Mumbo gumbo

“Don’t bring your lunch tomorrow, I told my workmates.  I’ll bring food for all y’all I told ‘em.”

nhs buds

Four of my best friends in the world.  From left: Bo, Waldo, Kat, and Kelsi.

That was Bo; one of my very best and oldest friends.

She called me last night at 11:00.  And if you knew Bo, you’d know how very unusual this is.  Petey and I are unqualified, dyed-in-the-wool night owls, but my friend not only goes to bed with the chickens, she’s the one urging them along.

Bo is my kitchen role model.  She’s been a great cook since we were kids.  Her calm and confidence with all things food inspires me to try new things, even when it scares me.

So, when the phone rang, and it was Bo, but a nervous, worried Bo, I knew something was up.  She told me I was the only person that she could call this late at night (I think she must hang out with farmers and milkmen in Elizabeth City).

Those guys are straight-up party animals.

My culinary rock, the strongest, most authentic person I’ve ever known was in a tizzy because she was making gumbo for her colleagues at her new job, and realized that she had no flour for roux.

Roux is a French word, which in English roughly translates to reddish-brown.  It’s a 50/50 cooked mixture of flour and fat.  Roux can be any shade from very light blond to dark, chocolatey brown.  As roux cooks it darkens and the thickening power decreases, so more must be used. I use it almost exclusively when making gravies and thick, cream soups.  My roux of thumb (Roux of thumb; see what I did there?) is normally peanut butter-colored.  It thickens well, and imparts a buttery, nutty flavor to the food.

I use it almost exclusively when making gravies and thick, cream soups.  My roux of thumb (Roux of thumb; see what I did there?) is normally peanut butter-colored.  It thickens well, and imparts a buttery, nutty flavor to the food.

In Cajun cooking, the roux is much more rustic and cooked to a dark, brick color, which colors the food, and gives it a rich smoky flavor.

This is cajun roux.  Go any further and it is burned and unusable.

Well Bo was in the middle of a very important pot of gumbo, and out of flour.  Unfortunately, it was 10PM, and in Elizabeth City there are no 24-hour Kroger stores offering shelf after shelf of various flours for sale.

Well Bo was in the middle of a very important pot of gumbo, and out of flour.  Unfortunately, it was 10PM, and in Elizabeth City there are no 24-hour Kroger stores offering shelf after shelf of various flours for sale.

So what’s a desperate culinary rock to do?

My girl made a substitution.  She used a combination of waffle mix and white cornmeal.

And it worked.

Since you don’t normally get anything hot and spicy from me, she graciously offered to share this recipe for her spicy Cajun gumbo.  I love her make-do roux, but if you want traditional, just use one cup each flour and vegetable oil.

bo's roux

Bo’s make-do roux.

Bo’s Gumbo


1 lb. Andouille, sliced

12 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into chunks

2 green peppers, chopped

8 ribs celery, chopped

2 medium onions, chopped

2 tablespoons chopped garlic

1 large can diced tomatoes

1 bag frozen cut okra

2 tsp dried thyme

2 tsp dried red pepper flakes

8 cups (or so) chicken stock

Salt and pepper to taste

After cutting up the chicken I sprinkle it with salt, black pepper, cayenne, granulated garlic, onion powder, oregano, thyme and paprika, mix it to coat well and let it sit for a few minutes.

For the roux I used 1 cup of oil 3/4 cup of Krusteaz waffle mix and 1/4 cup white cornmeal.

Get it nice and dark.

Brown the vegetables, add Andouille and chicken, cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add can of tomatoes. Start adding roux a spoonful at a time, stirring as you go. Stir in most of the chicken stock.  Add the frozen okra and let it come to a low boil, turn down heat to low and cook for 1.5 hours, stirring every five minutes or so to keep it from sticking. Add more chicken stock as needed. 

Some Andouille is hotter than others so if it isn’t spicy enough you can add hot sauce at the end to your taste.

It is better when served the next day. Most people serve it over white rice but I just eat it like it is.

You cam omit the chicken and add shrimp but only add them after it’s done or they will be little rubber bits.

I hope you enjoy this spicy dish from my friend, the spicy dish that is Bo.

Thanks for your time.

Pink Sauce

Originally published in the Herald Sun September 2011.

So, The Kid came home a few days ago, finished with six months of summer internship and first-time completely independent living. Petey and I filled the fridge with childhood favorites like Clementines and RC Cola, and counted the hours.
I made a big pot of childhood’s favorite guilty pleasure; pink sauce.
Despite being the child of an Italian girl from Jersey, I have never liked red sauce (called Sunday gravy by my mom and her sisters). Consequently, I never made it. If Petey or The Kid wanted spaghetti and meatballs, they had to leave home, and get their fix on the streets.
Because I wanted to make some kind of spaghetti for the family, but mainly because I’m always looking for something thick and yummy to ladle onto carbs, I came up with this coral-colored, indulgent concoction.
I invented this recipe before I could really cook, and The Kid has loved it for years. This sauce is not for the faint of heart. It should be no more than an occasional treat if you want to fit into your jeans or look your doctor in the eye. Fat is flavor, and can be the culinary equivilant of false eyelashes and push-up bra for the novice cook.
A big pot of this bubbling velvet starts the day before the finished dish. I make a batch of meatballs. My walnut-sized offerings are made with a mixture of ground veal and pork. Before the meat even comes out of the fridge, I make a panade. A panade is a bread ripped into tiny pieces and soaked until saturated.
My soak is egg, cream, shredded Parm, finely chopped garlic, chiffonade of basil, a splash of both olive oil and marsala wine, and salt and pepper. When the bread and the soak are one, I break the ground meat into small pieces and lightly mix, almost fold the mixture together. If you go nuts and mix your meatballs too much, they will be rubbery and dry.
I can’t fry a spherical meatball to save my life. So, I bake them, on a cooling rack over a cookie sheet, at 350 for twelve minutes, and a few minutes minutes under the broiler, flipped once. This gives them some color that translates to flavor in the finished product.
To get them uniform in size, I use a smallish cookie/portion scoop. I roll them into balls, sprinkle them with salt, pepper, and a little bit of freshly ground nutmeg. About eighteen or so go in the sauce, and any extra go in the freezer for future use.
The sauce itself is pretty simple. I brown 10-12 Italian sausages that I’ve cut into one inch slices. I remove them from the pot and carmelize about 1 1/2 pounds of sliced mushrooms, a small onion chopped, and five or six chopped cloves of garlic. Then I add back the sausage and a can of tomato paste. When the paste has cooked to a deep burgundy, I deglaze with a cup of marsala. When the wine is almost gone, I dump in a quart of chicken stock and 2 cups of cream. Into it I put a couple of tablespoons of sundried tomatoes, 1/2 cup shredded Parm, a tablespoon of sugar, 2 tablespoons of chopped basil, a drizzle of olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.
When it comes to a boil I thicken it slightly with a peanut butter colored roux and add the meatballs. It then slowly cooks for hours on the stove top.
When we’re ready to eat, I toss in another handful of chopped basil for fresh flavor.
I serve it on spaghetti, bake it into ziti, and use it on a ton of other things. The Kid is convinced it would be tasty on an old tennis shoe. Tonight we’re having leftover sauce on rice, my personal favorite.
Thanks for your time.

Cream Of Insert Name Of Ingredient Here Soup

Originally published in the Herald Sun 9/13/2012

When I was pregnant, and The Kid was just about done cooking, one of my oldest friends, Kiki, came to help the beached whale that was me, and to make sure Petey had food to eat, and clean boxers to wear.
While she was visiting we ate, a lot. One of our favorite things was to get a fresh baguette and a big hunk of brie, and eat until the bread was gone, or we passed out, whichever came first.
One evening, for a change of pace, and some actual nutrition, Kiki decided to make us cream of mushroom soup, with a big salad.
At this point, the only cream of mushroom soup I had any familiarity with was the gray slimy glop in the can. And then, only as an ingredient in a casserole.
But Kiki had been to culinary school, knew what she was doing, and promised me the soup would be yummy.
In about thirty minutes, I waddled out to the kitchen to taste.
It was rich, creamy, and redolent of caramelized mushrooms, chardonnay, and thyme. I was a convert.
The best part of all was that my friend assured me that the soup was a breeze to make.
A few years later, I picked up a copy of The Silver Palate Cookbook at the Durham library book sale.
Leafing through it, I saw a recipe for asparagus sauce. It wasn’t a sauce for the vegetable, but a sauce made with asparagus, to serve on chicken, or fish.
Since it was in season, and there were tons of gorgeous ‘goose’ (Kid-speak for the spears) available, I decided to give it a whirl.
It was basically asparagus, sautéed with some onion, then pureed with water.
It was pretty darn awful.
So, there I am, standing in the kitchen, staring down at a big pot of beautiful, yet inedible sauce.
Then I remembered Kiki’s soup. So, I put in some chicken stock, and added some heavy cream.
I don’t know exactly what happened to it, but that pot of yucky sauce turned into a pot of silky, delicious cream of asparagus soup.
That was the day I figured out cream soups.
It’s less a recipe and more of a technique. You can use any vegetable you’d like. If you buy what’s in season, you’ll get the freshest, cheapest veggies.
For the directions, I’ll use broccoli.

Cream Soup
Serves 6
2 heads fresh broccoli cut into florets
1 yellow onion, chopped
4 Tbl butter
½ cup white wine
2 ½ cups low sodium chicken stock
1 ½ cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste
1 Tbl snipped chives or chopped parsley
Blonde roux (equal parts butter and flour cooked on low until lightly browned)
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
Holding back two cups florets, sauté broccoli and onion in butter, until onions turn translucent. Add wine, and let reduce until almost dry (called “au sec”; pronounced “oh seck”).
In a food processor or blender, purée cooked veg, adding a little of the stock to keep it loose enough to blend. Pour this back into your soup pot.
Add the rest of the stock and the cream.
To thicken the soup (you may not want to, but I like mine so thick a spoon almost stands up in it):
If you are using roux, allow the soup to come to a boil, and stir in roux until it is the thickness you like,
For the cheese, you want the soup below a simmer, not boiling, or it will separate and get grainy. Slowly whisk the cheddar in, a bit at a time, letting it melt completely before adding more to the pot.
Check for seasoning, and add the raw florets. When the raw broc has cooked in the soup for ten minutes or so, it’s ready.
Spoon into mugs and garnish top with chives or parsley.

The neat thing about this soup is that you can get really creative.
Using carrots? Garnish with chopped crispy bacon, and add a little cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg (Don’t use the pre-ground canned nutmeg. It lost all the volatile oils, and flavor long before it reached the grocery shelf.)
Trying to make a mushroom soup as good as Kiki’s? Add fresh thyme, and maybe a bit of rosemary. And next time you make a recipe calling for cream of mushroom soup, you can use your own, homemade ambrosia, instead of that can.
Really, any veggy that catches your eye in the market will work, even a leafy veg, like spinach or cabbage. Just remember, if you choose hard vegetables like potatoes, or a fall squash, chop them a bit smaller, and par boil or toss them in a little olive oil and salt and pepper and roast them at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes so they won’t have to cook from a raw state in the soup (which will take forever).
On a cool, rainy day, there’s nothing better than a grilled cheese sandwich and a mug of warm soup.
Actually, there is.
A grilled cheese sandwich and a mug of warm, homemade soup.
Thanks for your time.

Meat Loaf:Mother’s Love On A Plate

Sometimes you just have one of those days. The kind of day that you need a hug from your mom. You just want somebody to wrap you up in comfort and love.For most of us, snuggling up with Mommy isn’t really an option. Mom’s not around, or being a grown up human being, you feel kind of silly snuggling up in someone’s lap. As a woman, sometimes my relief comes from food. There is something soul-satisfying about tucking into a plate of old-fashioned, homemade, comfort food. On the top of most lists of soothing foods is meat loaf. It’s retro, cheap, and a good meat loaf can leave you feel like a freshly bathed toddler, tucked into warm pajamas. Somehow, my own recipe became a family favorite. My mom, who makes a pretty mean meat loaf herself, likes mine better than her own. Her meatloaf is red based.  Tomato sauce in it, and red sauce on top. I like my sister’s-in-law red version, she puts ketchup on top, that, in the oven, carmelizes into a sweet sticky glaze. But, my own is a mushroom gravy based. Petey loves it, and The Kid will fight over red versus brown. My child likes the brown better because then there is thick, rich gravy to ladle over the obligatory mashed potatoes. There are jars and envelopes of stuff in the grocery store that one can mix into ground meat, which makes a meat loaf-like product. But for a food that has the power to make a bad day into a good one, take the trouble to make it from scratch. It’s the difference between okay, and oh my gawd.

It’s not a painless process, there is a little work to it.

Debbie’s Brown meat Loaf

Mushroom Gravy:
2 pounds button or cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1 small onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 tablespoons canola oil
1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried rosemary, or 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon Worchestershire sauce
1 teaspoon honey
1 teaspoon grated horseradish
1/2 cup sherry
1 quart beef stock
salt and pepper to taste (so taste it, please)

For roux:
1 stick butter
1/2-3/4 cup all-purpose flour
Melt butter and stir in flour. Cook on low until it has browned to the color of peanut butter.
Set aside.

For gravy:
Into the hot fat, put mushrooms, and cook until the liquid is cooked out, and they begin to brown. Add onions, and cook until they soften and start to lightly brown. Add garlic, and when you can smell it, pour in sherry and let it reduce until it almost dry. Pour in beef stock and the herbs and flavorings. When it comes to a boil, slowly stir in roux, a bit at a time until the thickness is to your liking.
Put about 1 1/2 cup of gravy into a small vessel and let cool. Refrigerate the rest for dinner.
This is a basic gravy that can be used for many other dishes.

Panade (The goo that will flavor the meat and keep it moist):
Reserved gravy
2 eggs
1 cup bread crumbs (try making your own from ground, leftover bread, they’re much less sandy)
In a large bowl put about 3/4 cup of cooled gravy, eggs, and bread crumbs. Stir it all together until it is completely mixed. It should be the consistency of loose, wet oatmeal.

You’re now ready to make meat loaf.

Meat loaf:
2 pounds 80/20 ground beef
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
reserved gravy
In the bowl of panade, break the meat into smallish pieces. Gently mix hamburger and pande. You don’t want to mix it too much, or it will get rubbery while baking. You should still see bits of meat and goo in the final mixture.
Firmly press the mixture down into the bowl bottom; this will keep it together, while not overworking it.
Turn out into baking dish and shape into a meat loaf shape.
Cover the top with the reserved gravy, and place into oven heated to 350 degrees. Bake for one hour and twenty minutes.
While it finishes cooking, reheat the gravy on gentle heat on the stove top.
Slice and serve, topped with a little of the gravy.

We like ours old school, with mashed potatoes and peas. Grill slices and it also makes a terrific sandwich, on a hearty bread, with melted cheese, and a little arugula (you can even go nuts, and add a couple slices of bacon).
Life can really be a stinker sometimes, and everybody needs a little succor from time to time. It won’t balance your checkbook, or help you understand your teenager any better, but a yummy, comforting plate of meat loaf can dull the pain a bit.
And sometimes, that’s the most you can ask for.
Thanks for your time.