Thursday, December 24, 2009

It's OK to be crabby at Christmas

My husband, who was born in Berkeley to native Californians, says Christmas dinner was a bit different from Norman Rockwell's at his house. His grandfather would go to the docks and get a bag of fresh Dungeness crabs, cook them immediately, and serve them with a loaf of buttered sourdough bread. (I'm sure there were side dishes, too, but they have not made it down in the retelling of the lore.)

As much as I loved the Atlantic blue crabs this summer, something about the one-per-person size of the Dungeness, with its delicate flavor and drier texture, makes it a special treat. I hope we can enjoy fresh ones when we go West for New Year's.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Gumbo warms the soul

Although anytime is gumbo time in my house, I know a lot of people like it best in the winter. Gumbo is often associated with seafood, and indeed that version is delicious, but really, all kinds of things can make a good gumbo, and Cajuns are adept at using whatever is on hand ("We were so poor that all we had for gumbo was an egg." "You had an egg! An egg would have been so good.").

So here's a recipe I use often, adapted from "Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen." Enjoy!

Chicken & Smoked Sausage Gumbo
adapted from Chef Paul Prudhomme’s version
10 servings

Use chicken, duck, sausage, beef, seafood and vegetables, depending on what's available in your area.

3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, all visible fat removed, diced into 1 inch chunks
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons Cajun spice (see below)
1 cup finely diced onions
1 cup finely diced green bell peppers
3/4 cup finely diced celery
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
Vegetable oil for frying
7 cups chicken stock
1/2 pound andouille smoked sausage, diced (or kielbasa, and add a 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper)
1 teaspoon minced fresh garlic
2 bay leaves
10 teaspoons file gumbo
2 1/2 cups hot cooked white rice
Sprinkle the chicken evenly with 2 tablespoons of the Cajun spice and rub it in well. Let stand at room temperature while you dice the vegetables.
Combine the onions, bell peppers and celery in a bowl and set aside.
Combine the remaining spice with the flour in a paper or plastic bag. Add the seasoned chicken pieces and shake until the chicken is well coated. Reserve 1/2 cup of the seasoned flour. Heat 1/2 cup of oil in a large, heavy skillet and fry the chicken until the crust is brown on both sides and the meat is cooked, about 5 to 8 minutes. You may have to fry the chicken in batches. Drain on paper towels.
Return the pan to medium high heat and gradually whisk in the reserved 1/2 cup seasoned flour. Cook, whisking constantly, until the roux is dark red-brown, being careful not to let it scorch or splash on your skin. Remove the pan from the heat and immediately add the vegetables, stirring constantly until the roux stops getting darker. Place the pan over low heat and cook, stirring constantly and scraping the pan bottom well, until the vegetables are soft, about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring the stock to a boil in a 5-quart saucepan or Dutch oven. Add the vegetable mixture by spoonfuls to the boiling stock, stirring between each addition until the roux is dissolved. Return to a boil, stirring and scraping the pan bottom often. Reduce the heat to low, stir in the sausage, garlic, and bay leaves and simmer uncovered for 45 minutes, stirring often toward the end of the cooking time.
When the gumbo has cooked for 45 minutes, stir in the chicken and when the chicken is hot, serve immediately. Mound 1/4 cup cooked rice and a teaspoon of file in the center of a low soup bowl, and ladle 3/4 cup of gumbo around the rice.

Cajun spice
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons sweet or smoked paprika
1 teaspoon white pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3/4 teaspoon thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon oregano leaves

Blend all in a spice grinder. Use within a year.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Many apologies for taking so long to write; we've been snowbound here and still are until the county road we're on is plowed. We were without power for 30 hours, and although I don't think anything in the freezer thawed out completely, I'm doing my best to now cook up everything as soon as I can.

Yesterday, I grilled up a bag of thawed chicken breasts; two I coated with hot sauce and garlic salt, the rest with preserved lemon and pepper, sprayed them with olive oil and grilled them. The hot-sauce ones I then split lengthwise and used them as taco filling, along with slices of yellow peppers. I grilled 4 tortillas mounded with shredded cheddar on low until the cheese melted to make the taco shells.

While the power was out, we used the Coleman grill to cook up a tuna steak and a salmon fillet, with preserved lemon slices on each; we had them with leftover pasta alfredo and green beans and ate by candlelight before lighting a fire in the fireplace to keep warm. We didn't have much wood, so the place got pretty chilly. Luckily, we have lots of warm clothes, and it's surprising how toasty it can get under a down comforter. And we did have the foresight to locate all our candles and camping equipment before night fell.

By not opening the freezer at all until the power came back on, by opening the refrigerator sparingly and setting the refrigerated items outside when it was between 32 and 40, I think we were able to get by without any spoilage (even the milk made it through OK and I didn't have to open any cans). We could have eaten out of our pantry for at least another week, but water may have eventually become a problem, and firewood most definitely would have.