The Return of Heavy Food 

In which the author prepares for hibernation with a gumbo

In which the author prepares for hibernation with a gumbo

When it comes to family dynamics, my wife summarizes my contributions to the nuclear unit this way. She calls me “the family stomach.”

If something’s broken around the house and needs fixing, or if a kid has skinned a knee and needs medical help, or if an emotional outbreak is threatening to sink us all and family counseling is needed, I do my best. But I’m a limited man.

When, on the other hand, it comes to figuring out what’s for dinner, I can do that.

As the stomach, my role may seem absurdly—even problematically—simple, compared to everything else that takes place in a four-person home. But somebody’s gotta do it, and the stomach is good at what he does. The stomach takes his role seriously, responsibly, magnanimously.

The stomach most recently detected a slight change in outlook late this August, just when the last heat wave was swamping the city. The natural calendar and the changing of the seasons are a big influence on me, and, ironically, just when summer was launching its most violent assault, I began getting really tired of tomatoes with basil, light white wine, fruit tea and cold chicken salad.

This always happens: Just before the seasons give way, I have already been provided advance notice. With the temperature at 95, I was thinking heavy casseroles, cream sauces, dark mushroom concoctions, gumbos.

And so I was lead to the cookbook shelf in the house that hot weekend, and I briefly pulled out the recently released The Big Book of Casseroles, by Maryana Vollstedt. This priceless collection was given to my wife last year by friend and foodie Patricia Davis, and I mention it simply because every recipe I’ve tried in it so far has been a winner. All involve just the right number of ingredients (lots of them healthy, but thankfully copious amounts of cheese) poured into deep pots, installed in hot ovens, and brought to a perfect conclusion.

But as fate would have it, I was dispatched at about that time to go deliver a child to a friend’s house, and while in the home of that friend, I was lead fatefully to the father’s collection of cookbooks, with one title—and one title only—on my mind. I knew that Scott Rayson had a copy of the epic Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen somewhere. Upon discovering Rayson’s cookbooks, I discovered Rayson actually had two of said books, so I snitched one. For the rest of the weekend, I was lost in heavy frying, deep roux, massive spice rubs and extremely complex, multi-stage events that from time to time I enjoy.

I spent the rest of the day reading the book, beads of sweat popping out all over at the mere thought of so much cayenne. At the same time, I thought it would be a good time to reorganize my personal recipe book. Doing so resulted in the discovery of a number of recipes my mother had sent over the years from South Louisiana, which is where I’m from, and before I knew it, everything was working as God had intended it. I was, like the squirrel storing up acorns way before the first cold snap, in pre-hibernation mode. The natural cycles were flowing smoothly and evenly, I was intersecting with them perfectly, and an immense appetite was developing.

I decided to cook a huge gumbo.

Last Thanksgiving, I had marveled as my brother had, immediately after dinner, taken the turkey carcass, bones, neck and everything else imaginable, and smushed it in a pot for stock. What evolved over the next 48 hours was the creation of a beautiful gumbo, rich with turkey, sausage and shrimp. I wanted to repeat that.

After phone calls to brother, I set to work. What resulted was, well, quite fine.

Step 1: Cook a turkey. Remove meat from bones. Put bones in big pot and simmer for three hours or so. Strain stock to remove bones.

Step 2: Make a roux. Take one cup canola oil, and microwave high in a 4-cup or (preferably) 8-cup Pyrex bowl for one- and-a-half minutes. Remove. Mix in one cup flour and whisk until ALL flour is dissolved. Microwave the concoction in two-minute increments, whisking briskly in between, until the roux is chocolate colored. (BE CAREFUL: THE ROUX IS ALSO KNOWN AS CAJUN NAPALM AND CAN BURN BADLY. IT ALSO STINKS UP A HOUSE PRETTY GOOD.)

Step 3: Add to the Pyrex one chopped onion, one chopped bell pepper and three stalks of chopped celery. Mix completely into the roux. Put back in microwave, and once again, in 2-minute increments, cook until vegetables are wilted. Halfway through this process, add 4-5 cloves of minced garlic.

Step 4: Slowly add the roux to 2 1/2 gallons of the stock. (If you don’t have enough stock, add enough water to get to that amount. Or if you don’t have turkey stock at all, use half canned chicken stock and half water to make the liquid.) Mix well.

Step 5: Add the chopped turkey. Add 1 lb. sliced sausage, such as regular old kielbasa. (I grill mine beforehand, to get rid of some of the grease.) Add 1 T parsley and 1 T green onion tops. Then add red pepper, Tabasco, black pepper to taste. Simmer the gumbo for an hour or two.

Step 6: Five minutes before eating, and while the gumbo is still simmering, add 1 1/2 lbs. small peeled shrimp.

Step. 7: Serve over cooked white rice.

And that, my friends, is pretty much it. A gumbo is something you have to feel and taste your way through. The roux is crucial: Botching it will ruin the entire dish. If you think the gumbo is too liquidy when it’s done, then cook it down. Make sure you don’t put your shrimp in until the very end, because they cook extremely fast and if you cook them too long they get grainy.

In the end, I froze most of my gumbo. It keeps quite well that way. But I also ate a bunch of it.

I like to eat a gumbo with a pinot noir. But, frankly, a Budweiser is fine enough. Call me at 244-7989, ext. 400, if you’ve got questions.

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