FOOD WISE: Trip to Cajun country awakens taste for seafood, gumbo

By CHEF RENEE MORGAN

A bowl of gumbo with rice. (Courtesy Photo)

Last week I had the pleasure of traveling to Pascagoula to help my daughter, who has just moved there, get her new house settled. It was a great time of catching up with each other and playing with my youngest grandson, Carter, who walks around saying “Arrrgh” and feels compelled to put me in jail and make me walk the plank several times a day. He is really into pirates at the moment.

Carter and I played a lot at the beach at Dolphin Island during our visit. One of the good things about the area is there are so many beaches and cities close by. A person can easily get to Biloxi, Ocean Springs, Pascagoula, Dolphin Island and Mobile within a short amount of time. We simply did not have enough time to do and see everything we wanted. Plus, I spent a lot of time in pirate jail.

What we did get to do was eat a lot of seafood. It was incredible! There is nothing quite as wonderful as seafood that was caught in the gulf or the many lakes nearby mere hours before you are eating it. There is no food as clean, fresh and sweet tasting. It’s also the height of crawfish season. You can’t even begin to imagine the array and types of great seafood preparations we enjoyed. Fried oysters, catfish and clams, grilled shrimp and scallops, boiled crawfish, oysters on the half shell, baked flounder with crawfish alfredo sauce, broiled gator tail, and all manner of gumbo and etouffee.

All this was accompanied by house made sauces, pickles, breads and sides, when many restaurants these days serve these items prepared and delivered by purveyors. It was a chef’s or foodie’s dream!

Folks in the Gulf Cost communities really know how to prepare seafood as well. It’s really easy to over-cook it in an attempt to make sure it’s completely done. I’ve seen cooks really make a mess of it and end up with what basically amounts to scrambled fish. Seared scallops seem especially problematic as they stick to the pan so easily. I’m sure we’ve all eaten tough shrimp at some chain restaurants. The problem with over-cooked seafood is it has a rubbery texture and is pretty unpleasant to eat. This problem is so widespread, I really believe it’s part of the reason a lot of people don’t like seafood.  I was pleasantly surprised at the expert cookery at every restaurant we encountered – perfect every time!

With Memorial Day festivities coming up and only a few more weeks of crawfish season left, I’m inspired by my trip to the Gulf Coast to make a big pot of gumbo with crawfish, andouille sausage and chicken. If you feel so inclined, I recommend you place an order in advance with your fish monger. Don’t leave this to chance or you may end up disappointed. Crawfish are more plentiful and reasonably priced now than at the beginning of the season, thanks to recent rains, but there is always a risk when not ordered ahead of time. If you don’t like crawfish, you can use many other kinds of protein in your gumbo, from any kind of white fleshed fish to crab or shrimp.

Speaking of shrimp, thats brings up an issue that bears a little discussion.

I don’t mind telling you that shrimp is very nearly my favorite food. It’s low in fat and high in iron and most importantly, it’s yummy. But, people often ask me about the safety of consuming shrimp. The issue is farm-raised versus wild-caught. Here’s the low-down in a nutshell: there are no “organic” standards for seafood regulatory entities. Proponents of farm-raised shrimp say wild-caught shrimp has too much mercury, which can cause serious birth defects and a fatal form of anemia. They also say the way they are caught causes many other kinds of sea life to suffer. On the other hand, proponents of wild-caught shrimp say farm-raised shrimp still contains mercury because of proximity to oil rigs, that they contain too many chemicals and antibiotics, and they are fed fattier food to make them grow quicker and larger.

All of these things are true. Overall, it seems to me that wild-caught shrimp is the safer and healthier option. Of course, pregnant women should probably abstain from shrimp, as well as; some other kinds of seafood until they are delivered. The trick seems to be, as with most things, moderation.

Okay, back to the gumbo.

You absolutely can not have a good gumbo without a good roux and you simply can not make a good roux without a good wooden spoon, or as my auntie would call it, a roux stick. It is your foundation. What is a roux? It is a mixture of equal parts oil or butter and flour, which is then slowly cooked until it is very thick and dark. Most folks would think it was burned, but that’s when it’s just about perfect. In fact, to make a good gumbo, the roux should look somewhat like really thick melted chocolate. Once your roux is ready, you can begin to saute what is called the “trinity,” which is a mixture of onion, celery and bell pepper. All this, plus the spices and stock (I like to use homemade shrimp stock) are simmered together into a thick stew with all the meat except the crawfish or shrimp. It will be added later. I’m sure I’ll hear from some of you about my lack of the essential okra. Hey, I like okra, too, but my husband doesn’t and that’s the great thing about gumbo. There are lots of variations.

At this point, I like to add a bottle of dark lager beer. Shhh…it’s my secret ingredient. I wait until closer to the end of cooking to add the shrimp. One last tip: Gumbo is usually served over rice. I recommend keeping the rice in a second pot. Don’t be tempted to combine the two for leftover storage. The rice will swell in the liquid and turn into mush. Don’t be afraid to freeze part of the gumbo for another time. Gumbo freezes well and will keep for at least three months.

If you decide to join me in a pot of gumbo over the Memorial Day weekend, I’d love to hear about it. Please email me at ChefRenee@LHIndependent.com and check out my website at www.chefalicioushospitality.com.

Chef Reneé is an award-winning, classically trained chef. She earned her culinary degree at the famous Le Cordon Bleu, as well as a bachelor of music degree from Hardin-Simmons University. She has an extensive background in events planning and management. Reneé lives in Liberty Hill with her husband, John, their dogs, cats and chickens.

Crawfish, Andouille and Chicken Gumbo

Serves 8

1 pound chicken, cut into bite size pieces

2 teaspoons creole seasoning

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce

1 cup canola oil

1 cup all purpose flour

1 pound andouille sausage, cut into 1/4-inch slices

1 pound shelled and cleaned crawfish (or shrimp)

1 1/2 cups chopped yellow onion

1 cup chopped celery

1 cup chopped green bell pepper

6 cups homemade shrimp stock (or chicken stock)

1 (12) ounce bottle of dark beer

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

3 bay leaves

cooked white rice for serving

1/2 cup chopped green onions for garnish

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley for garnish

filé, as desired

1. Put the chicken in one bowl and the crawfish in another. Mix the creole seasoning, Worcestershire Sauce and hot sauce together. Mix half with the chicken and half with the crawfish. Cover the bowls and refrigerate several hours or overnight.

2. Heat the oil in a dutch oven over medium heat. Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon to make a dark chocolate roux, about 30-35 minutes.

3. Add the trinity and cook, stirring constantly, until softened, about 7 to 10 minutes. Add the chicken and sausage and cook another 6 to 7 minutes. Add the stock, stirring constantly to prevent lumps and bring to a boil. Add the beer, salt, cayenne and bay leaves. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Remove the bay leaves at the end of cooking.

4. To serve: ladle into bowls. Spoon the rice into the center of the gumbo and sprinkle with green onions, parsley and filé.