True Confessions of a Mid-Life Cook

There's a definite correlation between my profound love of music and how and what I've taught myself to cook. My favorite music to listen to and to perform is soulful, sensual, sometimes funky and always bluesy in nature . . . and that's exactly how I cook. I like to get my hands in the food. I chop, I knead, I stir with my hands. Sometimes I wear my big rimmed cowboy hat, nightie and Old Gringo boots in kitchen, sometimes a coonskin cap when the mood strikes and sometimes just an apron and a smile. Using the freshest of ingredients, I love to bringing a new spirit to old favorites. I am so to drawn dishes seeping in both Texas and Southern tradition,with a special affinity for those authentic old jewels found in South Louisiana.
Because they, too, are so powerfully soulful?

I've discovered being a good cook is a journey and not a destination. (Yes, I stole an over-used corporate slogan and made it my own--but it's still the truth) Every time we screw up, we learn. And in part, that's what this blog is about. Cooking fearlessly. With heart, with soul -- and with some damn good music to inspire. (If your three layer chocolate cake ends up looking like a Jerry Springer rerun or you cut the tip of your thumb off while making New Year's Day gumbo, WHO CARES?Proclaim Francine Reed's "I'm a Handful" your theme song. She would like that.)
We cook because we find ourselves kinda empty if we don't.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Crawfish Cornbread Dressing

Way down in the bayou, stuck in the mud.
There’s a little critter that the Cajun people love.
She got two big claws and eight tiny feet,
And a tail full o’ meat, that’s good to eat.

Crawfish, I got ‘em if you want ‘em.
Crawfish, eat ‘em while they’re hot.
Crawfish, gonna pour some pepper on ‘em.
Crawfish, I like it like that.
You boil ‘em down ‘til they nice and red,
You squeeze the tail and you suck the head.

New Years Day eating is not complete without crawfish cornbread at my house. In fact, I can't imagine starting out the new year without my favorite little mudbug.
This easy dish really draws out the "oohs and ahhs" from every mouth it touches. I make mine the day ahead (like. . .toDAY) because it just seems to taste even better the next day.

Serves 10

About 4 Tbs. bacon fat
1/4 andouille sausage, diced
1/4 lb of hot pork sausage, removed from casing (I use our local - to die for - Mikulek sausage)
1 med onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, diced
1/2 green bell pepper, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 cups crawfish tails, chopped
2 green onions, chopped
1 small jalapeno pepper, minced
1 tsp fresh parsley, minced
Leaves from one spring fresh thyme
1 - 2 tablespoons good quality Cajun or Creole seasoning (I use Tony Chachere's)
6 cups crumbled cornbread
2 cups of good chicken stock
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 large eggs lightly beaten
plenty of fresh ground black pepper

Cook sausage in bacon fact over med-high heat, breaking up the pork with a wooden spoon.
Once browned, add onion, celery, bell peppers and garlic. Cook about 5 minutes. Add crawfish tails and cook a couple of minutes.
Transfer mixture to mixing bowl.

Add remaining ingredients to mixing bowl and stir until well combined. Spoon into prepared baking dish (I use butter) and at this point the dressing may be covered and refrigerated for up to one day or go ahead an bake it in a preheated 350 degree oven until it is golden brown, about 30 minutes.

And as a note, I generally always use fresh herbs, because in the end the dish always tastes better, 'fresher.' But when in a bind, of course I will use what I have in my spice cabinet. I hope you do the same.
Suggested listening: Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Twist and Shout"

Monday, December 28, 2009

Black Eyed Peas

Eating black eyed peas on New Years Day is considered a sacred ritual at my house. Particularly by me. I mean, why would anyone in their right mind turn down a spoonful of 'luck' for the new year? Besides, my crew - and our cohorts - need all the luck we can get.

Yes,I've been known to chase down, tackle and force these legumes down the mouths/noses/ears of teenage boys who initially refuse my offering. The one or two who aren't too fond of peas now know to wrap just one in cornbread, insert into mouth and swallow. It's much easier that way. In fact, a couple of years ago, one of my kids turned to his friend who was hesitant about eating a pea and said, "You can do this the easy way, or the hard way. Trust me, you're going to eat a pea before you leave this place."

I tend to make my peas a little differently every year, however, a couple of things remain consistent. 1) I prefer using fresh peas, but will use frozen. NEVER dried or canned. (Come on, it's not ANY trouble and the end result is sooo worth it.) And 2) I always use a hamhock.

Last year's peas were the best in recent memory (friends swooned) and I'm proud of jotting down the ingredients and method. So many times I don't.

Four small sacks of frozen peas covered with half good quality chicken stock, half dark beer. Bring to hard boil and add hamhock, about a tablespoon of sea salt (depends on the saltiness of your chicken stock,)and two links of finely chopped andouille sausage. Boil for one hour, stirring occasionally. Turn down to simmer and add small diced green and red bell pepper, finely chopped onion, pinch of oregano and basil, add two bay leaves, a good shake or two of fajita seasoning, a drop of liquid smoke, a pinch of cayenne and two cans of diced tomatoes. Let simmer down for another 2 hours, stirring occasionally and add a little liquid if needed.

(Oops, I forgot the garlic. Surely, I used garlic? Probably a couple of minced cloves.)

May 2010 bring everybody a whole lotta luck . . .and love. And just remember to eat a damn pea. Or more.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Gumbo Z'Herbes

I always make this for New Years Day. Traditionally a Lenten dish, green gumbo was served on Good Friday in old New Orleans to nourish the body after days and weeks of fasting. It is said that the number of greens you use determines the number of friends you will make in the year ahead.

I've discovered that people who generally don't like greens, love this gumbo. Start preparation early. Like with all gumbo, there's a lot of washing and chopping involved.

And I always listen to a little somethin-somethin wonderfully Cajun like 'Hip et Taiau' by the Hackberry Ramblers. I swear it makes that gumbo even sweeter. ^^

At least 7 greens. I use the following:
collards, mustard, turnip, parsley, shallots, watercress, spinach, beet/radish/carrot tops, chicory, cabbage, celery
Gumbo base
1/2 cup chopped onion, 1/2# lean ham chopped in 1/2 cubes, 1/2# veal chopped in 1/2" cubes,
1 large hambone, 1/2# good smoked sausage
1/2 cup vegetable oil, 2/3 cup flour
Liquid and seasonings
2 qt plus 1/2 cup COLD water
1 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
2 whole bay leaves crushed
1/2 c hot sauce tomatillo verde ( or good quality red salsa)
1/2 tsp thyme
1/2 tsp marjaram
1/8 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp allspice
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 celery stalks diced (2 if you used celery as part of your green selection)
secret ingredient: 1 pint of oysters in their liquor pulsed a few times in food processor
Wash greens thoroughly, cut off tough stems. Shake off water and place in 3 to 4 qt pan. Add 1/3 cup water, turn to high heat, cook 12 minutes. (I add a little good quality chicken stock instead of the water.)

Drain, reserving greens liquor in a separate bowl. Chop cooked greens fine and set aside.

Make roux by heating vegetable oil (use same large saucepan) over medium-low heat, adding flour stirring constantly until the color of peanut butter. Add onion, celery, garlic and continue to stir. Cook 5 minutes. Add meat and greens liquor, mix well, add greens.

Add hambone and all seasonings. Gradually add 2 quarts cold water, mixing thoroughly. Raise heat to high boil, then lower to simmer and cook for 1 hour. Add oysters (PLEASE do this. I don't care if you don't like oysters, do it anyway. . .you will thank me) and cook another 15 minutes.

Serve over Zatarain's long grain rice or with cornbread.

And of course, plenty of black-eyed peas!

Suggested listening: "Crescent City" by Emmylou and Lucinda

Warning: Somebody WILL kiss you when they eat this. Hopefullly, it'll be someone you love. ;-P Last year it was my neighbor, George. Hence the warning.