October 7, 2015

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Dear friends,

Tony grunted and moaned as he hunched over a bowl of gumbo and scooped up spoonfuls  in rapid succession. I figured he was in pain.

“Don’t eat so fast,” I cautioned.

Then I realized the grunts and moans were near-reverent exclamations of delight.  It was pitiful and it’s my fault. I did this to him by serving mostly healthful food night after night, year after year, until a taste of something really good reduced him to a quivering mass of gratitude.

In our decade together Tony has been the victim of my new theory of eating, a theory that’s pretty outrageous for a food writer. After gaining 100 pounds in 25 years of food reporting, and losing it just before I met Tony, I vowed I would not regain the weight. In 10 years I’ve regained just 20 pounds, but it is a constant battle.  Eating healthfully most of the time helps, of course. So does eating plain.

I decided that food shouldn’t taste fabulous all the time.  People dieting or watching their weight should not be tracking down recipes for low-cal cheesecake and fettuccine carbonara. Great-tasting food is too easy to overeat. My normal dinners are a simply cooked piece of protein, no sauce, and vegetables served with seasonings but no fats such as butter. Once or twice a week I make something really good (although not swimming in fat), but the rest of the time I prepare plain, healthful meals.

If only Tony had snagged me in my heyday. Back then, gumbo would have been just the appetizer. I would have followed it with something like chicken etouffee or barbecued shrimp, which basically is shrimp with seasonings poached in a pound of butter.

Gumbo isn’t nearly as bad, although if you make it the traditional way, with a cooked roux, it has more than a smidgeon of fat. I wouldn’t make gumbo any other way. When the temperatures dropped last week, I hauled out the spices and made a pot. I used a Paul Prudhomme recipe, the gold standard for Cajun food. If you’re going to do it, do it right.

The aroma alone could have probably satisfied me. The house smelled delicious as the gumbo bubbled on the stove. Prudhomme’s Chicken and Andouille Smoked Sausage Gumbo is a mahogany bowlful of meat and rice with enough cayenne to give it a sting but not a jolt. The rice is not mixed into the soup. Never.  A molded mound of rice is placed in a bowl and the gumbo is ladled around it.

The rich color of the soup comes from the roux, which you must cook very carefully in a skillet and add to the soup a spoonful at a time. The roux is made from the pan drippings and flour, to which you add sautéed onions, peppers and celery. The roux is stirred over medium-high heat (I do not walk the tightrope of high heat that Prudhomme suggests) until the mixture is a dark red. If burnt flecks begin to appear, you must discard the roux and vegetables and start over. Wear long kitchen mitts and be careful.

Don’t be afraid of the length of this recipe (or any recipe). It usually means the process is explained in enough detail for you to succeed.


“Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen”
•    2 lbs. bone-in chicken (I used 1 1/2 lbs. boneless breasts), in serving size pieces
•    Salt
•    Garlic powder
•    Cayenne pepper
•    1 cup finely chopped onions
•    1 cup finely chopped green bell peppers
•    3/4 cup finely chopped celery
•    1 1/4 cups flour
•    1/2 tsp. salt
•    1/2 tsp. garlic powder
•    1/2 tsp. cayenne
•    Vegetable oil for deep frying
•    About 7 cup chicken stock or broth
•    1/2 lb. andouille or other smoked sausage
•    1 tsp. minced garlic
•    Hot cooked converted rice (Uncle Ben’s)

Remove excess fat from chicken and rub pieces all over with a generous amount of salt, garlic powder and cayenne, coating evenly. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine onions, bell pepper and celery; set aside. Combine flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder and 1/2 teaspoon cayenne in a gallon-size plastic bag.

Heat 1 1/2 inches of oil in a large, heavy skillet until very hot. While oil heats, shake the chicken pieces one at a time in the bag with the flour, knocking off excess. Reserve 1/2 cup of the flour mixture. Fry the chicken in the hot oil until the crust is brown on both sides and meat is cooked, about 5 to 8 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels.

Pour hot oil into a glass measuring cup, leaving as many of the browned bits in the pan as possible. Scrape the pan bottom to loosen bits, then return 1/2 cup oil to the pan.

Place pan over medium-high heat. Wearing mitts and using a long-handled whisk, gradually stir in the reserved 1/2 cup flour. Cook, whisking constantly, until roux is dark red-brown, being careful not to let it burn or splash on your skin. Remove from heat and immediately add reserved vegetable mixture, stirring constantly until the roux stops getting darker. Return pan to low heat and cook until vegetables are soft, about 5 minutes, stirring constantly and scraping the pan bottom well.

Meanwhile, bring the stock to a boil in a 5 1/2 -quart saucepan. Add the roux mixture by spoonfuls, stirring until dissolved between each addition. Return to a boil, stirring and scraping pan bottom. Reduce heat to a simmer and stir in the andouille and minced garlic. Simmer uncovered for about 45 minutes, stirring often toward end of cooking time.

Cut the cooked chicken into cubes, discarding bones. When the gumbo is cooked stir in the chicken and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Mound about 1/3 cup cooked rice in the center of each soup bowl and ladle gumbo around the rice. Makes 6 entrée servings.


October is clam season in Ohio, where more clams are sold during the month than anywhere else in the country. If you have tickets to a clam bake, you can stop reading now. But if you plan to cook some clams yourself, there are a few things you should know.

I buy clams (as small as possible) the day I will use them, bring them home and store them in a breathable bag (poke holes in one if necessary) atop a bowl of ice. When you’re ready to cook, remove each clam from the bag and, if open, tap the shell to close it. If the clam refuses to close, pitch it out because it’s dead. Cooking dead clams is a no-no. They will make you sick. Throw away clams with broken shells, too.

Most clams I see in local stores have already been cleaned. But if you’re lucky enough to get fresh-from-the-ocean clams, you’ll have to filter out the sand inside the shells. Place the clams in salty water, toss in a handful of corn meal and let stand for 20 minutes. The clams will eat the meal and spit out the sand.

Scrub the shells with a stiff brush. Place in a steamer over hot water or in a pan in an inch or so of liquid (water and beer, water and wine, etc.). Cover and steam just until the shells open. I begin peeking after four or five minutes and scoop out each clam as it opens. This is kind of anal, but I hate chewy, overcooked clams.

Serve with melted butter or as is.


From Bill Bowen:
I just read your notes about grilled pizza. This is why I have a pizza stone for the oven and one for the grill. No flipping, no schlepping. Light your fire, let it burn down. Put your stone on the grill and let it pre-heat for 20 minutes of so. go inside and get your pizza ready on your peel. Slide it onto the stone, close the grill. Wait until the pizza is done. Eat and enjoy. Make the second pizza while the first one is cooking. Works on the gas grill too. Think of your grill as a heated box (an oven) that has bad temperature controls — you’ve got fast oven and slow oven. Not much in between.

Dear Bill: That sounds a lot easier than the hot-coals method I used, although you sacrifice the blistered crust.

From Sally:
I never had luck getting hard fruit to ripen on the counter.  It just goes from hard to rotten.  I have better luck putting it in a brown paper bag.  Maybe you should try that with a few of your pears.

Dear Sally: Thanks, I will after they hard-chill for a couple of more weeks. But the lesson here is that fresh-from-the-tree pears do not ripen at room temperature no matter what you do. They must be chilled first for two to six weeks. Pears sold in stores are pre-chilled and ready to ripen at room temperature.

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