Friday, October 12, 2012

Soup of the Day: Faux Gumbo

Cooking gumbo can be a long and tedious process but it's well worth it if you have the time and energy. I have had the real deal, deep in the heart of Louisiana, cooked by a grandmother who spent the morning in markets and with road side vendors gathering ingredients and then the rest of the day cooking. I have made it myself using the ingredients I could find and Alton Brown's technique for a painless roux. But it does take all a good chunk of a day to do it right.

I have to ask, though, is it a soup or is it a stew? Interestingly enough, even Wikipedia isn't conclusive and I don't really think it matters. Gumbo morphs to its environment and available ingredients and may even take on the personality of the cook. It's magical stuff and really not that difficult to make. Time consuming, yes. Difficult, no.

But I don't have a lot of time to cook in the middle of the day.  I have about forty five minutes to get everything diced, sliced and boiling in the pot. That's why this recipe is Faux Gumbo. It's missing a roux, filet or okra. But almost everything else is there and you can get a rich mixture of flavors in a very short amount of time.

Here's the ingredient list:

3 to 6 tblspns of olive oil (any oil really or even butter. Olive oil works best for me though.)
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 red onion, diced
1 white onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
3 stalks of celery, chopped
2 roma tomatoes, seeded and diced (could use a 10 oz can of Rotel instead)
1 jalapeno (control seeds for heat)
Maybe a sprig of fresh rosemary and/or parsley if available.
Several dashes of Cajun seasoning
2 pounds of beef sausage, sliced thinly (I look for gluten free varieties)
1 pound of small shrimp (100 ct)
2 quarts of broth, (vegetable, chicken or beef)
A thickener of some sort which we'll discuss later.

Now any discussion of gumbo should include the "holy trinity" of Cajun cooking which is onions, bell peppers and celery. Best I can tell, as long as you have those three ingredients in the pot you're doing fine.  Add any kind of meat or vegetables and some broth along with a thickener and you should be making gumbo.

Over medium heat, combine the olive oil, onions, garlic, jalapeno, sausage, rosemary, parsley and a dash or two of the Cajun seasoning.  Let that cook, stirring occasionally while you finishing prepping the rest of the ingredients although having it all prepped before you start makes things easier. Of course, it makes you look like one of those stupid cooking shows. But it does speed things along.

Add the bell peppers and the celery after the onions cook down a bit. Waiting to add them preserves a little bit of their color and texture.  In other words, your not going to cook everything to death. Let this go for a minute or two so that the flavors start to combine and then add the broth and bring it up to a simmer.

I've used this flavor of bouillon the last couple of times I've made this and it works very well but any beef, chicken or vegetable broth will work fine.

At this point, start tasting and add dashes of the Cajun seasoning until you like it. Or could just use salt or even pepper. Don't over do it. There are a lot of flavors available here and ramping up the heat may drowned most of them out.

Let it boil for a minute or two and get the tomatoes and the shrimp ready.  I use frozen, cooked shrimp that I let thaw according to the instructions on the package. But first, we must thicken.

For true gumbo, your thickening options consist of filet and okra and roux. Note that filet and okra are normally not used together but you can if you want. Filet is normally added at the very end of the cooking process and then the gumbo thickens as it sits. Okra needs to cook with the gumbo to provide it's thickening effects. We really don't have time for that in this version and we already cut out the roux so it looks like we have resort to less popular means of thickening.

Adding body to a stew or soup can be as simple as adding cornstarch that's been dissolved in cold water. The more cornstarch you use, the thicker the broth. About a teaspoon of cornstarch per cup of broth is usually going to make a pretty thick soup so I usually back off of that and work up to the thickness I want. Also with cornstarch, the longer it simmers the thicker it will get.

You can also cut out the thickening all together. All the flavors are there and the thinner soup will still work well over rice.

After you have reached your desired level of thickness, add the tomatoes and the shrimp. Let the gumbo come back to a boil and then kill the heat.  Immediately. Do not let it cook any longer. The tomatoes will be fine and the shrimp is already cooked so all it needs is heat. If you continue to cook, the shrimp will turn to rubber and tomatoes will dissolve. Just take it off the heat and serve immediately in bowls with rice.

Is it gumbo? It tastes like gumbo and the pot goes empty quick in a crowd which is the sure sign of a good gumbo. It's hearty, filling and boasts a myriad of flavors that will induce cravings if you go too long without it. Cooking time: about an hour or less depending on your knife skills (mine suck). I still like the roux-based traditional dish properly thickened with filet but I do believe this faux gumbo will do in a pinch.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Brewing Mead

I'm working on my first batch of mead. I've researched the process for some months, angsting over details and gathering components and worrying over honey but like many things, it turns out to be way easier that many would claim.

I say the same thing about pottery. It can be rocket science with clay bodies, cones, temperatures and quartz inversion and a thousand variables that can be altered to produce a million effects. Or it can can just be clay, fire and water. Humans have been doing it for thousands of years and only recently has it obtained the capacity to be very technical.

Brewing mead appears to be the same way. We've been doing it a long time and it can get complicated. You can add fruit, spices, backsweeten, track specific gravity with hydrometers and even add bubbles. But in the end it's just honey, water and yeast. And time. Lots of time.

Not a lot of time in the beginning, mind you. That entire process of sanitation to plunging the lock into the neck of the bottle took about four hours total. A good chunk of that was devoted to cool down of the must. I'm only working on gallon batches so that if it something goes wrong I won't be to far in the hole as far as honey and it gives me the opportunity to try recipes once I get the base process down. One gallon will fill about four 750 milliliter wine bottles.

But then it has to sit. For six months to a year. My patience is going to be tested.

I have the first batch done and in the closet. I won't know how successful the first batch was until a week or two in. I see bubbles which is what your suppose to see but the initial fermentation takes about two weeks and then clarification can take months.

I'm using this book, The Compleat Meadmaker : Home Production of Honey Wine From Your First Batch to Award-winning Fruit and Herb Variations, as a guide. Usually I would depend heavily on the internet for guidance but I have to admit that the hive mind let me down. Everyone has a recipe and a process and they are all different and they are all right. Contradictions abound but Mr. Schramm knows his stuff and covers the information thoroughly.

Jalopeno mead is next up. I still have peppers on the plant and heat and sweet is a good combo. I'll move to a melomel using peaches and maybe berries and then I want to try something with vanilla but that may have to wait. Vanilla beans are insanely expensive but I've heard nothing but the legend of a good vanilla mead since I started this project.

Why do I want to brew mead? I enjoy drinking it for one and it's hard to find and expensive when you do find it. And I want to cook with it and the stuff you buy in the store is too expensive for that. Plus, I just want to try it as it shoehorns nicely into my viking/saxon interests.

I'll post updates as we move along.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

A New Way to Pull the Pork

That title doesn't sound quite right but I think we'll go with it.

Pulled pork is pretty much the only crock pot recipe I know. You season up a picnic roast or butt, throw it in a crock pot with about fourteen ounces of root beer and cook it on high until the roast literally falls apart with only the slightest pull of a fork. Add sauce and you have the simplest barbecue recipe there is. Put it on a bun if you don't care about the wheat or slap it in a corn tortilla for a wonderful approximation of a street taco.

The problem I have with the dish is the root beer.  It works fine but all it's really brings to the meat is acid, caramel coloring and high fructose corn syrup. I got it in my head that there had to be a better way.

Now, I've been studying up on mead and mead production with the intent of brewing my own. I love mead and it's hard to find and sometimes expensive when you do find it. It's not a complicated process to whip up your own but it does need some equipment and a good bit of honey. So while I scrounge and save for the eventual project, I've been researching the process and getting ideas.

Apparently, when a batch of mead goes bad it turns to vinegar just like grape based wines and that vinegar can be used for cooking much the same way that red or white wine vinegar can and a popular recipe appears to be slow cooking a roast with the mead vinegar.

Well, I don't have mead vinegar since I haven't had a chance to screw up a batch of mead yet.  But I decided I could fake it easy enough.

I dissolved 3/4 cup of honey into two cups of wine wine (I used a moscato) and poured this over the pork butt roast in the crock pot. Then I added about a pound of frozen peaches.  Not sure why I did that. It just sounded good.  The crock pot cooked away on high for about eight hours and in the end it was pulled pork with a subtle undertone of the peaches and zing of the wine.

I wanted a sauce and was about to try to make a barbecue sauce from scratch when i saw the Louisiana Hot Sauce and the honey sitting on the counter.  I mixed up quarter cup of each along with a dash of cajun seasoning and that was the sauce. It echoed the flavor of the honey in the pork and pulled everything together nicely.

Out came the tortilla warmer and some white corn tortillas and it was dinner.  This along with the recent pie discovery is going to be making regular appearances throughout the holidays.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

The Unexpected Journey back to the Lord of the Rings

I finished Lord of the Rings recently and the Hobbit soon after and I have to admit that I have reassessed my opinion of Tolkien and his universe.

I read the books when I was a teenager and was unimpressed by the extraordinary length of the paragraphs. Tolkien loved words and language and he used them a lot.  And for a teenager who cut his fantasy teeth on Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, it was a bit much.  I pretty much skipped to the action sequences like a soccer mom sitting on the couch with a copy of Fifty Shades and skimmed the rest.

Fast forward to the eternal now and my interest in things medieval and especially viking in nature has been rekindled by Skyrim. The art and design and obvious Celtic, Viking and Saxon influence had me digging out my copies of Beowulf.  I browsed and read and found a forward that mentioned Tolkien and his love of Beowulf.  As a matter of fact, he wrote an essay in defense of the poem as a literary achievement and a work of art.  He would even dress in armor and recite the poem's intro in the original old english when he was teaching class on the subject.

That got me to thinking about old english.  At one time I had a goal of reading Beowulf in the original old english but, like many of my lofty ambitions, it fell to wayside as life happened.  But now my interest is rekindled and I found a handy guide with accompanying CD's that may actually have me on my way to at least reading the language.

Now somewhere in all of that I was making connections to Middle Earth and Saxon and Viking history (for instance, not many are aware that there was a historical Gandalf). I think it was on a "if you like this, then try..." website or article that I found The Saxon Chronicles Series of books by Bernard Cornwell which is historical fiction that covers the time of Alfred.

Now I am hard on writers.  I demand lot and tolerate little. I say that and I will tell you that Bernard Cornwell is a solid storyteller and you should own every thing he writes. Piss poor writers are a dime a dozen these days and solid writers that weave a story that makes you forget the time and stay up way too late are far too rare.  I would buy every book he has written but he's rather prolific and I'm an artist of the underfed variety and so the responsibility falls to you, gentle reader, to buy every book this man has ever written.

Anyway, the Saxon Chronicles covers the time period when old english was in its prime and so the aforementioned handy guide was coming in very handy as a guide for the pronunciation of proper nouns within the stories. I also stumbled onto a mod for Medieval 2: Total War that actually converts the entire game into a semi-historical representation of the era in question.  The game was cheap and the mod was free so I loaded it up and spent a day or two fighting rebel Saxons and Vikings and reaching for my old english language books so I could curse at my computer driven opponents in the appropriate language. I recognized place names and unit types and I may need to read Cornwell's chronicles again now that I have an appreciation of the geography and the costumes of the time. And, after playing Wessex, I have all manner of respect for Alfred the Great.  Raiding Danes by sea and land and petty lords nipping at his heels and yet he basically created Britain. I'm on the hunt for a worthy biography of the man to learn more.

So I'm reading the Chronicles, playing the game, butchering the language and beating up Wikipedia for historical information. And Tolkien's name keeps coming up. Tolkien was a fan of Norse and Germanic myths and they had an influence on the Lord of the Rings. Some reports suggest the created the saga to bolster the missing myths of the English people. The connections to the material I was researching were solid and worthy of attention.

But as I said, I've always held Tolkien and his mythos at arms length, leaning more towards the heroic fantasies, the Heavy Metal style of sword and sorcery with spraying blood and nearly naked wenches. I have always given Tolkien his due as the godfather of modern fantasy.  His influence or even birthing of a genre cannot be contested. But nearly naked wenches have won me over and held my loyalty more times than I care to admit.

But I even hold Peter Jackson's movies to be in my top five movies of all time. That's three slots out of five. But I could argue that the movies, with all there coolness, were a bit soft.  A bit chewy even. Certain characters exhibited a lack of commitment to an obvious cause. It annoyed me. The wrath of the Balrog, the defense of Helm's Deep and the charge of the Rohirrim more that made up for these minor annoyances. But still, to a certain extent, the movies made my point about the differences between Tolkienesque fantasy and heroic fantasy.

So here I stood, some years later, rethinking my stance as I picked up a version of the The Lord of the Rings that had all three books in one volume. With all the bad-assery present in all the media I was absorbing as of late that covered the Saxons and Vikings and such, had I missed something in the saga written by the champion of early Saxon literature?

So I began to read. And I read a lot. And I read some more. I did skimmed the appendices mostly because, at that point, I wanted to move on to The Hobbit.  I finished it a bit faster and now I stand on the other side of an epic literary journey and looking back I realize I was right about a few things and wrong about the rest but I don't think I'll bore said gentle reader with my analysis. Suffice to say that my opinion of the movies has not lessened but if you forced me to choose between the extended versions of the movies and the books, at this point, I would choose the books.

I'm curious to see what Jackson will do with The Hobbit and I'll try to keep an open mind but I think it's dissolving in a CGI quagmire at a whopping 48 frames per second.  He's tapping the appendices for material but honestly that stuff is in the appendices for a reason. So maybe I'm skeptical.  But we'll see.

Besides. I can always go back and read the books.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Soup and Simplicity

You really can't get more basic than soup and, through a unique set of circumstances, I've found myself exploring the creative possibilities of a stock pot and a variety of ingredients almost on a daily basis. I've also come to realize the true value of even a rudimentary knowledge of cooking. Being able to look at a pantry of ingredients and making the most of what you have is a skill that will become very important in the coming years.

And making the most of what you have is what soup is all about.  I start all soups pretty much the same way and then vary the finish with what I have on hand or what I'm try to achieve. Coat the bottom of a pain with oil (olive, sesame or butter) and dump in an onion (red, white or green) and start it over medium heat (that's 5 on a number dialed).  There's some potential in your combinations even here and your decisions largely depend on taste. Olive oil is healthy and flavors vegetables well.  Sesame has a nutty, asian flair that also works with potatoes. Butter has a horrible reputation but adds a richness that's hard to replicate otherwise.

The choice of onion gets interesting as well. Reds have some heat and green onions taste, well, green.  White onions are your workhorse, general purpose onion and good for about anything that an onion is good for.

So a little bit of oil and the onion of your choice cooking over medium heat.  Call it sauteing or sweating or whatever but the goal is to break down the onion and other ingredients just enough to release the flavors.  Onions usually take the longest so you always start them first. You can add other ingredients to the cooking onions as you finishing slicing, dicing or grating keeping in mind that you don't want to cook everything to death.  Most recipes suggest cooking the vegetables until tender or translucent.

So let's do a beef stew.  Get the onions going and add a pound of beef stew meat. If you have mushrooms, a cup or so should go in now (chopped or not)  I add a couple of shakes of cajun seasoning at this point and then brown the meat. If you have fresh parsley and rosemary handy, add a sprig or two of parsley and chop up a twig's worth of rosemary and toss it in.  The meat will make it's own gravy of sorts and if you want to get fancy you can add a cup of red wine and let it reduce by half (which means boiling away the liquid until only half remains.)

While the meat and onions and wine simmer away, slice up a pound of potatoes (golden yukons are my personal favorite or the little red ones work well), about three carrots (or have a bag of baby carrots handy) and about three stalks of celery.

Now, with all this chopping and slicing, try to keep everything a uniform thickness.  This ensures that everything cooks evenly.  I tend to toss the carrots, celery into the meat and onions to let the flavors mix  for a minute or two and then add beef broth, about two quarts.  Your can use cans, cartons or bouillon cubes and water.  Bring it up to a boil, reduce to a simmer (That's 3 on a numbered dial) and add the potatoes. Cook until everything is tender and salt (carefully) to taste.

That's a basic beef stew.  You can add to or take away ingredients due to availability or a whim and you'll still have beef stew.  Want chicken soup?  Switch out the beef for chicken and the red wine for white and maybe the potatoes for cooked rice and you have chicken soup.  Want it thicker or with more body? Add about six or seven teaspoons of cornstarch to a cup of cold water and mix thoroughly before added slowly to the soup towards the end of cooking. From this point on, the longer it cooks, the thicker it will get.

Want to make it creamy?  At the very end, add a quarter to half cup of cream or half and half and bring it back to a simmer. This works especially well with the chicken soup.  Go extra heavy on the mushrooms and you have cream of mushroom soup. Drop the cream and add extra rice, sausage and maybe a can of Rotel and you are really close to a jambalaya.

Or keep it really simple and fast:  Cut up half an onion, add two or so cups of broth and throw in some rice noodles . Eight to twelve minutes later you have lunch and it's not ramen.  You could even cook the base  ingredients at home and make the broth in the microwave at work.  The noodles get soft by soaking, not boiling so it makes for very convenient, fast food. Fast as in fast. Not fast as in fast food.

The possibilities are literally endless.  Crank up your knowledge of spices, work on your flavor combinations and don't be afraid to experiment and you'll soon have a recipe box worthy of passing on to children.