The second challenge for Project Food Blog seemed simple enough on the surface: Choose a classic dish from a culture other than your own and recreate it. Blog about the experience.
The challenge stated to “do something outside your comfort zone.” The subtext, at least to me, was to cook a dish that I had not cooked before. Whether this was actually part of the challenge was up to my interpretation, but this was, after all, a challenge! But, therein laid the true challenge for me.
I pride myself on not being afraid of cooking dishes from any culture. I’ve done my fair share of kitchen “travel” in the nearly two years I’ve been blogging, spending many hours researching, shopping for, and preparing challenging and authentic meals from cultures around the world.
So, what was there to do that I hadn’t yet tackled? What does a food blogger do when she can’t think of something to cook? She calls the person who taught her what she knows: her mom.
My mom brought up an excellent point about the wording of the challenge. It didn’t say to choose a dish from a country other than my own, but rather a culture other than my own. Then she said what I was immediately thinking: Cook from the American South. We both immediately said “fried chicken.” But, while that’s a challenge because I’ve never deep fried anything before, it’s also not an altogether challenging dish.
And then she said it. “How about New Orleans? Creole cooking is very intricate and has spices and ingredients I don’t think you’ve used.” She was right! I had dabbled in cooking jambalaya many years ago in my crock pot, and it was decent. Inauthentic, but tasty. I feel, though, my skills in the kitchen have vastly improved since then.
I was ready to take on the challenge of authentic New Orleans cuisine with a two-part, two-day menu. I started with some intense research. I began with searching for “authentic gumbo recipes”. Then I went a bit Google-happy and found a plethora of wonderful-sounding recipes, and, in classic Mara style, I went for a combination of a few of them to create my own classic gumbo recipe.
I started with what is known as the “holy trinity” in Creole cooking: onion, green pepper, and celery. I chopped until I had equal amounts of the three.
And continued with cutting up what seemed like an inordinate amount of sausages and chicken. I used smoked sausage and Andouille, and skinless boneless chicken breasts.
I’m NEVER this organized in the kitchen! Usually, I start my dishes and chop frantically as the oil heats up, try to not burn anything, and then dump the ingredients and hope beyond hope that it turns out. There was one thing I had to make though that would require my undivided attention for at least an hour.
What, you may be asking, is this mysterious thing?
It’s the foundation of many Creole dishes, especially ones that are stew-like, such as gumbo, jambalaya, etouffé… pretty much anything delicious. This, my friends, is called a roux (pronounced roo). It’s equal weights (not volume!) of fat (usually oil or melted butter) and flour, cooked very slowly through various stages of doneness, indicated primarily by its color.
And then, the color I was looking for after standing over my grandma’s old aluminum dutch oven for an hour and fifteen minutes, whisking nearly constantly.
I made double the amount I needed for my recipe because, well, it took an hour and fifteen minutes! This will make future recipes a bit more time-effective.
Next came the easy part: Add the rest of the ingredients, simmer and wait. And be tortured because the house smells amazing. And realize that I’ve made a fantastic mess in the kitchen so I clean (I know, circle the calendar, I never clean!) And finally eat the Moe’s burrito in a whole wheat wrap that Adam so lovingly brought me. And wait…and stir… and wait some more… and then… a mere seven hours later…
Add the scariest ingredient ever: OKRA. I have an aversion to okra, but I figured for the challenge it’s go big or go home. Okra is slimy. Okra is hairy. Okra is one of the few vegetables I just. Don’t. Like. There were also some shrimp involved. And some jasmine rice. And then? Then we ate dinner.
And it was good. Oh was it good…
Classic Creole Gumbo
* 1/2 c. canola oil
* 3/4 c. all purpose flour
* 1-1/2 c. diced onion
* 1-1/2 c. diced green pepper
* 1-1/2 c. chopped celery (about 3 ribs)
* 12 oz. andouille sausage, sliced into bite-sized pieces
* 12 oz. smoked sausage, sliced into bite-sized pieces
* 12 oz. skinless boneless chicken breast, cut into bite sized pieces
* 1 lb. peeled and deveined shrimp
* 8 c. low-sodium chicken stock
* 14 oz. can diced tomatoes, drained
* 2 c. chopped okra (fresh or frozen)
* 1/4 c. good Cajun seasoning (I used Penzey’s)
* 1 tsp. dried thyme
* Salt to taste
* 6 c. cooked rice of your choice
1. Prepare all your vegetables and meats and set aside.
2. Mix the flour and oil together in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Turn the heat to medium and whisk constantly. The mixture will become the texture of cake frosting. Keep whisking until the mixture goes through the various colors shown above. There’s a fine line between the “chocolate” color and “burned.” If you burn it, start over.
3. Add the vegetables to the roux to stop the cooking, and then add the remaining ingredients except the shimp and okra. Stir well.
4. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook covered about 35 minutes, then uncovered another 30 minutes.
5. Add the shrimp and okra, stir well, then cook another 15-20 minutes.
6. Serve over rice and enjoy!
I didn’t even mind the okra. In fact, it was delicious.
Adam and I went to bed with full bellies and dreamed of zydeco… but the feast wasn’t over!
During part of the torturous “wait and wait while the house smells amazing” phase, I ventured into another classic made famous by the infamous Cafe du Monde in New Orleans: the beignet. Traditionally a beignet is a yeast-raised doughnut served hot with powdered sugar, and a New Orleans staple.
Talk about out of my comfort zone! I’d never deep-fried anything in my entire experience of cooking, ever!
Who to call for a doughnut recipe? None other than my sister, who spent much of the last month perfecting her own doughnut recipe. She was gracious enough to share it with me, and is allowing me to share it with you all. The process was different than any other pastry I’ve ever made. The dough felt different than anything I’ve ever made. And, to top it off, we had to buy a scale so I could weigh the ingredients instead of measuring.
The recipe was simple:
Leigh’s Doughnut Recipe
* 575 grams all-purpose flour
* 63 grams sugar
* 18 grams salt
* 175 grams milk
* 113 grams egg yolks (worked out to 6 yolks)
* 163 grams egg whites (worked out to 5 whites)
* 3/4 tsp. yeast
* 225 grams butter
1. Heat the milk to about 100 degrees, then sprinkle the yeast on top. Allow that to sit for 10 minutes.
2. Mix the eggs and salt.
3. Add all ingredients to a mixer fixed with a dough hook. Mix on low to medium-low speed until the dough is combined, about 10 minutes.
4. Allow the dough to rise about 1 hour, then punch down and refrigerate until stiff.
5. Roll out the dough and cut into your desired shape (I went with rhombuses, as this is a beignet shape)
6. Lay the shapes onto a parchment-covered tray and refrigerate overnight.
7. Remove the tray from the refrigerator and allow the dough to come back to room temperature, about an hour.
8. Fry at 325* in canola oil until golden brown and puffed up, about 2 minutes per side.
9. Remove to a paper-towel lined tray, sprinkle with powdered sugar, and feast!
I enjoyed these with a big cup of café au lait before setting out on my day. Alas, I did not have any chicory, a traditional additive to coffee in New Orleans… I almost wish the beignets weren’t so easy because now I’ll be compelled to make them more often!
So there you have it… my virtual and culinary venture down to NOLA. Now to hope I can really make it there some day…
So, Laissez les bon temps rouler…
Let the good times roll!
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