17. October 2013 · Comments Off on A Not-so-brief Exploration of Gumbo · Categories: Cooking, Food · Tags: , , ,

Fresh Okra by Flickr user Jenny Hones, Creative Commons licenseSo, a while back I got a burr under my saddle to make up some gumbo. What ensued was an unsuccessful quest for file powder and a lot of messing with the Googles to find a recipe that I liked. What I ended up with was a combination of a couple different versions, so thanks to Alton Brown, Emeril Lagasse, and some random dude with a blog whose URL I can’t even remember.

Instead of the elusive file powder, I used okra to thicken this version. I like okra as a vegetable in general, and think that it has a place in any southern stew. Purists will argue that the gumbo without file is not the true gumbo. And some might object, reasonably so, that okra’s thickening powers tend to leave the resultant liquids a bit… ropey instead of merely thickened. Valid points, all, but I think this is a pretty serviceable preparation anyway.

You will notice that this recipe requires some commitment as far as time. There are a lot of steps. I have tried to make it as simple as possible, but gumbo is not a dish to be hurried. If you want to use peel-and-eat style shrimp and store-bought seafood stock instead of removing and cooking shrimp heads, I totally understand. But I encourage you to take the extra time. Likewise, I suggest that you used the oven method for making your brown roux instead of on the stovetop. Yes, it takes longer, but a) you don’t have to babysit it constantly, b) there’s a much lower chance of burning it since it’s a slow, controlled temperature, and c) you can go do other stuff while it’s cooking.

Shrimp and Andouille Gumbo

Ingredients:
4 oz (by weight) all-purpose flour
4 oz (by weight) vegetable or canola oil
3 lb. 26/30 count shrimp, heads on
1 lb Andouille sausage
2 quarts water
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce (Lea & Perrins preferred)
1 cup onion, diced
1/2 cup green pepper, diced
1/2 cup celery, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and diced
2 bay leaves, whole
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/4 tsp dried oregano
1/4 tsp onion powder
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tbsp kosher salt
2 cups fresh okra, cut into 1/4″ pieces
2 tbsp cayenne pepper sauce (optional)

Prep Time: 30 minutes. Cook time: 2 1/2 hours.

Heat oven to 350F.

In a large, heavy pot or cast-iron dutch oven (5-6 qt), whisk together flour and oil. Place in oven, uncovered, for 1 1/2 hours, whisking 3-4 times during cooking. Roux should be medium-brown when done.

Meanwhile, peel, de-head, and de-vein (if desired) shrimp, saving the heads and shells. Set aside shrimp meats in the refrigerator until needed. Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil in a stockpot, then add shells/heads. Return to a boil, then reduce heat to a steady simmer. Cook for one hour, stirring occasionally. Strain liquid into a heat-safe container and discard shells and heads. Mix in Worcestershire sauce.

Remove roux from oven, and place over medium-high heat. Add onion, pepper, celery, and garlic and cook for 6-8 minutes, stirring constantly, until onions are translucent and begin to soften. Roux will become a dark brown.

Add bay leaf, garlic powder, paprika, thyme, oregano, onion powder, black pepper, cayenne, and salt. Cook for about a minute, stirring constantly, until aromatic. Add tomatoes and stir.

Whisk shrimp stock into pot a cup or two at a time to prevent lumps, until all stock is incorporated. Add okra, stir, increase heat to high until liquid begins to bubble, then lower heat to maintain a constant simmer. Cover, and cook for another 30 minutes.

While gumbo is cooking, slice sausage into 1/4″ pieces and brown off in a large, hot skillet. Drain and set aside. Add to pot in remaining 5 minutes of cook time. Stir in hot sauce. If you’re not going to use hot sauce, I recommend adding a tablespoon of cider or white wine vinegar for acidity instead.

When half-hour simmer time is complete, add shrimp to the pot, stir, turn off the burner and let stand for 10 minutes. Let the shrimp cook solely from the heat of the liquid.

Serve over plenty of rice with hot sauce on the side. Serves 6.

14. October 2013 · Comments Off on A Few Words About the End of Summmer · Categories: Cooking, Food · Tags: , , , ,

Various types of potatoes for sale, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.So, it’s officially autumn. Once again, the calendar cycles ’round to the waning part of the year. Everything leapt into life at spring time, got busy with getting busy in the summer, and now starts to settle in, slows its pace, and prepares to hunker down for its winter slumber. I like fall because it’s the metaphorical sleepy-eyed yawn before burrowing under the covers.

With the change in seasons comes a change in food. Soft, vulnerable, fleshy fruits give way to the durable. At least if you’re eating properly for our clime. I honestly prefer canned and preserved summer produce to the stuff that’s shipped in from elsewhere, chosen more for its ability to withstand a container voyage than anything approaching flavor.

I even find winter vegetables and the shift to roots, brassicas, hard squashes and cold-frame greens comforting. They’re the beginnings of roasted, braised, stewed and deeply flavored comfort foods that make the grey days of November and the long winter night bearable.

Roasting hard winter veggies is easy. Peel and cut any combination of turnips, parsnips, carrots, waxy potatoes, yams, pumpkin, or butternut/acorn squash into 1″ cubes. Chop up enough to fill a standard 9×13″ baking dish. Throw everything in a bowl and toss with olive oil, a few healthy pinches of kosher salt, and either fresh ground black pepper or – my favorite – freshly grated nutmeg. Roast in a 450°F oven until veggies are tender and slightly caramelized, about 35-45 minutes. Yes, they will stick to the dish. When you take them out of the oven, cover the baking dish with a bit of foil and let stand for about 10 minutes. The steam will both re-moisten any dried out bits and help release everything from the bottom. You will wonder why you ever boiled root vegetables. More »

04. September 2013 · Comments Off on On Mashing Things to Make Them Tasty · Categories: Cooking, Food · Tags: , , , ,

Roasting EggplantSo, we got a couple of big eggplants in our co-op basket this past week. Now, I’m not a big eggplant person. Every once in a while, I’ll chop up the skinny Asian varieties and use them in a stir-fry, but that’s about it. As a vegetable, it’s pretty much there to soak up the flavors of whatever it’s cooked with. Eggplant, on its own, is not a taste treat.

Which is why you see most non-stir-fry recipes drenching the things in tomato sauce, cheese, or both. Eggplant parmesan, mousaka, eggplant-noodle lasagna, stuffed eggplant, ratatouille, and so on.

What has eggplant got going for it? A bitter astringency when raw… that’s gotta go. Complex sugars that don’t really taste sweet to the human palate – something needs to happen there, as well. A surprising amount of oil/fat is bound up in there. Well, fat’s flavor so maybe we can work with that a bit. Even cooked, it can be a little stringy, so we’ve got to alter the texture as well.

So – how do we make stringy/tough veggies tender, give up their flavor, and get sweeter without adding sugar? To answer that, we’ll look at stuff like cauliflower, potatoes, and yams. Simple – roast ’em and mash the hell out of ’em! And what do you do with roasted, mashed eggplant? Babaganoush!

Great for dipping pita chips and fresh baked naan, or as a chunky sauce alongside grilled meats, babaganoush isn’t really that hard to make and only requires one specialty ingredient. So, hie yourself to the nearest Asian grocery (or even perhaps the international foods aisle of your megamart) and grab a jar of tahini. This paste of ground, roasted sesame seeds gives a nutty, toasty hit to both this recipe and hummus. You can also thin it with some citrus juice, add a pinch of ground cayenne pepper, and use it as a sandwich/salad dressing.

You’ll be whompin’ the bejeesus out of two separate things here, so lay hands on a food processor and a mortar & pestle. A sturdy coffee cup and a bar “muddler” works, if you don’t have a mortar & pestle. If you have neither, use a garlic press and just mix the pressed cloves and salt together – not optimal, but it works.

Ingredients:
1 large eggplant
2 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp kosher salt
2 tbsp tahini
2 tbsp fresh-squeezed lemon juice (minus pulp & seeds, please)
1/4 c finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Salt
Fresh ground black pepper

Set oven to 450F. Line a baking sheet with foil.

Wash eggplant. Remove the green “cap” from the eggplant with a paring knife. Poke it about a dozen times all over with a fork to allow steam to escape.

Place eggplant on baking sheet and place in oven uncovered. Roast until tender all the way through, about 15-20 minutes if you started from room temperature, or about 30 minutes if you pulled your eggplant from the fridge. When tender, remove from oven and let cool until comfortable to handle.

Mince garlic cloves and combine with the 1/2 tsp kosher salt in a mortar & pestle. Grind/mash into a smooth paste.

Slice eggplant in half lengthwise, and with a spoon scoop out the interior into the bowl of your food processor. Get as much of the flesh off the skin as possible. Pulse until smooth in texture, about 6-8 pulses.

In a bowl, combine eggplant puree, garlic paste, lemon juice, and tahini. Mix in parsley, then season with salt and pepper to taste. Chill for use as a dip. Serve at room temperature as an accompaniment to roast chicken or lamb.

21. August 2013 · Comments Off on On Roasting the Perfect Chicken · Categories: Cooking, Food · Tags: , ,

Roast Chicken with Tossed Green SaladOver the years, I’ve made many an attempt to roast a chicken dependably and consistently. I’ve tried low-heat, starting with a super-hot oven to crisp the skin and then reducing the temperature to finish cooking.

Basting.

Not Basting.

Stuffing the cavity with aromatics, inserting compound butter under the breast skin.

Brining, oiling, etc., etc.

And over and over again, I’d end up with breast meat that was done and dark meat that wasn’t quite to proper temperature. So, I’d extend cooking times until all the juices ran clear, and end up with a mostly over-done bird. Then out came the foil, covering the breast and leaving the dark meat exposed to full heat. Eventually, the whole thing became such a pain that I gave up. Chicken became something only made in parts – legs and thighs under the broiler where with judicious turning everything ended up uniformly cooked and crisp.

This past week, the food co-op we joined tossed a whole free-range hen into the bag. It was either part that sucker out, or puzzle out how to cook the thing with a minimum of fuss.

Enter the sage advice of Thomas Keller – keep it simple. Don’t screw around with it. Prep simply, put it in the oven, and leave it the hell alone. No basting. No turning. No tenting. Just one moderately high temperature and go do something else for a little less than an hour. Don’t add anything to the chicken that adds moisture to the cooking – “steaming” the bird is a cardinal sin.

So, following this rather basic guideline, here’s a damn-near foolproof roast chicken.

More »

06. June 2013 · Comments Off on On the Joys and Frustrations of Cold Summer Drinks · Categories: Food, Ingredients

Photo by Flickr user KJGarbuttOh, the blessing of a cold, cold drink in a sweaty glass on a baking, steamy Mid-Atlantic summer’s day. Iced teas glisten in the sunlight. Cold coffee offers up a chilly mid-day kick. You load in enough sugar to get the flavor you want. Then you get to the bottom of your drink, and disaster strikes. Look out – here comes a sickening sweet mouthful of gritty, half-dissolved sugar. It is the penance that you pay for the pleasure that came before.

We used to have this problem around here. Between my wife and I, we rarely agree on the degree of sweetening for beverages. Things I like with less sugar, she likes with more, and vice-versa. So, especially for drinks like iced tea, I have generally taken to making them unsweetened and letting the drinker modify to his or her own tastes. Hence the bottom of the glass swimming in sugar crystals.

Of course, for some drinks, they start hot and are iced later. Coffee, for instance. However, cold-extraction can produce a better beverage and you’re right back to the problem of granulated sugar not dissolving in cold liquids. Bartenders used to get around this by using castor sugar – an extremely finely powdered sugar without the added starch of confectioner’s sugar. The only problem – it clumps without that starch keeping the granules separate. In a humid environment, you’ll end up with a sugar brick in no time.

The alternative is liquid sweeteners. Let’s take a look at a few and see where they would work well.

Honey

Honey is probably the first thing you think of when you want something pourable and sweet. It conjures thoughts of hot tea and lemon. And since honey brings along its own flavors, it’s with tea that it seems to work best. Iced green tea, especially those that are fruit- or floral-scented, goes with a clover or orange blossom honey wonderfully. For tart herbal fruit teas, try darker honeys such as wildflower or tupelo.

In making cocktails, whiskey pairs very nicely with honey. The famed Scottish liqueur Drambuie is made with Scotch whisky, herbs, and honey, and many other cordials use it as their sweetener as well. A simple example would entail 2 oz. of rye whiskey, a 1/4 oz. of light honey, and a dash or two of orange bitters stirred over ice. Topped up with branch water or club soda, and served with an orange zest twist.

Keep in mind that honey is an extremely concentrated syrup, so it may still take some vigorous mixing in ice-cold drinks, but it still won’t leave the sandy sludge in the glass.

Molasses

In drinks, molasses is not that prominent a sweetener. However, if only once I would suggest making yourself an iced Cafe Creole. Stir 8 oz of strong black coffee with 1/2 oz (1 tbsp) of light, unsulfured molasses over ice.

Agave Nectar

The trendiest of the liquid sugars, this syrup comes from the same type of large succulent plant that gives us tequila. In this case, instead of fermenting the juice of the roasted and pulverized agave piña and distilling it, it’s boiled into an amber syrup and bottled. Originally a health-food-store alternative to honey for vegan eaters, it’s achieved a cult status as an erstwhile “healthy” sweetener. Even though fructose is fructose, the one thing that agave nectar does have going for it is a slightly caramelized flavor. As such, it mixes well with coffee and black teas.

Simple Syrup

Here we come to the most readily accessible liquid sweetener, that you won’t have to leave the house to go buy at the store. It’s the secret of every bartender out there. It’s neutral in flavor, almost as sweet as granulated sugar, and mixes instantly and transparently into any cold liquid.

Simple syrup is essentially a lot of sugar dissolved into a small amount of water. Basically, just enough water to keep it from re-crystallizing.

To make simple syrup, combine two parts sugar to one part water in a saucepan over low-medium heat. Stir frequently until all of the sugar is dissolved. Do not let the syrup come to a boil. When sugar is dissolved, remove from heat and let cool until at a safe enough temperature to pour into a clear plastic kitchen squeeze bottle. You will end up with slightly more syrup by volume than the volume of sugar used to make it.

Use simple syrup anywhere you would have used plain table sugar previously, and enjoy just the right amount of sweetness in crystal-clear non-gritty form.

28. June 2012 · Comments Off on Quick Tip: Awesomesauce. · Categories: Food, Ingredients, Quick Tips

If you’ve hung around a nerd long enough, you’ve heard this word. Used enthusiastically (usually written), it means insanely great, really fantasic, and/or way cool. “Made tons of changes to that source code, and it compiled without errors the first time. Awesomesauce!”

Used ironically (often spoken), it means the exact opposite. “Realized I sat in pigeon crap at lunch today and then walked around the office all afternoon… awesomesauce.”

But, did you know that this mythical substance actually exists?

Yes, Virginia, there is an awesomesauce. It’s called Sriracha.

This:

Sriracha hot sauce Image courtesy of Flickr user barron via Creative Commons. (http://www.flickr.com/photos/barron)

Is Sriracha. It is a culinary elixir of primarily ground ripe Jalepeno chilies, garlic, and vinegar. One usually first encounters it in Thai and Vietnamese restaurants, especially if you’re sitting down to some pad thai or pho. Those in the know with regards to the magical bottle of nuclear red goodness with the green top refer to it as “Rooster Sauce.” Its heat level lies somewhere between Texas Pete or Crystal hot sauce and Tabasco. It’s thicker than those, but not as chunky as the coarser-ground sambal paste, which also omits the garlic. You should have some in your cupboard, for reasons that will soon become obvious.

What is it good for? What isn’t it good for? OK, maybe not as a cake frosting or donut filling. But, pretty much anything else is fair game.

Mix it liberally with ketchup, finely diced onion, and sweet pickle relish to apply to burgers and hot dogs for an extra bite. Mix with mustard for a spicy pretzel dip. Add to soups for sizzle. Add to sweet pickled cucumbers and onions with some red pepper flake for a fiery side condiment.

Dollop on pizza. Spice up your spaghetti sauce. Mix with stir-fried noodles. Dab onto potsticker dumplings, or make a dip from Sriracha and light soy sauce. Brush onto shrimp and grill. I could go on, but you’d tune out after a few more sentences, anyway.

Quite simply, Sriracha is the sauce that makes just about anything awesome. Thus, it is the true awesomesauce.

12. June 2012 · Comments Off on Quick Tip: Freezer Essentials – Potstickers · Categories: Cooking, Food, Quick Tips

Need some quick hot snacks, a fast lunch, or a little bit of protein to go with a vegetable stir-fry? Well, then – always keep a bag of frozen shrimp or pork potsticker dumplings in the freezer for rapid deployment. They hit the spot for a fast Asian fix.

Preparation: Place a stainless steel saute pan or iron skillet over high heat (non-stick pans will not work here – they’re called “potstickers” for a reason). Add about a tablespoon of canola, peanut, or safflower oil to the pan and heat until you just start to see a wisp of smoke. With tongs (you’re putting icy food in hot oil here), place 6-10 potstickers in the pan, flat side down. Cover, reduce heat to medium-high, and fry for one minute. Add a quarter cup of water to the pan (there will be much frantic boiling, so be careful), cover, and steam for 3-4 minutes until heated through and tender. Serve with a dipping sauce: light soy mixed with grated fresh ginger and scallions, or with light soy mixed with garlic/chili paste.

* The package directions will typically state to steam/boil before browning. I don’t like this – too much chance of sticking badly. My method’s closer to making from fresh – the browning causes the dumplings to stick, and the steaming releases them: tender, but with a nicely-browned semi-crispy bottom.