Travelogue, Day 4: Gumbo Recipe

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Thursday:

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All tuckered out

All tuckered out

Today about half of the cousins go up the Estes aerial tram while most of the rest go horseback riding. Initially I’m worried that it’s a tourist trap, but it turns out to be a great place: rocks to climb, a breathtaking view, even a trail we don’t end up having time for. Then we head down to the Alluvial Fan for our last excursion in the Rockies, and spend the evening laughing, chatting and playing corn hole (bean bag toss) and Nerts (um, that one defies definition).

Today’s featured recipe: Agatha’s Gumbo, provided by her grandchildren Russ and Eric.

(with variations and comments from the boys, who grew up in Louisiana, to confuse clarify the matter.)

Roux:

  • 4 large onions, white or yellow, chopped
  • 1-2 bulbs of garlic, minced
  • 4 bunches green onion, chopped
  • 4 bell peppers, any color, chopped
  • 3-4 stalks celery, chopped
  • 4 sticks margarine (Imperial, Rusty says)
  • 2 c. flour (non-rising)–sift so it’s super-fine. “You don’t want lumpy roux,” says Eric. “It goes faster,” says Russ.
  • 3-4 bunches flat-leaf parsley. (Eric likes cilantro, but only 1/2-1 bunch. He also puts cinnamon sticks in his. “Dear God! says Rusty. “You’re messed up!”)

Instructions to make the roux:

Rusty: The parsley, you chop up fine and put it in a bowl off to the side. The garlic you chop up and put in a bowl as well.

All the other vegetables, you put them in one big-ass bowl by themselves, and you melt the margarine down over high heat and slowly add the flour while stirring swiftly with a whisk. You have to stir and stir and stir for about 45 minutes. As it gets hot enough it turns to a liquid. When it gets to the layer of darkness you want, you dump all the vegetables in and turn it down to simmer. (Eric: it’s close to the color of chocolate syrup. Rusty: careful, you go too damned dark, it’s too damned dark! Eric: It starts turning very, very quickly.)

Russ: Dump the vegetables in about a third at a time and stir it up. After you’ve stirred all that, then you add your garlic, let that simmer down until they all release their liquid, and then in the last 5 minutes of cooking, you add the parsley and garlic. Then you use as much as you want. It’s a thickener, a base, with the vegetable seasoning.

Finished roux

Finished roux

Stock:

Eric: Simultaneously, you want to be starting your stock. You boil your chicken, one bouillon cube to every two pieces of chicken. (For our group of around twenty-five, they used 10 chicken thighs, 6 bouillon cubes, and enough water to submerge it, plus 4 pounds of Andouille sausage.)

Rusty: I cut up half the Andouille into slices and cook it with the chicken. The other half I kept chopped up to add later. You can’t have too much water. Once the chicken’s tender, I fish them out, strip the skin, and the grease comes to the top and you skim it off. What you can’t skim, put paper towels down to soak up the oil. Put in the second half of the Andouille then.

Then you put it all together: meat, broth, roux. We used about 2/3 of the roux. You salt and pepper to taste. Use Cajun seasoning if you can find it. (They used both black and red pepper.) Bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer and let it cook for 5 hours. If you want you can throw eggs in, too. Eric: “I wouldn’t do that.” Russ: “Well, I wouldn’t put cinnamon in it!”

Kate’s comments: In the end, it makes a stew in which you remove the bones. The chicken should pull apart. You can serve it with rice–Rusty pulled some of the broth to cook the rice in–and with crackers.

Gumbo, mixed with rice in the bowl

Gumbo, ready to serve

Travelogue, Day 2: Overlook Ranch and Rocky Mountain National Park

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Sunday-Monday, June 23-24, 2013:

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Alex zipline-small

After Alex falls off the zipline and sprains (jams?) his wrist, and after a “.6″-mile trail to Alberta Falls (so notated because, for reasons I can’t fathom, they don’t count the .3 miles from the trailhead to the official start of the trail in the distance) spent dragging a 6-year-old child by the arm as she whines the entire way up and down, I’m ready for some down time. We didn’t expect that “easy” trail to take more than an hour round trip, so we didn’t pack lunch. Eating lunch two hours late always makes me cranky, and hoo-boy, does Michael need a nap. So I stay behind in the cabin and send the rest of the family up to the lodge, currently devoid of cousins. When Michael falls asleep I take myself to a rocky outcropping above the cabin, where aspen and ponderosa pine quake and sigh beneath a gorgeous blue sky studded with puffy clouds. Whenever vehicles go by on the highway, it’s really noisy, but in the gaps between? Absolute silence. Almost uncanny silence. There aren’t even any insects.

Colorado Cousins Trip 091 smallThere seem to be a ridiculous number of Harleys coming up the “low-gear” hill beyond the ranch this afternoon. Finally I realize they’re trying to get someone to take a picture of them driving down the hill toward the mountain vista that gives Overlook Ranch its name. So they keep going up…and down…and up…and down….

After an hour or so, Christian calls; the cousins are returning from their rambles and assembling for the evening up at the lodge. I wake Michael, and we head up the hill.

Colorado Cousins Trip 211In the course of the evening, Rusty and Allen build a blaze in the fire pit. Paije and Cassie go to town for s’mores, and after the kids go to bed, the adults enjoy the rapidly-cooling evening around the campfire. I’m kind of surprised we’re allowed, as dry as it is, but Cassie says the owners told her the fire ban doesn’t start until Tuesday. A joke goes around the family: imagine if we accidentally started a wildfire, and for the rest of our family history everybody would say, “Remember that time Rusty burned down Rocky Mountain National Park?”

Fortunately it doesn’t come to that, either Sunday or Monday, when Rusty puts a piece of copper wire he found on his morning rambles in the wild country above the lodge into the fire, and it turns blue and green and purple.

Colorado Cousins Trip 206 smallHowever, there is adventure: Sunday night Allen plays the mother of all practical jokes after Christian and I go to bed. He buys a “bear growl” app, climbs on the roof of the stable, and hits “play.” It scares everyone half out of their mind. (Have to say I’m glad I missed that one. ;) )

Colorado Cousins Trip 215Monday we caravan with my bestest cousin along Trail Ridge Road as far as Medicine Bow Curve. It’s very, very cold, and the wind is brutal. We go out on the Alpine Tundra walk, and once again, the little kids are whining the whole time–until the ranger decides to have everyone sit down on the lee side of a tundra tree, also known as krummholz, where it’s twenty degrees warmer. Afterward, we go back up to the Alpine visitor center for lunch, after which Julianna promptly throws up. Since Nicholas also feels pretty bad, we assume it’s altitude sickness. Everyone goes to sleep, so Christian parks at Rock Cut on the way down and offers Alex and I the chance to climb that trail on our own. Walking back down, we are going into one heck of a wind.

Monday’s featured recipe: Paije’s honey-glazed sweet potato and peaches, adapted from “Fine Cooking: Cooking fresh.”

  • 1 medium sweet potato (about 3/4 lb.), peeled & cut into 1 1/2-inch sections
  • 1 c. sherry vinegar
  • 1/2 c. plus 1 T. honey
  • 2 T. canola oil plus some for the grill
  • kosher salt & fresh pepper
  • 1/2 small sweet onion, cut into 1 1/2-in. chunks, layers separated (about 4 oz.)
  • 4 small ripe but firm peaches, quartered & pitted (about 1 1/2 lb.)
  • 1/2 c. pecans, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 tsp. cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. pumpkin pie spice

Steam the sweet potatoes until almost cooked, 10 to 12 minutes. Cool slightly.

Put vinegar, 1/2 c. honey, 1 T. oil, 2 tsp salt, and 3/4 tsp. pepper in a 3-qt. saucepan. Simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally until reduced to 2/3 c., 13-15 min. Brush/toss with peaches and sweet potatoes. Paije, Cassie and Terri also used this to glaze the chicken we had for dinner.

Grill vegetables for 4-5 minutes.

Meanwhile, toss pecans in a small bowl with remaining 1 T. honey and 1 T. oil, cumin, pumpkin pie spice, 1/2 tsp. salt, and a pinch of pepper. Put a large piece of foil on the other side of the grill & scatter nuts on the foil. Grill until nuts are bubbling, 3-5 min. Toss with peaches & potatoes and serve.

Serves 4.

First World Problems

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English: Photo showing some of the aspects of ...

English: Photo showing some of the aspects of a traditional US Thanksgiving day dinner. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was pulling into Macy’s yesterday afternoon when a story came on NPR about the food supply, or more accurately the lack thereof, in North Korea. When I think of North Korea, I think of world security, nuclear weapons and a hostile dictator–but I’ve never thought of starvation. Until now.

“I saw one family, a couple with two kids, who committed suicide. Life was too hard, and they had nothing to sell in their house. They made rice porridge, and added rat poison,” he recalls. “White rice is very precious, so the kids ate a lot. They died after 30 minutes. Then the parents ate. The whole family died.”

I sat in a parking place, preparing to go into Macy’s and buy a pricey gift for someone who doesn’t need it, and my stomach flipped over. I started thinking about the things I was worrying about. A missing cell phone that I hardly ever use. The noise the car was making.

Eating few enough calories to allow me to have gingerbread for dessert.

I don’t even know what hunger is.

When I was twenty weeks pregnant with Alex, I woke up on the floor of the bathtub, Christian bending over me. I had been on metformin (to treat polycystic ovaries) for two years, and it was a new enough treatment that there wasn’t an established protocol for how long into pregnancy to continue use. Well, now we knew. For the next six weeks, my body went crazy as it tried to return to regulating sugar on its own. I felt horrible all the time, and learned to dread low blood sugar to the point where I never allow myself to get very hungry–I grab a slice of cheese, or some carrots, or a cracker or two.

The process of slimming my caloric intake has made that more complicated, but I realize now I can’t tell the difference between “hungry” and “sugar imbalanced,” and I’m too scared of the second to risk the first.

"Famine"

“Famine” (Photo credit: Anosmia)

So the voice coming out of the radio yesterday was like a mirror. I suddenly saw my family’s life, modest (even miserly) by cultural expectations, as wanton–our Thanksgiving feasts and Christmas cookies, the plethora of gifts growing under the tree, golf and scrapbooking. I thought of the five homeless men I’ve passed by lately because I was in the far lane, and the one to whom I gave a dollar. They’re all the face of Christ; how far does my responsibility extend? How do we strike a balance between enjoying the bounty we’ve been given and being wasteful, immorally profligate at the expense of others starving to death because we won’t simply give our excess to save them–because we think we need Thanksgiving feasts and new cars and acid-free scrapbooks?

The existence of poverty stretches so many fingers in so many directions, inserting uncertainty and questions into so many other issues. Half the population objects to genetically modified food, but the industry insists it’s necessary to increase yields to feed the world–that natural and organic is a path to world starvation. Is that true? Or is the real reason we need those kinds of high yields the fact that we’re a nation of gluttons? We ate at the Olive Garden on Sunday, and I scoured the menu for calorie counts ahead of time. You could easily–easily–consume 2500 calories in one meal, and not even be aware you’d done it. I ate half an entree, two fried zucchini medallions, one bowl of salad, and half a breadstick, and I consumed over 750. And was still hungry, mind you.

Last night, our Advent calendar activity was to take coffee and cereal to a local homeless shelter. It was the first really cold night of the year, and the place was full. The director invited us to stay and visit a while, but we were too uncomfortable. In the car on the way home, we talked about it. We need to do that, I said. We need to spend time with them, not just sail in like benevolent aristocrats and drop our tiny donation and escape. There were men in that room I recognize after three years of Advent visits.

What is the answer to these conundrums? I’m not claiming an answer–I’m only struggling with the questions. What is the Gospel-driven response to poverty, to hunger around the world? How far does my responsibility and yours extend? Are any of us meeting it, or are we all hoarding most of what was given to us to ease others’ suffering? Where is the line between saving to prepare a stable future for us and our children, and simply being greedy by not passing on what we aren’t using to those who have nothing?

Cheese and Crackers

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If you’re not a food person, you might not get it.

But we are food people, and it was the highlight of Thanksgiving weekend: getting to visit Cheese and Crackers, our brother (in-law/uncle)’s store in Champaign, Illinois.

Spice and yeast washed over us in ragged, hungry sniffs. Bart came out to meet us, and the kids got the first samples: chocolate, but not just any chocolate—pumpkin chocolates! They tore back and forth across the tile space while their uncle cut slices of cheese for us, whetting our appetites for the deli tray he was preparing to send us home with for dinner that night.

It was a short visit, because we had just arrived in town and everyone was hungry and tired. But on Thanksgiving Day, Bart took us back while the store was closed.

I thought I was a food person, but touring those amazing imported cheeses and meats taught me how little I know. Slice after slice came over top of the counter—some I had never heard of, some that sounded half familiar: cheeses covered with red-brown and blue-gray rinds (“it’s penicillin,” Bart said. “It’s actually very healthy to eat, it’s just some people don’t like the aesthetic”), cheeses dried and hard at the edge, meant to grate (“take the hard rind and drop it in your pasta sauce—it’ll give it a great flavor”), cheeses so soft and creamy that they nearly melted in the mouth. (We’re thinking we’ll order some to have shipped to us later–everyone who works in the store speaks the language and knows how to guide you through the selection process.)

“Alex, c’mere,” said his uncle Bart. “Come around the counter.”

And Alex’s adventure began. I’m only sorry for the poor quality of these cell phone pictures; we left the camera sitting at home.

He got to cut cheese…

…and vacuum-seal them for us.

He got to serve chocolates and watch his uncle run the meat slicer.

(Chocolates flavored like cinnamon, rum, mango, pumpkin, cheesecake, tiramisu, you name it…)

We packed the back of the van with packages of deliciousness that we have been enjoying all week. Which leads me to this most uncharacteristic “ad”-like conclusion: if you have any “foodies” you’re shopping for, take a peek at Cheese and Crackers. They can ship anywhere in the country, and man, it’s good stuff.

(Linked with Wordful Wednesday at Angie’s Seven Clown Circus)

Heaven on a Spoon

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I can go two days without. On the third, I start craving.

As dinner ends, I shoot puppy dog eyes the length of the table, broadcasting my desire, and my husband wilts, then gives in, because after all, it’s his addiction, too.

Taut nerve ends relax into the alchemy of butter and cream and sugar, poured over frozen, creamy decadence spackled with chewy dark yumminess.

There must be a penance to be paid for heaven on a spoon. It will come tomorrow morning, when I step on the scales.

Mac & Cheese, for Real

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Okay, my sister-in-law Michelle gave me this recipe, which we are trying tonight. For those who want to make the attempt alongside me. :)

For topping

  • 1/2 stick unsalted butter
  • 2 cups panko (coarse Japanese bread crumbs) or 3 cups coarse fresh bread crumbs (from 6 slices firm white sandwich bread)
  • 1/4 pound coarsely grated extra-sharp Cheddar (1 1/2 cups)
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

For macaroni and sauce

  • 1 stick unsalted butter
  • 6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 5 cups whole milk
  • 1 pound coarsely grated extra-sharp Cheddar (6 cups)
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • 1 pound elbow macaroni

Preparation

Make topping:
Preheat oven to 400°F with rack in middle.

Melt butter, then stir together with panko and topping cheeses in a bowl until combined well.

Make sauce:
Melt butter in a heavy medium saucepan over medium-low heat and stir in flour. Cook roux, stirring, 3 minutes, then whisk in milk. Bring sauce to a boil, whisking constantly, then simmer, whisking occasionally, 3 minutes. Stir in cheeses, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper until smooth. Remove from heat and cover surface of sauce with wax paper.

Make Macaroni:
Cook macaroni in a pasta pot of boiling salted water (2 tablespoons salt for 4 quarts water) until al dente. Reserve 1 cup cooking water and drain macaroni in a colander. Stir together macaroni, reserved cooking water, and sauce in a large bowl. Transfer to 2 buttered 2-quart shallow baking dishes.

Sprinkle topping evenly over macaroni and bake until golden and bubbling, 20 to 25 minutes.

Cheesecake Triumph!

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Springform Pan with the walls loosened from th...

Image via Wikipedia

I married an Italian man, which means it’s all about the food. In his family—and thus in mine—there is no better way to offend a person than to attack his or her family gastronomic traditions.

I have developed into an opinionated, confirmed recipe fiddler. Christian is always teasing me for turning a tuna casserole recipe into beef Bourgogne, but you know what? Good cooks fiddle, tweak, and personalize.

Enter cheesecakes. I have been trying to make a good cheesecake ever since we got married. Every time I see a new recipe, I look to see what’s new from the last one I saw. But guess what? I finally hit jackpot—and I’m going to share today!

I tweaked this recipe off of My First Kitchen, who adapted it from Chaos in the Kitchen. (There, see? I’m not the only recipe fiddler!) Mostly, my adaptations made things slightly less damaging to the waistline. (Slightly.)

Crust:

2 c. graham cracker crumbs
½ c. butter, melted
Some unspecified, but generous, portion of cinnamon. Good cinnamon. Like Penzey’s.

Mix together and press into the bottom of a springform pan.

Filling:

2 bars of Neufchatel (i.e. “low fat cream”) cheese, room temp (very important!)
1 bar of full-fat cream cheese, room temp (very important!)
1 ½ c. white sugar
2 tsp. good quality vanilla (like Penzey’s; believe me, it does make a difference)
3 large eggs
3 T. cornstarch
1 c. heavy whipping cream
1 c. 2% or whole milk
½ tsp. salt
2 T. lemon juice

Mix the cream cheese, sugar & vanilla at high speed until creamy. The only way you’ll get this is if the cheese is room temp. first. Otherwise, it’ll just be clumpy. Turn the mixer to low and add the eggs one at a time, waiting until each is incorporated before adding another. Add the cornstarch, cream & milk and mix together till mostly worked in. Turn up to high and beat for several minutes, till fluffy. Add lemon juice and mix until just combined.

Oven 325 for more than an hour. I can’t be too specific, but here are the baking tips:

  1. “Water bath.” This means set the cake in a larger pan and fill the pan with water about halfway up the sides of the springform. This diffuses the heat, and supposedly prevents cracks as well as giving the cake a creamier texture & lighter texture.
  2. Bake “until it looks set.” Cheesecakes still jiggle in the center when they’re done—Kendra says “Jiggle like Jello.” Another thing to look for is tiny cracks at the edge of the cake. That was what I had to look for to know it was done. And those tiny cracks did seal as it cooled.

What makes this cheesecake so special is twofold: taste (thanks to the salt & the lemon juice) and it’s moist (thanks, I believe, to the cream/milk). Almost all my cheesecakes have been dry on the tongue, and this one was not. Heaven. Heaven on a fork. Seriously.

Go forth and bake!