fight, and pray." Don't go browsing through your Staples Singers records right at the moment, though. Do what they tell you: Watch, fight, and pray, in exactly that order. Your next problem is you probably done already forgot to open enough windows but it's too late now. One step away from the roux and you'll lose it —and maybe burn that roux too.

Plus, even when you've got the roux just about right, if you take it off the burner, that hot skillet will keep cooking it darker and probably burn it, so I sure hope you've got all of those vegetables chopped up, because dumping them into the roux right now is the best way to cool it. I hope this all works out for you because otherwise we're having fried chicken tonight.

Cook those vegetables down in the roux until they're butter-soft. Then add them to the boiling stock. Chop up a couple of links of andouille sausage and add them too. (Depending on the kind of person you are, you might want to render some of the fat off by frying 'em a little first, but we're making gumbo here — if fat's a big fat issue, you probably want to hit the eject-button quick.)

Add the chicken too — you may want to bone it before you toss it in, although if you're feeling somewhat purist, you definitely probably get more flavor by cooking it off the bone in the gumbo. It's a little more hassle to get every single bone out that way, but it makes it funkier. It's gumbo, after all. There's supposed to be some significant funk factor. Chicken bones, crab shells, such like.

Peel a pound or two of shrimp using your amazing Austalian prawn peeler. (It's a little plastic stick with a curve in it, and is without a doubt one of the finest achievements of Western Civilization. It's what separates Man from the non-shrimp-shell-shucking Beasts.) If you're feeling semi-obsessive, maybe make a quick little stock out of the heads and shells, then add that to the gumbo-to-be. Chop (or smash, sideways, Chinese-stylee) a clove of garlic; saute in butter until soft, then add the shrimp and cook just long enough to turn 'em shrimp-colored. Throw 'em in the gumbo with the garlic butter and all. You're going to want to skim a layer or two of oil off before you serve. Or not.

You're probably not going to put in crabs because Some Women have been known to complain that they're too much trouble for too little meat, although they never seem to mind if you add some lump meat. You could saute that too, if you're the devil-may-care sort — you are, right? — or you've entirely lost perspective — you have, right? You've gone this far — you better go ahead and add some oysters (and the oyster liquor) a couple few minutes before you serve the gumbo over rice.

You didn't forget to make rice, did you? Dang! You're not from New Orleans, are you?

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