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.

 

Smoked Cornish Game Hens

I love the smell of smoke drifting through the neighborhood.  I especially like it when it emanates from my own backyard!  There is something about the change from summer to fall that makes me want to cook fowl outdoors.  Chicken, turkey, whatever.  This recipe combines bright citrus tones, savory spices and a gentle, smoky flavor. 

Ingredients:

2 Cornish game hens

Marinade for the hens (see below)

Marinade Ingredients:

3 cups olive oil

3 full heads of garlic, peeled and smashed

3 oranges

3 lemons

3 limes

1 cup orange juice

¼ cup rosemary, chopped

¼ cup kosher salt

¼ cup coarse black pepper

2 star anise pods

1 Thai cinnamon stick

Directions:

Zest the citrus fruit

Add the juice and zest from the fruit to a bowl.  Add the orange juice and oil to the bowl.

Using a mortar and pestle, grind the rosemary, salt, black pepper, anise and cinnamon. 

Add the ground seasonings to the bowl, along with the juice and zest.

finished marinade

Keep the rinds and pulp from the fruit to use as an aromatic.  In a large pot of water, add rinds and pulp.  Set heat to very low and add other aromatics, such as cinnamon sticks, star anise, sage, all spice berries…really, anything that strikes your fancy.

Put on stove, low heat…fill the house with the aroma!

Cut the hens in half, (remove back bones and split the bird in half with a large kitchen knife).

whole hen
Pretty side up!

Marinate the chicken for 12 hours, or overnight.  Turn the chicken occasionally, to allow the marinade to soak in.

Refrigerate overnight

I used oak for the smoking process.  Oak lends a nice smoky flavor without imparting a heavy flavor.  I didn’t bother measuring or monitoring the temperature of the coals or the smoker, or the birds.  I knew that I had used plenty of coals and that the birds would cook evenly, since they were split.  Smoking meat this way is not advised but,  I happened to be in a very confident mood that day and I turned everything over to fate. 

Directions for smoking the birds:

Start a batch of charcoal for a smoker.  Hot charcoals maintain even and steady heat for the smoker and they ignite the wood, used for the smoke.  Once the coals are hot (gray), add some pieces of oak.  Let the oak char for about 20 minutes.  Add some more oak and char for another 15 minutes.  Once the wood has turned into nice coals and the smoke has thinned a little, prepare the grill for smoking.

On a clean grill, add the hens, cut side down, with leg portions pointed toward the center of the grill.  Smoke the birds for 1 ½ hours.  I finished cooking in a 300° oven for 15 minutes, just to make sure that they were cooked all the way through.

Let the hens rest for a few minutes before separating into breasts, legs and wings.

Serve with pasta with fresh tomato sauce, garden salad and warm Jalapeño Cheddar Cheese Bread with pads of butter.

Pasta with Fresh Tomato Sauce:

Summer is gone but I still enjoy the taste of fresh tomatoes from the garden.  That’s because I filled a 2 gallon storage bag with ripe tomatoes.  I didn’t wash the tomatoes before freezing them.  Whenever I want a tomato, I open the bag, pull one out, let it thaw at room temperature for about 15 minutes and then I rinse it under tap water.  The skin peels off right away and I’m left with a wonderful, fresh tomato.  For this recipe, I used two tomatoes.

Ingredients:

2 *fresh* tomatoes

1 lb penne rigate

1 anchovy (packed in oil)

3 garlic cloves, smashed

1 tsp olive oil

2 Tbs butter

½ tsp dried oregano leaves

½ tsp dried basil leaves

½ cup feta cheese

Directions:

Boil water in a large pot.  Add the penne rigate and cook to al dente.  Drain the water but do not rinse.  Reserve 1 cup of the pasta water.

While the pasta cooks…

Chop tomatoes into ½” pieces.  Set aside.

Crush anchovy and garlic together in a mortar and pestle.  Set aside.

In a large skillet, set to medium/low heat, add olive oil.  Add half of the tomatoes, garlic and anchovy. Cook down to a sauce (about 10 minutes). 

Add a cup of pasta water and cook down for another 5 minutes. 

Add the spices and butter.  Simmer for a few minutes and simmer for a few more minutes. 

Add the cooked pasta and stir to coat the pasta.

Turn out to a serving bowl and top with feta cheese.

Jalapeño and Cheddar Cheese Bread

My wife makes this bread and it doesn’t sit on the table very long!  Next time she makes it, I’ll pay better attention and share the recipe along with directions.  It’s always the highlight to any meal it accompanies!

A Night at the Improv

There comes a time in every cook’s life when they realize that they don’t have an ingredient they need for a recipe.  Sometimes those moments happen in the midst of preparing a meal.  Sometimes cooks just have to improvise.  Sometimes cooks just have to “fake it” and force their way through life’s unexpected problems.

I’ve had some long, long days at work recently, which is why my blog posts have become less frequent.  A few nights ago, I came home from work and I was craving something spicy.  I wanted to make a variation of my Yin and Yang Chicken Wraps because it was quick and easy to prepare.  I prepped the vegetables and chicken and just as I was getting ready to fry the chicken, I realized that I didn’t have any eggs.

Eggs are something that I always keep on hand…except this time. 

I usually fry chicken by dipping the chicken in egg and dredging it in flour.  That’s Chicken 101.  Of course, buttermilk could be used instead of egg… that’s the classic recipe for southern fried chicken.  Buttermilk is not something I usually have on hand.

In a moment of inspiration, or desperation, I decided to use milk and Italian dressing instead of eggs. 

Why Italian dressing?  Why not?  I figured that if I was going to improvise I might as well try something completely new.

The result was some very crispy and very delicious chicken.  The rest of the preparation was smooth sailing and I made some extremely spicy wraps.  So, satisfying!  

Italian dressing contains oil, among other things, and that, combined with the milk, gave the flour something to stick to and it produced great flavor.

I ate two of the large wraps and went to bed an hour later.  Big mistake! The joy I experienced while eating the spicy chicken wraps was perfectly balanced by the upset stomach I experienced 5 hours later as I drove to work the next morning.  Yin and Yang, indeed!

So, don’t panic when you find yourself missing an ingredient.  Trust your instincts and face adversity bravely.  Improvise.  Be daring!

Oh, and don’t go to sleep an hour after you eat…especially if you eat something very spicy!

Do as I say, not as I do.

Spinach and Mushroom Enchiladas

Most of my entrée recipes contain meat, in some way or another.  Some recipes seem like meat, meat and more meat.  Other recipes lean toward vegetarian dishes…until I throw in some chicken stock.  This is a bona fide vegetarian dish. 

Until I started this blog I didn’t give much thought to other people’s recipes.  I have spent the last twenty-plus years relying on my own instincts and re-imagining dishes that I have had in the past.  But now I find myself perusing other cooking blogs and WOW, there sure are a lot of vegetarians and vegans out there!

I have gained an appreciation for what those cooks are doing.  It’s easy for an omnivore, such as me, to look at vegan recipes and think, “oh, those poor people…they have given up meat and they must be miserable.”  But, on closer inspection, I have found that vegetarians and vegans are bravely redefining what it means to be conscientious cooks.  Nutrition and taste can be achieved without meat.  There, I said it.

As I plod along searching for delicious and nutritious ways to satisfy my soul, I consider every lifestyle diet equally important.

This is one of those rare meals that came out just as I imagined it would.  The creaminess of the tomato based sauce and the three types of cheese made this a very gratifying dish.  It lacked a significant amount protein, which concerned me a bit but I grabbed a few handfuls of peanuts while I made this and life was good.

Ingredients:

7 green onions

2 garlic cloves, smashed

4 cups fresh spinach (8 oz)

16 oz fresh mushrooms

3 Tbs olive oil

2 Tbs butter

4 Tbs flour

2 tsp cumin powder

2 tsp chili powder

1 tsp oregano

1 tsp salt

1 tsp black pepper

32 oz vegetable stock

6 oz tomato paste

½ cup half-and-half

8 oz Colby-Jack Cheese

4 oz sharp cheddar cheese

4 oz Mozzarella cheese

12 white corn tortillas

Directions:

Prepare the vegetables:

Chop the green onions.  Think of the green onion as three parts.  There is the white root section, the light green middle section and the dark green tips.  Cut and separate the green onions accordingly.

My recipe calls for 4 cups of spinach but I used more.  This might be considered a “heaping” four cups.  The beauty of fresh spinach is that it quickly wilts down to a much smaller amount when it is cooked. 

Chop the mushrooms.  I used baby portabella mushrooms because the price was right…any type mushroom will do.

In an oven proof skillet, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil at medium heat.  Add the chopped white ends of the green onions and garlic.  Simmer for one minute.  Add the spinach and stir.  After a minute, the spinach will begin to soften and wilt.  Add the chopped mushrooms and stir for another two minutes.  Remove to a bowl.

Add 2 tablespoons olive oil and 2 tablespoons butter.  Add the flour and whisk to make a roux.  Add cumin, chili powder, oregano, salt and pepper and stir to incorporate.  Add one half of the vegetable stock, (16 ounces) and tomato paste and whisk to thicken.  Add the half-and-half and whisk to mix.  Simmer on low heat to allow the sauce thicken. Thin the sauce with the remaining 16 ounces of vegetable stock. Simmer on low while the enchiladas are assembled.

Add the half-and-half.
Sauce will become very thick after adding half-and-half.
Add remaining vegetable stock to thin the sauce.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the mozzarella and cheddar cheese and 4 ounces of the Colby-Jack cheese.  Add the chopped middle sections of the green onions.  Add the cooked spinach and mushrooms.  Mix thoroughly. 

Soften the tortillas in a microwave or wrap in foil and warm them in a conventional oven.

Adding sauce to the pan keeps the enchiladas from burning

Add ½ cup of the enchilada sauce to the bottom of a large casserole dish.  Spread the sauce to cover the bottom of the dish.

Assemble the enchiladas:

Lay a tortilla on a clean work surface.  Add about 1/3 cup of the filling to each tortilla.  Roll and place in baking dish. 

Once all of the enchiladas are in the casserole dish, pour the sauce over the enchiladas and scatter 4 ounces of shredded Colby-Jack cheese on top.  Bake at 350° for 30 minutes. Top with chopped green onion tips and cilantro

“Sunrise, Sunset”

I started this blog in late July of this year and now we are about halfway into September.  You might be thinking that this is a prelude that will lead into a rambling account of all of the fun that I have had so far and how much I have enjoyed bonding with other fellow bloggers. 

Well, all of that is true but, I only mention the time frame because of how it relates to photographing the food that I have made.  Most of the food that I have documented on the blog has been made during late afternoons and evenings. 

Our kitchen sits on the western side of our home and we have a window, over the sink, that faces west.  My wife photographs most of what is posted and she has produced some beautiful shots.  But, I know what lies ahead.  Autumn and Winter.  The sun is setting earlier with each passing day and pretty soon, I will be making dinner long after the sun has set. 

That means I won’t have the dramatic lighting that the setting sun is providing now.  We will be faced with the challenge of making food look good under the bland overhead lighting of our kitchen.  I don’t relish the thought of setting up elaborate lighting schemes and I don’t want my kitchen to turn into a photo studio.  Fortunately, my wife and I are creative and resourceful people.  We will try to find ways to put up some interesting photos, despite the lack of natural sunlight. 

So, if you find yourself yawning at my posts during the winter, I will understand. Come back next spring and catch a glimpse of the sun again.