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Sunday, December 20, 2015

Lucky Food

Gumbo Z'Herbs. Gumbo Aux Herbs. Green Gumbo.
The other gumbo.
Whether prepared with or without meat or with or without roux, the unusual gumbo z'herbs is always jam-packed with a multiple variety of greens. Green gumbo requires a lot of greens.While purists claim it should never contain meat or roux, some versions of this deep south gumbo pack the double punch of both. Although a meat-filled version is customarily cooked, served, and eaten on Maundy Thursday during the week of Mardi Gras, it's also served year round.

Unlike the more familiar gumbos of the deep south, gumbo z'herbs has deep rooted traditions that involve luck and good fortune. While almost any kind of greens can be used for gumbo z'herbs, tradition holds that an odd number ( 5, 7, 9, 11) insures good luck and that the number used reflects the number of new friends to be made during the year. Because pigs move forward when they eat, eating pork is a lucky symbol for moving forward. Because greens are the color of money, they represent wealth and good fortune. So, whether it's Fat Tuesday, Maundy Thursday, or any other day of the year, throw the dice, play the numbers, toss a pork-filled pot of green gumbo on the stove, and may the luck be with you.

A good gumbo takes time.
It begs to be slowly coaxed and courted.
Good things come to those who wait.
And chop.

Gumbo Z'Herbs.
I rinsed, chopped, and set aside individual bunches (about 3 1/2 pounds) of Elmwood Stock Farm black kale and beet greens, Quarles Farm mustard greens, Shelby County turnip greens, Hoot Owl Holler Farm Appalachian greasy greens, scallions, fresh spinach, watercress, collard greens, fresh parsley, and 1/2 head cabbage.

With the chopping out of the way, I cooked the greens in 12 cups water for 30 minutes, drained them (reserving the cooking liquid), pureed half the greens with a hand held stick blender, tossed the pureed greens with the chopped cooked greens, and set them aside.

To roux or not to roux?
I'm all roux. Not so much for the slight thickening it provides, but more for the subtle smoky and nutty undertones it imparts.

I placed a very large stock pot over a medium flame before adding 1/4 cup peanut oil, 1/4 cup bacon grease, and 1/2 cup flour. Using a wooden spoon, I carefully stirred the flour into the fats and let it slowly bind into a creamy paste. With full attention, I stirred the roux constantly until it slowly turned from blond to light brown to medium brown. Just before it went to the dark side, I added 1 chopped onion, 1 chopped red bell pepper, 1 chopped green bell pepper, and 4 chopped garlic cloves.

After letting the vegetables sweat, melt, and caramelize in the roux, I added 1 quart brown turkey stock, the reserved 12 cups greens cooking water, 4 tablespoons lemon juice, 5 sprigs fresh thyme, 4 bay leaves, and 4 heaping tablespoons Cajun seasoning (2 teaspoon salt, 2 teaspoons garlic powder, 2 1/2 teaspoons paprika, 1 teaspoons black pepper, 1 teaspoon onions powder, 1 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano, 1 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme, 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper).

I brought the liquid to a boil, added 2 pounds smoked ham hocks, reduced the liquid to a simmer, partially covered the stock pot, and let it gently ripple for 2 1/2 hours, skimming the scum from the surface every 1/2 hour or so.

At the 2 hour mark, I scooped the hocks from the gumbo, pulled the meat from the bones, added it back into the pot, and tumbled 2 pounds pan-seared pork sausage (in lieu of andouille sausage) into the gumbo.

After 30 minutes, I pulled the gumbo from the heat, spooned it over white rice, and dusted it with file powder (ground sassafras) before finishing with sliced scallions, blanched spinach leaves, and a pinch of cayenne pepper.

Tempered by the heat, mellowed with pork fat, and napped in nutty pot likker, the mixed greens surrendered their peppery bitter assertiveness to the long slow simmer, gently melting and swirling through the tender bits of meat. While the delicate ground sassafras (file powder) added subtle hints of woodsy root beer-like earthiness, the fresh scallions perked up the sleepy gumbo with biting wet crunch. Soulful. Soothing. Humble.

Gumbo Z'herbs.

Lucky Food.
Eat your greens.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Hot Crabs

With the turkey carcass broken down, hacked into submission, simmered into stock, and drop-kicked to the back of the freezer for a future something or other, I happily  left the sleepy holiday food orgy behind. I needed a wake up call. A  culinary slap in the face. While there might have been a gazillion different routes I could have taken, I steamrolled down a fiery road with blazing heat. Blistering heat. Pure chili heat.

I had enough turf, I wanted surf. As luck would  have it, we're smack dab in the middle of Florida stone crab season. Can't make it to Florida? No need to pack your bags for a road trip because the Lexington Seafood Company has stone crab claws flown in twice weekly during the October through May crab harvesting season. They're not your run of the mill crabs. Unlike Eastern Shore blue crabs or Pacific coast dungeness crabs, Florida stone crabs are harvested only for their claws. Depending on size and sex, only one claw is removed from each crab before it's tossed back into the water to regenerate another claw. Talk about sustainable. Cooked and chilled right on the docks after harvesting, the luxuriously rich and meaty lobster-like crab claws are fantastic served either hot or cold. I turned up the heat with a loosey-goosey riff on Singapore Chili Crab.

Chili Crab.
Since the claws were already cooked, I simply kept them on ice while I threw together a quick chili-centered stir fry sauce. Like any fast paced stir fry, having all the ingredients ready to go was key. Hello, mise en place.

I slid a wok over a medium high flame and drizzled 2 tablespoons of peanut oil around the edges of the wok, letting it stream down into a puddle in the bottom of the wok.  When the oil started to smoke, I added 1/2 cup minced shallot, 4 minced garlic cloves, 2 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger, and 5 dried chili peppers (re-hydrated in hot water). Just before the garlic browned, I added 3 tablespoons chili bean sauce, 1/4 cup tomato sauce, 3 tablespoons honey, 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce, 1 tablespoon fish sauce, 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice, and 1 cup chicken stock. I brought the stock to a boil, let it rip for 5 minutes to reduce, and briefly pulled it from the heat before adding 3 pounds jumbo stone crab claws (3 very large 1 pound claws) and sliced scallions.

After sliding the wok back over the flame, I covered the wok to warm the crab claws, added a slurry (1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon cold chicken stock), tossed the claws with the sauce, and tumbled them over steaming jasmine rice before finishing with slivered scallions and fresh lime juice.

At first glance, when pulled from the slippery cracked shells, the delicate snowy white sweet meat seemed innocent enough. As it flaked apart and fell into the sauce, all bets were off. Pick. Pop. Lick. Repeat. Down and dirty lip burning messy sticky finger food. I wore it well.

Chili Crab.

Take it for a ride.
And feel the burn.