New Orleans: Not my grandmother’s gumbo
Beyond its reputation for Mardi Gras, slavery, Civil War history, voodoo and music, New Orleans abounds with foods, especially seafood and southern fare. The dinning guide supplied in my hotel room during a recent visit entitled “New Orleans Where” listed 78 eating establishments in the French Quarter alone not to mention those listed in the Central Business/Warehouse District, 36; the Garden District/Lower Garden District, 13; Mirigny/Bywater, 9; Mataire/Kenner, 3; Mid-City, 10; and Uptown, 29.
It seems one could spend weeks, even months eating around New Orleans, but my stay called for a meager eight meals, which included three breakfasts. After spending considerable time reading about the various offerings, I decided the best plan was to play things by hunger and take my chances. I was also seeking my grandmother’s gumbo.
That first morning I stopped at the front desk to inquire about the closest breakfast place. The desk clerk directed me to an IHOP a block away on Canal Street, which is billed in the tourist information as “one of the widest avenues in the world.”
The IHOP with its well-worn interior offered the same menu as any other IHOP around the country so I settled for a simple breakfast of a pancake, egg and bacon. Taking the long way home I spotted a small hole-in-the-wall bar that bragged on a wooden tent sign, “southern style breakfast served all day.” The next day I walked the extra block only to find nearly the same IHOP menu with the exception of grits, which I’ve never been fond of, so I ordered a pancake that tasted astonishingly like northern style.
Thankfully lunches and dinners offered more adventure. On Tuesday when lunchtime hunger struck I found myself seated in the Riverfront Café, where a wonderful breeze wafted through open ceiling-to-floor windows. I ordered a spicy bowl of seafood gumbo and a mild locally brewed ale. The combination tantalized my tongue and lifted my spirits.
I spent the rest of the day wandering the streets of the French Quarter watching tourists, listening to the sounds of Zydeco and jazz as it streamed from shops filled with t-shirts, Mardi Gras masked, voodoo dolls and other souvenirs no doubt “made in China.” I purchased post cards for my friend Rose, voodoo dolls for other friends and a deck of cards for another. Along the way I found a bookstore filled with the mildew smell of damp paper and purchased two histories of the city, one serious with photos and facts, a second with fun stories about New Orleans culture and charm.
I ate dinner that night, a salad with balsamic vinaigrette over mixed baby greens and strawberries followed by grilled steak and shrimp, at a café with patio dinning. I sat mildly content enjoying the warm evening air until my entrée arrived and I my eyes locked with the beady black eyes of the shrimp, served heads attached. It took me a moment to contain my objection to this presentation before pushing aside my squeamish sensibilities. I pulled apart each shrimp, removed the tail meat, tried hard to ignore the staring eyes and found my succulent reward.
The next day I rode the Canal Street and St. Charles streetcars to each route’s end and back again. Each offered different insights into New Orleans; Canal Street impoverish and downtrodden in places and culminating with New Orleans’ famous cement “cities of the dead” (the cemetery district), St. Charles glutenous but elegant with block after block of huge mansions and thriving gardens. These mansions were built, I read, when men became rich off the labor of slaves.
For lunch, “The Gumbo Pot” offered more gumbo. I opted this time for the chicken and sausage, with another local ale. Again seated on the patio, a gust of wind whipped over an umbrella before settling into a pleasant breeze, so unlike the continuous winds that whip across Colorado’s high plains.
After more leisurely walking around the French Quarter, I went back to my hotel for a short nap before venturing out to experience New Orleans’ nightlife. Before long, I found myself seated at a table inside the “Bourbon House”, famous for its seafood. Kevin, an energetic young waiter, advised me that the Redfish on the half shell served with a portion of lump crab was the best on the menu. “Bring it on,” I instructed him.
I started the meal with pecan pesto drizzled over slices of heirloom tomatoes, which Kevin bragged the restaurant grew in its own garden. The Redfish did not disappoint, but I was stunned when I bit into my wonderful heirloom tomato and found it chilled from being refrigerated. I wanted to complain but then I remembered I was in the south. My southern grandmother refrigerated her tomatoes and taught my mother to do the same.
While my southern grandmother knew little about preserving the flavor of a warm sun-ripened tomato, she made the best gumbo I have ever experienced. I suppose I had hoped to find a gumbo of similar taste in New Orleans, but alas, it was not to be. While I enjoyed both attempts, neither passed the test. I have also tried over the years to match hers and failed. Perhaps gumbo really is a grandmother state-of-mind.
Chicken Gumbo almost like my grandmother’s
For the chicken:
Oil for frying
1 3-4 pound chicken cut into pieces
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Flour for coating
Heat the oil in cast iron skillet over medium high heat. Season chicken pieces with salt and pepper and then coat with flour. Fry chicken pieces until crisp, 5-6 minutes per side. Lay chicken on paper towel to drain off excess oil and reserve.
For the soup:
8 Tablespoons butter, divided
1 Pound fresh okra, thinly sliced (or use 2 ten-ounce packages frozen okra, defrosted)
1 Cup finely chopped onion
½ Cup finely chopped green bell pepper
1 Teaspoon minced garlic
2 Tablespoons flour
4 Cups chicken broth or stock
6 Medium ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped (or use two 14-ounce cans crushed tomatoes)
6-8 springs fresh flat-leafed parsley tied into bundle along with one large bay leaf.
½ Teaspoon dried thyme
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Pour excess grease from skillet used to fry chicken and wipe clean with paper towel. In same skillet, melt 4 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Once the foam subsides, add the okra. Stir okra constantly and cook until “roping” stops (Roping is the white treads the vegetable makes as you stir it.). Remove skillet from the heat and reserve.
In a 3-4 quart Dutch oven, melt the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. When foam subsides, add the onion and pepper. Sauté 4-5 minutes until vegetables are soft but not browned. Add the garlic and sauté one minute longer. Add flour and cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly.
Slowly whisk in chicken stock then add okra, tomatoes, herbs and seasoning. Push chicken pieces into soup until all are covered. Bring to boil, lower heat and simmer 30-40 minutes. Remove chicken pieces to a plate for serving separate from soup. Remove and discard parsley and bay leaf. Serve soup in individual bowls over rice.
Note for single cooks: Once the soup is done, you can freeze individual portions then thaw and re-heat when ready to use. Freeze, thaw and heat the rice separate.
To make seafood gumbo, make soup as directed without chicken. Just before serving, add seafood of choice (shrimp and /or oysters). If using both, add oysters first and simmer 2-3 minutes before adding shrimp. Oysters are done when they plump up and the edges begin to curl. Just before serving, add 2 teaspoons each of lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce and cayenne pepper to taste.