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Archive for May, 2011

It’s that time of the month again (no, not that time!) for the Daring Cooks challenge. Our May hostess, Denise, of There’s a Newf in My Soup!, challenged The Daring Cooks to make Gumbo! She provided us with all the recipes we’d need, from creole spices, homemade stock, and Louisiana white rice, to Drew’s Chicken & Smoked Sausage Gumbo and Seafood Gumbo from My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh.

I’ve never made gumbo before, probably because I’m not a big sausage fan, nor have I ever enjoyed the slimy goo that okra seems to add to any dish. Since both are primary ingredients of most gumbo recipes, I’ve just never considered it as something I’d take the time or make the effort to cook up. But I suppose this is why it’s called a challenge, so I rose to it and decided to go all out and make a big pot to bring to a party. I’m happy to report that it was a huge success, even though I, myself, didn’t enjoy it enough to ever make it again.

Gumbo is a lot of work! It involves numerous time consuming steps, especially to do it well. Because timing is so important with gumbo, all the vegetables and the meat need to be carefully prepared ahead of time and ready to go, so this isn’t a one pot meal where you toss everything in and simply forget it for an hour or so as it cooks. You’ve got to be dedicated to the process, which means you want to love the results so that all the attention and time is worthwhile.

There are hundreds of gumbo recipes out there containing every kind of meat, sausage and seafood available. There’s even a green gumbo that’s completely vegetarian. I chose to make a chicken and sausage gumbo using my butchers store made chorizo and smoked Andouille sausage, as well as organic, air chilled chicken thighs. I made a rich, homemade chicken stock, mixed up my own Cajun spices and spent almost an hour stirring the roux as it browned, first on its own and then with the addition of the “holy trinity” of chopped onion, green pepper, and celery. And yes, I eventually added the dreaded okra, which fortunately cooked away to almost nothing and the goo simply added thickening power to the gumbo.

The Cajun food "Holy Trinity" of onions, green peppers, and celery (plus garlic and the dreaded okra!)

 

 

The roux after about 15 minutes of cooking

 

Here's the roux after adding the veggies and cooking for another half hour or so

 

Good quality, well seasoned meat is key

 

A big pot of gumbo ready for the party

 

Served over white rice it was a tremendous hit at the party but for me, the ratio of work to enjoyment simply wasn’t there. I’m glad I tried my hand at it but it’s not a recipe that I’ll be adding to my regular repertoire.

The finished gumbo, served over white Lousiana rice

MY RECIPE FOR CHICKEN AND SAUSAGE GUMBO

1 cup rendered chicken fat, duck fat, or canola oil
1 cup flour
2 large onions, diced
1 ½ lb chicken thighs, bone in
2 tablespoons Basic Creole Spices (recipe follows), or store-bought Creole spice blend
2 ½  lbs sausage, sliced ½ inch (15mm) thick
2 stalks celery, diced
2 green bell peppers (capsicum), seeded and diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
Leaves from 2 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 quarts good chicken stock (or canned chicken stock)
1 bay leaves
1 cup sliced fresh okra, ½ -inch thick slices (or frozen, if fresh is not available)
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Tobasco to taste

DIRECTIONS

Season the chicken pieces with about 2 tablespoons of the Creole Spices while you prepare the vegetables. Make sure all of your vegetables are cut, diced, chopped, minced and ready to go before beginning the roux. You must stand at the stove and stir the roux continuously to prevent it from burning. 

In a large cast-iron or heavy-bottomed pan, heat the chicken fat, duck fat, or canola oil over high heat. Whisk the flour into the hot oil – it will start to sizzle. Reduce the heat to moderate, and continue whisking until the roux becomes deep brown in color, about 15 minutes. Add the onions, celery, green pepper and garlic. Switch to a flay spatula and stir the vegetables into the roux. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Continue stirring, scraping the bottom of the pan until the roux becomes a glossy dark brown, about 10 minutes.  

Add the chicken to the pot; raise the heat to moderate, and cook, turning the pieces until slightly browned, about 10 minutes. Add the sliced sausage and stir for about a minute. Add the thyme, chicken stock, and bay leaves. Bring the gumbo to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Stir occasionally, skimming off the fat from the surface of the gumbo every so often.

Add the okra. Season with salt and Tabasco, all to taste.  Simmer for another 30 minutes, continuing to skim the fat from the surface of the gumbo. Remove the bay leaves and take chicken of the bones and return meat to the pot. Serve in bowls over rice.

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I want to start this post with a disclaimer: I know I’m spoiled. I admit that I have lived a life of privilege, in every sense of the world, and certainly when it comes to fine dining I’ve been lucky enough to regularly partake in some of the best around.  So please understand that when I report disappointment with my birthday celebration meal this year, I’m not complaining. Well, I am complaining but I’m doing it with full knowledge of how high I set the bar due to the many fantastic opportunities I’ve previously enjoyed, with which I now compare every experience.

So, lucky me, my husband took me to the Big Apple for lunch in a world class restaurant and then to a Broadway show. In a town known for great food and entertainment, I had my pick of any of the fantastic fine dining establishments in The City. Unfortunately, my selection fell just a bit short of fantastic and I found myself wishing I had chosen differently.

For lunch, I chose a return visit to Bouley, where many years ago we had indulged in one of the most decadent and delicious meals I could recall. Chef David Bouley is classically trained French chef and his New York restaurant has earned two Michelin stars. I remembered being pampered to the max, sent all kinds of extra taste treats from the kitchen, as well as parade of desserts unlike any I had ever seen at that time. As is the great tradition of top tiered French restaurants, the generosity of Restaurant Bouley was memorable. That meal, one of our first dining experiences of seriously high caliber, was a treasured memory I was hoping to repeat, forgetting that since that time I have dined in numerous 3 starred places in Paris, as well as countless French bistros and bistronomiques in France. So while the meal was pleasant, it wasn’t even close the gastronomic glory I remembered and hoped for.

Restaurant Bouley had changed address since our last visit here and we were curious to see how it had evolved. The restaurant itself is lovely, with a welcoming foyer of fresh apples and an entrance salon filled with fresh flowers and lovely furniture.  We were a few minutes early for our reservation and we enjoyed the ambiance of this space while waiting for our table. Sadly, when it came time to seat us, we were led through the gorgeous sunlit front room, where every table was occupied, to a smaller cave like room in the back. Although this room was richly painted and elegantly appointed, I somehow felt slighted and was reminded of some of the snottier restaurants in Paris where English speaking tourists are relegated to a dingier room near the kitchen or on a different floor. But this was my own country and I had made the reservation almost a month in advance and told them it was a special birthday celebration and we still found ourselves seated in the small, dark, back room with 3 tables of Japanese tourists and one couple dressed in jeans and plaid flannel.

We decided to make the best of it and enjoy the fact that we were seated side by side on a very comfortable couch where we both had a fine view of the room and all the food that was being delivered to every table.

Lunch began with an amuse of puree of pumpkin soup, topped with lardon and crème fresh.  This was deliciously smooth and perfectly spiced and raised our hopes for a top-notch meal.  Sadly, we were to be disappointed.  While every plate was beautifully presented and none of the dishes that followed were bad, they each lacked any kind of serious “yum” factor. The flavors were so subtle that in some dishes that the ingredients were only identifiable by the description on the menu.

A perfect example was my first course described as : Organic Local Green Asparagus with roasted pencil asparagus fresh garden herbs, basil dressing in a comte cloud. Having enjoyed a number of fantastic pieces of good aged comte cheese in France, I was disappointed to be unable to discern anything remotely similar on my tongue. The asparagus were perfect but the “comte cloud” mostly resembled cream, whipped to just shy of butter. Delicious, but no sharp bite of a good comte cheese, and no basil to be seen or tasted either.

Asparagus, comte cloud, basil

Sadly, my second course, Porcini Flan, Alaska live dungeness crab with black truffle dash, had not a note of truffle and the “flan” turned out to simply be a few tiny pieces of custardy egg floating in a porcini flavored broth. Loads of crab swimming in there as well, but the dish lacked the layers of flavor or texture needed to make it a standout.

Crab and Porcini Flan (w/ truffle?)

The other dishes we ate included:

Sea Trio (cod, tuna, hake)

Blackened Cod

Breast of Duck, perfectly cooked

Dover sole, slightly over cooked, in a barely discernable citrus sauce

Desserts were disappointing as well, especially with my memory of our last meal at Bouley, where dessert had been such a highlight including a special rice pudding (one of my favorites) for a birthday treat after three other complex and inventive sweets. This time, the “Chocolate Frivolous” made up of chocolate brulee, chocolate parfait, hazelnut dacquoise, chocolate walnut spice bread, white coffee ice cream, prune armagnac ice cream, sounded heavenly but each element was so heavy and over sweet I hit chocolate fatigue (not an easy state for me to reach!) in just a few bites. And the prune ice cream tasted bitter as could be and had a distinctive flavor of dirt! Not at all pleasant. The second dessert, Hot Caramelized Anjou Pear valrhona chocolate, biscuit Breton, hot toffee sauce, rosemary & Tahitian vanilla ice cream, was more successful, but the rosemary flavor in the ice cream was way too intense and distracting from the other flavors in the dessert.

Pear and Valrona chocolate tart w/ rosemary (?!) ice cream

Way too much chocolate, even for me!

My special birthday “treat” that arrived with a candle looked gorgeous but was a severe let down. Very thin slices of over-ripe pineapple were topped with a scoop of some kind of sorbet that was so incredibly tart it was literally inedible. It was a nice thought to have a candle and the Happy Birthday sentiment written in chocolate on the plate rim but c’mon! A little effort here?

Lovely to look at, terrible to taste

We ended our meal with expresso and a sad little mignardise tray that held a few tired little sweet bites including stale macarons and a decent chocolate ganache truffle. They brought us the bill and then asked if we’d like another expresso. We assumed a second was on the house since they’d already brought the bill but after accepting their offer; they whisked our bill away and added 2 more expressos ($5 each!!!) to our already hefty tab. So much for that remembered generosity.

A pretty sparse mignardise tray

My conclusion? After all the outrageously great dining that I’ve been blessed to indulge in when visiting France, I have realized that I’m bound to be disappointed eating expensive French food here in the US. For my subsequent visits to NYC I’ll be choosing from the countless other delicious cuisines available in that great restaurant town.

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