When the Party’s Over

Between our New Year’s Day celebration and last weekend’s bridal shower party we amassed a lot of inexplicable leftovers.  How we wound up with Camembert cheese left over, I’ll never know.  That’s fancy French cheese from Normandy, for goodness sake!  As I recall, we Americans fought our tails of to liberate that cheese!  And the gouda!  For pity’s sake everyone ignored the gouda!  Other than tulips, legalized prostitution and hash bars gouda is the Netherland’s #1 attraction!  

The leftover cauliflower and broccoli is easier to understand.  They’re always the last stragglers on a veggie tray.  The Kalamata olives went first and then the carrots.  By the time the carrots were gone, so was the creamy ranch dressing dip.  Poor cauliflower and broccoli always get left behind, like a scrawny kid who gets picked last during recess, when teams are chosen. 

So, now it’s time to scrape together all of the those party leftovers and make a meal. 

Rustic Chicken with Winter Vegetables and Whipped Potatoes

My first step was to make the puff pastry for the chicken dish.  From there I prepped much of the rest of the meal in advance and kept it cool until nearly service time.  I finished by roasting the vegetables and frying some matchstick onions.

Ingredients for the puff pastry:

2 cups flour

1 tsp salt

1 ½ cup cold butter (2 and a half sticks)

½ cup ice cold water

Directions:

Puff pastry is really not too difficult to make at home as long as you adhere to a few rules.  There are only a few ingredients but the important thing to remember while making the pastry is to keep all of the ingredients very cold during preparation.  I chilled the flour, in addition to chilling the butter, and I put the water in the freezer, just prior to using it. 

Since hands are warm, and warmth is a pastry killer, I added the flour, salt and butter to a food processor.  I pulsed the food processor several times until the flour and butter combined to make a grainy mixture. 

I added the ice cold water and pulse again, until the dough began to form a ball.  I turned out the dough ball to a clean work surface and formed the dough into a 12” x 6” rectangle.  I worked quickly, using the rolling pin.

I folded the dough over into a tri-fold and squared the dough by pushing the edges with the rolling pin.  I added a little more flour to the work surface to keep the dough from sticking to the surface. 

I rolled the dough out again to a 12” x 6” rectangle and folded it in thirds again.  I repeated this process three more times.  Rolling the dough multiple times increases the amount of flakiness of the finished puff pastry.

I wrapped the rectangle of dough in plastic wrap and kept it refrigerated until I was ready to use it. 

This recipe makes enough dough for 24 pastry cups. 

Ingredients for the rest of the meal:

Infused blueberries:

1 ½ cup water

2 tsp dried rosemary

½ cup blueberries

1 Tbs sugar

Roasted chicken:

4 chicken thighs (bone–in)

5 cloves fresh garlic, sliced thin

2 tsp dried rosemary

1 Tbs rendered bacon fat

½ cup roasted red bell peppers

4 oz sliced mushrooms (I used canned mushrooms)

1 Tbs olive oil

6 oz Camembert cheese (rind removed)

Whipped potatoes:

6 small russet potatoes

2 Tbs butter

¼ cup sour cream

¼ cup milk

5 cloves roasted garlic

Matchstick onions:

1 yellow onion, sliced into very thin rings

1 cup buttermilk (I used 1 cup milk and 1 tsp vinegar)

1 cup flour

1 tsp seasoning salt

Winter vegetables:

               1 ½ cup carrots, sliced and chopped

               1 cup broccoli florets

               1 cup cauliflower florets

               1 Tbs olive oil

               ½ cup gouda cheese, shredded

Directions:

Fill a small bowl with 1 ½ cups of boiling water.  Add the rosemary and sugar.  When the water has reached room temperature, remove the rosemary and reserve for later. 

Add the blueberries to the fragrant water and allow them to soak at room temperature for a few hours.

Remove the skin from the chicken thighs and discard.  Using a small, sharp knife, make several incisions in the chicken and insert the slices of garlic. 

Add bacon grease and olive oil to a baking dish.  Smear the chicken with the grease and oil and nestle the chicken in the baking dish.  Sprinkle the reserved rosemary onto the chicken.

Roast the chicken, uncovered, in an oven at 350° for 90 minutes.  Baste the chicken occasionally.  Remove from the oven and allow to cool down to room temperature.

Once the chicken has cooled, shred by hand.

Dice the roasted peppers and add to the shredded chicken.  Add the mushrooms to the chicken and mix to incorporate.  Set aside.

Wash and scrub the potatoes.  Put the potatoes in a large pot and cover with water.  Cover the pot with a lid and boil the potatoes at low heat for about one hour, or until the potatoes can be pierced easily with a fork. 

Using a hand-held mixer, blend the potatoes, including the potato skins, with the butter, sour cream, milk and roasted garlic.  Store in warm place.

Drain the blueberries and set aside.

Remove the pastry from the refrigerator and place on a clean work surface.  Divide the dough in half.  Use one half for the chicken dish and reserve the other half for a dessert dish.  Roll the dough out to about ¼” thick.  Slice the pastry into 4” squares.  Form fit the pastry into the muffin pan.

Slice dough into 4″ squares

Place the squares in muffing pan and fill the pastry with the chicken mixture.  Top with a teaspoon of Camembert cheese and a 3 or 4  blueberries.

Bake at 400° for about 20 minutes, or until the pastry puffs and turns golden brown. 

Roasted Winter Vegetables

Toss carrots, broccoli and cauliflower in olive oil.  Spread the vegetables out on parchment lined backing tray.  Roast in the oven at 350° for 30 minutes.  Remove and keep warm.

Or, if you want to burn them, leave them in a 400° oven for 45 minutes, like I did.  There I was trying to salvage leftover vegetable tray fodder and I incinerated the whole lot.  Oh well, that’s the way things roll in my kitchen, sometimes.

Matchstick Onions

Slice the onion very thin and set aside. 

Mix the milk and vinegar together in a large bowl (this is a decent substitute for buttermilk).  Soak the onions in the buttermilk for several minutes.

Heat a pot of oil on the stove at medium/high heat (325° to 350° works well.

Add the flour and seasoning salt to a large mixing bowl. 

Toss the onions in the flour mixture to coat.

Add the onions to the oil and fry until golden brown and crispy.  Remove to a paper towel-lined platter and keep warm.

Serve two stuffed pastry shells with mashed potatoes, topped with turkey gravy and fried onions.

Dessert:  Cherry and Cream Cheese Tarts

Assemble 12 pastry cups using the same method as before.  Fill each one with 2 teaspoons of cream cheese and top with cherry pie filling.  Bake at 400° for about 20 minutes, or until the pastry puffs and turns golden brown. 

Back in the Saddle Again

I’m still reeling after last week’s epic gumbo battle so please forgive me if I babble for a bit.  For those of you who want to cut to the chase and see today’s recipe, scroll down until you find “Chicken Enchiladas”, in large, friendly letters.  But, know that you are missing all of the fun and I pity you.

When I was young, and by young I mean elementary school age, I recall that many home cooked meals featured Hamburger Helper or Cream of Mushroom soup.  I don’t know if it was because so many working parents didn’t have time to make dinner or if it was just clever marketing agents influencing those parents, but the fact was that those products found an indelible niche in American cuisine.

Campbell’s puts out about a zillion different kinds of soup but I swear I can only remember three from my childhood.  Tomato soup, Cream of Mushroom soup and Chicken Noodle soup.  Okay, to be fair, there was Chicken & Stars, but that was really just chicken soup with star shaped pasta, and it was marketed to parents of finicky and/or sick children.   

Cream of Mushroom soup took center stage, back in the 1970’s.  It found its way in many recipes.  The ubiquitous green bean casserole is a testament to the long-lasting power of Cream of Mushroom soup.  If you don’t have green bean casserole every Thanksgiving then,…well, you’re just not a real American. 

Cream of Mushroom soup, “America’s béchamel” 

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not bashing Cream of Mushroom soup.  Cream of *Whatever* soup is instant béchamel in a can, and that’s a marvelous thing.

I remember having homemade chicken enchiladas for the first time.  I was 17 years old and having fun, hanging out with a friend.  His mother made us chicken enchiladas with Cream of Mushroom soup and canned green chiles.  Canned green chiles, back then, didn’t have clever graphics printed on the label, showing a thermometer indicating the “heat” of the chiles.  Canned green chiles were just that…canned green chiles.  They were hot and spicy, and that’s all you needed to know.  I loved those enchiladas. Thank you and bless you, Ginger!

But, when I discovered that I could make my own thickener from scratch, I felt a sudden rush, indeed, I felt a sense of empowerment!  I realized that I could thicken sauces or soups and have total control of flavors and textures!  A pad or two of butter and a spoonful or two of flour was the key that opened the door to an endless array of sauces.

For this recipe I used homemade green sauce and I made a homemade sauce from a simple roux and chicken stock.  If you want to use canned green chiles and cream of mushroom soup, that’s fine with me.  Just make sure you do it with love.

Chicken Enchiladas

Ingredients:

3 chicken breasts (mine started out frozen)

2 ½ cups chicken stock

4 or 5 garlic cloves

½ onion, chopped

10 to 12 oz green chile sauce

½ cup sour cream

8 oz Monterrey Jack cheese, shredded

2 Tbs butter

2 Tbs flour

10 corn tortillas

¼ cup cooking oil

Directions:

Boil the chicken in water until the chicken is fork tender.  Remove and allow to cool to room temperature.

While the chicken simmers, puree ½ cup chicken stock, green sauce and garlic cloves in a blender. 

Add the pureed sauce to a small skillet and simmer on low heat, to mellow the garlic, for 15 minutes.

Add the chopped onions to the skillet and simmer for another 15 minutes. Turn the heat off and allow it to cool to room temperature.

Add ¼ cup cooking oil to pan and set heat to low.  Soften each of the tortillas in the oil for a few seconds and remove to a plate.

Wipe the skillet clean.  Start a roux by adding the butter to the pan and set the heat to medium/low.  Add the flour and whisk until smooth.

Once the roux is smooth, add the remaining chicken stock.  Set heat to medium/high and whisk until the sauce has thickened. 

Add the green chile mixture and whisk for a minute.

Pour about one cup of the sauce into a bowl.  Leave the remaining sauce in the skillet and turn the heat off. 

Lay the cooked chicken on a clean work surface and smash with the broad side of a knife.  The chicken will break and fan out, making it easy to shred.  Shred the chicken by hand.

Add the chicken to the cheese and mix by hand.

Lay the tortillas on a work surface and add the chicken and cheese.  Roll the enchiladas and place in an oven-proof skillet, containing some of the sauce.  Once all of the enchiladas are in the skillet, pour the remaining sauce over them.

Bake in a 350° oven for 20 to 25 minutes.

Serve warm with rice or fried potatoes and guacamole salad.

Gumbo (Part II: The Intimidator)

At the heart of every good gumbo lies a good roux. 

I probably make 3 or 4 roux every week but they are of the small variety.  You know, two tablespoons of butter, two tablespoons of flour added to two cups of stock or broth.  A small roux takes just a few minutes to prepare and it usually come out just fine.

I have been telling myself that I make gumbo every year or two.  I think that’s because I really enjoy gumbo.  The truth of the matter is that I have probably only made it four times, (now five times).  As much as I love a good hot bowl of gumbo, I dread making the roux.  There are very few things in life that can vex me like a making a big batch of roux. 

Making roux for a gumbo is not easy; at least it’s not easy for me.  The volume of the roux needed is much larger than my normal roux.  Additionally, the roux needs to cook longer to achieve a deep, rich lustrous color and flavor.  Lastly, pushing the cooking process too far results in a burnt roux, which I am unfortunately prone to doing.  If a roux burns it must be tossed and another one must be made.  Nothing good ever happens by attempting to save a burnt roux. 

The good German lager is for me, not the roux!

Once you start a roux you can’t leave it alone until it has finished.  A roux must be stirred constantly to prevent the flour from burning.  Even the tiniest amount of burnt flour will affect the entire roux.

My step-by-step method for making a roux:

1) Add equal amounts of oil and flour to a Dutch oven (over low/medium heat).

2) Stir continuously, making sure to scrape the bottom and edges of the pot as you stir.

3) Keep stirring while the roux goes from blonde, to tan, to mahogany, to chocolate brown.

4) Taste a sample of the roux, after allowing it to sufficiently cool.

5) Detect a hint of burnt flavor, throw away the roux and wipe the Dutch oven clean.

6) Repeat.

Three more important pieces of advice that are often overlooked:

1) Use the bathroom before starting the roux.  You won’t be able to break away from the action until the roux is finished (maybe 45 minutes to an hour).

2) Pour yourself a drink and make sure that it’s within arm’s reach as you stir.

3) Keep a small aloe vera plant in the kitchen, close to the stove, in case of burns.

As for the aloe vera, it’s really good for minor burns.  Roux is jokingly referred to as Cajun Napalm.  Even a tiny drop of the hot roux can cause your skin to blister.  I got two blisters from this batch.  I would have had three blisters but, when I got hit for the third time, I quickly pinched off the tip of an aloe leaf and rubbed it on the burn. 

Look closely and you’ll see I removed a tip from a leaf, at the right.
My drink of choice for the 1st roux was Spaten Lager. A nice Cabernet Sauvignon got me through the 2nd roux. Note the flat ended spatula…this is essential!

As I mentioned, I burned the first roux and had to start another one.  I cooked the roux over low heat both times. 

For the first attempt I used 3 cups canola oil and 3 cups flour.  I cooked the roux for 67 minutes and it reached a near-perfect chocolate brown color, but the roux had a slight burnt flavor. 

For the second attempt I decided to use 2 cups canola oil, 1 cup lard and 3 cups flour.  I cooked the second roux for 50 minutes. I brought the roux to a dark tan and shut the heat down before it turned to mahogany.  I didn’t want to run the risk of the burning the roux a second time!

This recipe makes about 2 gallons of gumbo (25 to 30 servings).

Ingredients:

1 lb medium sized shrimp, shell on and deveined

1 1/2 lbs cooked chicken breast, cut into 1/2″ cubes

3 cups canola oil

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 lb Andouille, cut into 1/2″ thick slices

1 large onion, chopped

1 bell pepper, chopped

1 large jalapeño, seeded and sliced

2 cups celery, chopped

1 whole head of garlic, minced

1 1/2 cups parsley, chopped

1 Tbs dried thyme

1 Tbs bay leaves

32 oz chicken stock

32 oz vegetable stock

1/2 cup shrimp stock reduction

12 oz okra, chopped

1 lb. crawfish tail meat

1 lb. crabmeat

1/2 cup clam stock reduction

12 oz white clams (about 12 clams)

Lots and lots of hot, steamed white rice

Directions:

Remove the shells from the shrimp and place in a skillet or pot.  Add a teaspoon of seasoning salt. Cover with water and simmer at medium heat for about 15 minutes.  Strain the liquid and reserve.  Discard the shrimp shells.  Heat the liquid in the pan until it reduces by at least half.  Reserve the reduction.

Put the chicken in a pot and cover with water.  Boil at low heat until cooked (about 40 minutes).  Remove the chicken to a platter and cool to room temperature.

In a small bowl, add the thyme and bay leaves. Cover with water and steam in a microwave for about a minute. Leave the herbs in the water and set aside.

Prep the vegetables and set aside.

Heat a large Dutch oven over medium heat.  (I used a 12” deep Dutch oven).  Add 1 cup oil and 1 cup flour and stir to incorporate.  Reduce heat to low/medium.  Add remaining oil and stir.  Add the remaining flour and stir constantly. 

After about 15 minutes the roux will begin to change from pale yellow to blonde.  Turn the heat to low and keep stirring. 

The roux will continue to darken and will become light tan and then dark tan.  Once the roux has turned to tan pay extra attention to the aroma and color of the roux as you stir. 

The color of the roux will begin to take on reddish/brown hue soon.  This is where I usually turn off the heat but, if you are brave and careful, keep stirring until the roux becomes chocolate brown. 

Once you are finished with the roux, turn off the heat and continue stirring for several more minutes.  The roux will remain very hot for at least 30 minutes.  Set the roux aside for now.

I stopped just short of mahogany on my second roux…yes, I chickened out!

And now, the easy part!

In a very, very large Dutch oven, (I used a 14” deep Dutch oven), add the chopped onion.  Sauté until the onion begins to turn brown. 

Add the bell pepper, celery and jalapeño.  Stir for a minute and add the garlic.  Stir for a few minutes and then remove everything to a bowl.

Add the sliced Andouille to the pot.  Stir over medium/high heat to brown the Andouille.  Remove the Andouille and set aside.

Add the chicken stock and vegetable stock to the pot and cook over high heat for 2 minutes.  Return the onions and Andouille to the pot.  Add the water from the steamed thyme and bay leaves. Discard the bay leaves and add the thyme to the pot. Turn the heat down to medium. 

Add about half of the roux to the pot and stir, to mix.  

Add the okra and stir.

Add the rest of the roux and stir.  The roux will thicken quickly.  If it is too thick, as mine was, add some water.  I added 3 cups of water.  Continue stirring.

Add the crawfish meat.  Stir briefly and turn the heat to low/medium.

Add the parsley and stir.

In a large skillet,  add two cups of water.  Set the heat to high and cover.  When the water reaches a hard boil, add the white clams, turn off the heat and cover.  The clams will snap open quickly.  Steam the clams for about a minute and remove to a bowl.  If some of the clams have not opened, bring the water back to boil and add the unopened clams.  If they pop open, hooray!  If they don’t open, they are doomed and will need to join the burned roux, in the trash can.  (All of my clams opened – Yippee!)

Reduce the steaming liquid from the clams to about one third.  You should wind up with a milky white reduction.  Strain the liquid through a paper towel and sieve to remove any sandy grit. Add the reduction to the gumbo pot.

Pull the clams from the shells and add the clams to the gumbo.  Discard the shells.

Add the chicken to the gumbo and stir.

Add the crab and stir.

Add the shrimp and green onions to the gumbo and stir.  The shrimp will cook within a couple of minutes.

Give the gumbo a good final stir.

Serve in bowls, over warm white rice.

So, other than a few 2nd degree burns and a failed roux, everything went according to plan!

Gumbo (Part I)

The best bowl of gumbo I ever had was my first one.  That’s the way it goes with me, more often than not.  My first experience with anything that’s new and wonderful finds a special and permanent home in my heart.  My first gumbo experience was at a seafood restaurant in north Texas…far, far away from the gulf coast, where seafood reigns supreme.  I sat alone, outside, at a picnic table on a wooden deck, on a chilly, rainy autumn evening  and I watched the cars as they sped down the wet street.  That bowl of gumbo warmed my bones and lifted my soul.  The aroma, steaming upward from the bowl, was a magical mixture of earthiness and briny sea. The flavor was complex and deep,  yet comfortable like my favorite winter coat.

Gumbo is truly American, like Jazz, which is to say that it is the marriage of many cultures from around the world.  Gumbo is influenced by African, French, Spanish, German and native American cuisines. Gumbo represents what America aspires to be.  Find a seat and share your story with us.  Everyone is welcome here.