Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Gumbo redemption?

I'm actually not sure I've fully redeemed myself, despite(because of?) yesterday's hubris. I was pretty much sure the whole time that I was screwing it up... I don't know why gumbo makes me so cooking insecure, but it does. The recipe called for 10 ounces of frozen okra thawed... well 10 ounces of frozen okra is going to be less than 10 ounces of thawed okra, right? I'm geeky enough to have a kitchen scale, so I can measure that kind of thing... but I'm not going to thaw out a whole package of okra to get it right and then have to refreeze the rest... why not give me a cup measure? So I probably had too little okra. I also worried that I had simmered off too much water from my shrimp stock(the shells from 1.5 lbs of small shrimp plus 4.5 cups of water simmered for 20 minutes)... and then I didn't know how many ice cubes to put in my 3.5 cups off ice water to cool it... did it mean 3.5 cups with the ice in it? Maybe it meant get 3.5 cups of water and then put the ice cubes in... at least it said I was supposed to end up with 8 cups, so I think I worked that out (somewhat messily) with a funnel, a measuring cup, and some eyeballin'. However, I'm not even sure you need the ice... since you're straining the stock into a cold pot, it would seem to me that cold tap water is fine as you've got 20 minutes or so of roux making ahead of you.

Now the roux... while heating the 1/2 cup oil over medium high you need to check the temp of it... you want it to be 200 degrees when you add the flour... checking with an instant read thermometer when you have as big a dutch oven as mine (thus a fairly thin layer of oil) was tricky, but I think I managed it... since after lowering the burner down to medium, I added the 1/2 cup of flour and got it dispersed with no clumps. In general, while the stirring(I prefer a wooden spatula too a wire whisk) got tiring after a while, the "blond roux" stages seemed fine... except for burning myself with hot oil when I got a little too "enthusiastic" with the spatula. It smelled really nice and no evil little black flecks indicating burnage... I don't think the oil was smoking at all, but maybe it was? Because as I got to the light brown stage it started to smell like burnt popcorn... which I'm pretty sure is a bad sign... but it looked fine. So, despite my commitment to start over if I F-ed up I soldiered on... but did I burn it? It looked and (later) tasted fine, but maybe I have no taste buds since I didn't really notice a problem the last time my roux was black as tar. But then, some people swear by really dark rouxs... so maybe I didn't screw that up? It would be nice if there was a Cajun and/or Creole cooking class at CCAE... I really need a demo where I can ask questions. However, I think those kind of cooks are a little thin on the grass up here. Anyway, at about 20 minutes I was satisfied with my roux's coloring, if still worried that I had secretly ruined it.

The next stages were fairly painless... I added in the finely diced onions(2 medium), celery(1 medium stalk), and red pepper(1 medium) with the okra, six diced cloves of garlic, a teaspoon of dried thyme, a teaspoon of salt, and 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne. I just kept stirring that around... a pretty gummy concoction... until the veggies were softened, which was about 8 minutes. Then I poured in 4 cups of cooled shrimp stock (i.e. half) while stirring constantly(arm pretty tired at this point) to make sure all that flour and stock made nice together. Add the rest of the stock, a couple bay leaves, and then it's time to bring it up to a boil... skim it a bit(I admit to being a little lazy here)... and then pull it back down to a simmer for 30 minutes. You're supposed to skim it periodically throughout, and while I tried, it felt wholly ineffective, and I mainly gave up on it.

One thing I noticed though... it wasn't thickening at all. Now, a brown roux isn't really supposed to thicken much... you sacrifice thickening power for flavor, and that's the yin-yang of rouxs... but that's why you put in the okra(or Filé powder if that's how you roll), and my limited experience with gumbos suggested they're significantly thicker than soup. Was it the okra? Did the issue with measuring it frozen result in pitiful thickening power? Fairly likely. Even if my "burnt popcorn" smelling roux didn't have an off taste that I could discern, did I ruin its meager thickening power? I couldn't find an answer in McGee to suggest so... but my search wasn't exhaustive. I ended up scouring flickr for some examples of gumbos that are on the thinner side to feel better about my effort... but I still think it was thinner than I really wanted. But wait... I'm jumping to the end before I've finished describing how the gumbo was made.

After the gumbo has been simmering for half an hour, you dump in a pound of Andouille that's been cut up into 1/4" rounds... then you bring it back up to a simmer for another 30 minutes to blend the flavors. I think you're still supposed to be skimming here... but whatever... the foam is unconquerable. Clarity and texture are for punks. The penultimate addition is that 1.5 pounds of shrimp, that need a mere 5 minutes or so of simmering to cook through... and then you finish it off the heat with 1/2 cup minced parsley and 4 scallions thinly sliced. Serve it in bowls topped with white rice.

So obviously, I've still got some issues here with my gumbo... and I feel pretty committed to getting it where I want it. Three things I'm considering for my next attemt: Cook the roux in the oven? That's Alton Brown's method, but even if it works I'm sort of leaning against it since it feels like cheating. Filé or just up the okra content? I've never tried Filé, so that's sort of intriguing, but I like okra so I'm inclined to improve it on that side first. Tomatoes? A controversial ingredient I gather, but I feel it would be an improvement, so that's probably in. This brings up that I also, despite the presence of 1.5 pounds of them, found the shrimp to be a little sparse relative to the sausage... do I want more shrimp? Less sausage? Or would tomatoes or perhaps another ingredient bring the balance where I want it?

Many questions... I think I'm actually interested enough to answering them that I've created a new topic heading for anyone interested in following along.