Thursday, February 12, 2009

//Spicing up winter


Homemade gumbo over pan fried tilapia and apple brown bottom cornbread

I was reading February's edition of Gourmet and noticed that they had an ingredients list for gumbo ya-ya. Not a recipe, just a list of things to include. Recently I've had a lot of luck making sauces and roux, so I thought it was time to expand into stew territory. Admittedly I would have liked to have made a curry first, but I wasn't in the mood to hunt down kaffir lime leaves. Gumbo seemed like the next best thing, as it's just as complex a dish to make, and it also makes a perfect wintertime meal. I also liked the challenge of making gumbo for the first time sans instructions; that I'd have to rely on what culinary knowledge I already possessed in order to make the dish just right.

The idea sort of built on itself from there. Traditionally gumbo is served over plain steamed rice, but that's boring. It occurred to me that cornbread would be nice alternative, because its size and thickness makes it good for plating, and its inherent mild sweetness would complement the spiciness of the gumbo. Then I thought, "What could I do to make standard Marie Calender's out-of-the-box cornbread even better? I could layer the mixture over a pre-cooked vegetable or fruit before baking it. Okra is an obvious choice, but it would be too soft. If I went the fruit route, I'd want to use a versatile one that's neither too sweet nor too tart... one that has also been paired with meat before. What about apples? Yes! Apples!" Apples at the bottom of the bread would create an excellent progression of flavors. (FYI: I'm about to get a bit analytical.) Though plating-wise the dish would go gumbo-fish-cornbread, the act of stabbing into the dish with my fork tines meant I would sample the cornbread, not the gumbo, first (i.e., the layers would be reversed). By making apples the foundation of the dish, the taste experience would go from sweet, to slightly sweet (cornbread), to mildly savory and spicy (the fish), to very savory and spicy (the gumbo). In that moment I think got in touch with my inner haute cuisine chef.

So I went ahead with the apple idea (specifically, Fuji and Cameo, as both varieties are mildly tart, hearty, and don't turn to mush when heated like Red Delicious do). Broiling the bottom of the cornbread after it had cooled a bit crisped up both the bread and the fruit. I also sauteed the linguica sausage before I plopped the pieces into the gumbo. The act frying up the meat first unlocked its flavor potential and enhanced the savoriness of the stew. The grease left behind meant that I didn't have to oil the pan when it came time to cook the fish; it also meant the fish had a nice smokey taste to it. As for the gumbo itself, I purposefully sweated every vegetable before I added the flour and chicken stock. First into the pot were the onions with half a stick of butter. After they had turned translucent, then came the garlic; 5 minutes later, the celery stalks; another 3 minutes passed before I tossed in the diced bell peppers. By the time I added the 3/4 cup of flour (which I let brown and clump up a bit before I gradually added the stock), my olfactory senses had been overloaded with wonderful smells. I also couldn't have been more spot-on as far as the spices go: 2 teaspoons of Creole seasoning, 2 teaspoons of chili powder, 1 teaspoon of fresh thyme, three bay leaves, and salt and pepper to taste.

As an aside: leftover cornbread is great for breakfast.



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