Sunday, February 1, 2009

Salsifried Gumbo

One of my major weaknesses is a love for creole & cajun cooking, and this time of year is perfect for tucking into a bowl of gumbo, ladling some thick etouffee onto rice, or packing a jambalaya full of andouille sausage. With the Mardi Gras season nearing on the Gulf coast, it just feels perfect to have something warm and filling on these slightly cold days.

That said, I also take this time of year to consider what I will do without for my observation of Lent. This year, with my culinary tastes expanding by the day, I figure that by the time that Fat Tuesday becomes Ash Wednesday, I'll have the chops to embrace a vegetarian diet, at least for those forty days. To prepare for that, I consulted Dino at the Alternative Vegan for some ideas on my plan. Specifically, I wanted some way to enjoy creole & cajun cuisine without feeling that I'm working under a handicap. One of the things that came up in our discussion was Salsify, which is a taproot of a big wild flowering plant that grows all over the place. One variant of Salsify has a sort of umami funk to it that a lot of people swear tastes of oyster. I was intrigued.

Now, I could have gone and tried a vegetarian gumbo from the start. Hell, I already love okra in gumbo, so that's a given. That being said, I wanted to try to add salsify into a gumbo I knew I loved, to see how it would taste in that. What I made isn't vegetarian, but I have time before I take that plunge. As Saint Augustine said, "Give unto me chastity O Lord, but not quite yet." So in that light, give me vegetarian options for Ash Wednesday, but not quite yet!

I decided to take a big seafood gumbo, and instead of ladling it over rice, to top the gumbo with basically french fried salsify. It's starchy enough to act as a full-bodied filler, so why not? Hence, Salsifried Gumbo.

Here's what I used:

  • Two pounds of salsify root, peeled & julienned like french fries (the funk that makes these so desirable also makes salsify sticky as hell, so you may want to use gloves! Seriously, this is stickier than Christmas tree sap! Good luck getting it off your hands you poor sad deluded fools!)
  • A pound of crawfish tails
  • Half pound of shrimp
  • Half pound of baby scallops
  • Two medium yellow onions, finely minced
  • Two green bell peppers, finely minced
  • Two stalks of celery, finely chopped
  • Two roma tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • A handful of parsley, chopped
  • Four cloves of garlic, minced
  • About two quarts of stock (fish, chicken, or veggie stocks work interchangeably well)
  • One and a half cups of all purpose flour
  • One cup of olive oil
  • Two bay leaves
  • A teaspoon of dried thyme
  • A teaspoon of dried basil
  • A teaspoon of paprika
  • A teaspoon of white pepper
  • A teaspoon of cayenne pepper plus more to taste
  • Two teaspoons of kosher salt
  • One to two tablespoons of gumbo file, to desired consistency
  • Two tablespoons Louisiana Hot Sauce, plus more to taste
  • Hickory salt optional to taste (if available)
  • Canola oil for frying
Whew thats a lot of stuff! Okay, begin by combining your flour and olive oil in a big stock pot. You want to whisk it all together until its a uniform sludge, and crank the heat to medium-high-ish. Now, this is the hardest part about making this. I will wish you, as they say, bon chance. You're making a roux, which is a derivative of a French mother sauce. Basically, you're trying to brown the flour in the oil. It takes a bit of time, a lot of patience, and an iron will. There's a saying in Louisiana that you know somebody is marriage material by whether or not they can make a roux, because it is seriously that important to all of the good cooking down there. What you want to do is to get the whole thing to the color of hot cocoa, roughly. It should be a nice rich brown. The entire act of browning a roux makes your kitchen smell like you're cooking popcorn, but just keep stirring relentlessly. If you slack off, your flour will clump and scorch and you will ruin that roux. Whatever else, KEEP STIRRING. Eventually, it should look something like this:

Once you get to a color like that, you're good. Some guys like Justin "I GAR-OWN-TEE" Wilson can make a roux even darker than that, but I've found it hard to push the envelope too far. Crank your heat down to a medium and add your chopped onion, celery, and bell pepper. It'll saute energetically, so keep stirring that energetically to keep both veggies and roux from burning. When it's sauteed for about five minutes or so, add in your stock, garlic, tomato, dry spices (minus bay leaf and file), and salt, and bring it to a boil. Come off the boil and bring it to a simmer, and add your file and bay leaf. Let it simmer with an occasional stir for about half an hour.

From here, you're set to add your seafood and parsley. Do that, and bring the heat up to medium-ish. I let it cook for about five minutes, or until a shrimp I pluck out looks fully pinked.

Once your seafood is cooked, just park the pot on the lowest setting and let it relax a bit. Now, you want to make your french fried salsify, so heat oil in either a deep fryer or whatever. I don't have one so I use a cast iron skillet, which is perfectly fine:

Don't look at my stovetop it is a total mess, I know. Either way, you want to let these guys fry for maybe about three or four minutes per batch. Brown them a little, but don't go overboard. The browning you get is partially the sugars that give salsify its oystery taste carmelizing, so you don't want to lose that. Fish them out when done with a skimmer, and lay them out on a plate with paper towels. From here, Dino suggested the use of hickory salt, and while it's not true blue cajun style, I'm a country boy and hickory is good on so many things. If you don't have hickory salt, please don't buy any. It's a lucky shot that I had some in my spice rack and I'd been kicking myself about an impulse buy I had almost no use for. Just use sea salt, kosher salt, or fleur de sel if you're a fancy pants. You'll be fine. Ladle your gumbo in a bowl and add some salsifries to it!

I really have no talent for plating, and I figure that just throwing a handful of salsifries on top of this in place of rice would be good enough. At any rate, this stuff does a great job in helping to give the gumbo a starchy mouthfeel, so you don't really need the rice. The salsifries have a little body, but soften up and you can break them up with the edge of a spoon. The flavor really helps to push this seafood bonanza over the top. Now, I gave portions for a pretty diplomatic level of spice in this recipe. I highly recommend just piling on some Louisiana Hot Sauce when you eat it. One, the stuff tastes great, unlike some hot sauces that are just awful, and two, with a roux that good, you really should pack some heat into it.

All in all, this was a great pre-game warmup. With a bit of salsify, I have no doubt I'll be able to go through Lent and still be able to have some good home cookin like ol Boudreaux used to make.

As they say down on the Gulf Coast, Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler! Bon Apetit!

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