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In praise of gumbo

I’ve been a fan of Paul Prudhomme since he opened K-Pauls on Chartres Street in New Orleans, published his first cookbook, and started the almost total depopulation of the lowly (until-then) redfish in the Gulf of Mexico – his most famous early recipe was blackened redfish.

Paul cooked what he knew, what he had learned watching his mother and relatives cook, and turned it into great food. I particularly love his gumbo. There are scores, maybe hundreds, of recipes for this versatile and robust dish, but few more exciting than Paul’s. My favorite doesn’t use okra or file powder for thickening, just a really dark roux.

Prudhomme wants a deep black roux for many of his gumbos. Now a roux, for those of you who don’t know, is simply vegetable oil and flour cooked over a high flame and stirred constantly until it turns from whitish to pale brown to reddish brown to dark red to black. You can stop it at any stage and use it for a particular soup or stew. But at the point when it’s dark red to black, and there is so much smoke coming off the pot that you have to blow into it to see the bottom of the pot and judge the color of the roux, then it’s ready for the gumbos I like to cook. And it’s important to see the roux because the color tells you when it’s ready.

When the color has just turned a shade darker than the darkest red, it’s at the proper temperature and it’s time to cool it off – instantly – by tossing in a few cups of chopped onions, bell peppers and celery. This causes something like an explosion of boiling oil and vegetables, but it cools the roux. The vegetables cook quickly as you stir the pot. You add more, along with spices and garlic, and later, a chicken or seafood stock. The result is a dark, smooth base into which you add the meats and fish: andouille sausage, chicken, beef, pork shrimp, oysters, crab, crawfish or other fish. You serve the result hot over rice or grits.

Wonderful, wonderful, filling and satisfying. I’ve made it for years and enjoy it every time.

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Eating warm

If modern Americans were close to farms, as our grandparents were, we would now be changing our diets to accommodate the new season. Not because we wanted to necessarily, but because that would be all we would have to eat. Local food was all there was. Importing oranges or strawberries or tomatoes from California or Latin America was just too expensive. And factory food, except for canned vegetables and meats, wasn’t so prevalent. That meant winter squash, cool-weather greens, sweet potatoes and the like would grace the table, replacing fresh corn, tomatoes, cucumbers and watermelon.

Even with markets full of trucked-in produce from around the world, I often crave food that goes with the season. Cooler weather makes me want warm, filling and comfortable dishes. Like garlic chicken, braised lamb shanks, daube of beef (beef stew), slow-cooked beans, roasted vegetables and potatoes. It’s as if the appetite responds to the need to stay warm, to add a little winter padding to the body’s outer layer and help it survive the cold winter coming.

Garlic chicken is a great example. This simple dish uses 50 or 60 garlic cloves buried under browned chicken pieces and cooked with wine and stock. Serve it over hot cajun or plain rice. Soak up the juices with some good bread. Wash it down with a light pinot, or Brouilly, and you have prepared yourself for the next chilly autumn day.

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Like feeding the birds, only better.

There’s a man in our downtown park who feeds birds and squirrels. He’s good at it. Smaller birds sit on his shoulder. Ducks gather round his legs. Squirrels nibble out of his hand.

There is something simply right about the act of feeding. All mothers know this. So do cooks. I get immense satisfaction watching people eat food I have spent some time, thought and effort in putting together. And, it rarely matters if the meal is simple or complex, a feast or a snack, food that complements a sporting event, or food memorable enough for a wedding celebration. If the joy in serving it forth (to quote M.F.K. Fisher), is lacking, then the meal in most cases will be lackluster, a joyless feed instead of a happy feast.

This past weekend, I was richly rewarded. There was a meal in the morning (for a football party), an elaborate pan bagnat for another gathering, followed by a meal for a sick friend’s family, and finally an evening dinner party. At the last, there was the plus of being a participant as well as a cook.

The next time you’re in your favorite restaurant, watch the chef and the cooks. You can tell if a full house and happy diners are making them happy. The smile on their faces will be the same smile you saw on your mother’s face when you finished your supper, and ate it all up.