No doubt I’m not alone in my frustration of trying at home, often with little or no success, what seemed so easy in a cooking class. Compounding the frustration is when that cooking class was half a world away and doesn’t translate well to a high country Colorado kitchen. Earlier this year I found a solution to that problem when I was leading a group on a gastronomic and cultural adventure in the iconic Italian wine region of Piemonte. I discovered Chef Enrico Trova of La Scuola di Cucina di Asti and cucina piemontese came home to Colorado with me.
Chef Trova’s 15 years in California, during which time the affable Italian chef owned and operated Amici of Beverly Hills, enabled him to understand the limitations that his American clients face when they return home and try to recreate the dishes he taught them. His Gnocchi al Ragu Piemontese – sausage (salsiccia) ragu on gnocchi – is one of his recipes at home in any kitchen anywhere.
This dish has become a new favorite of mine to cook in my Rocky Mountain high country kitchen. My Labor of Love tour guests enjoy learning to make this with Chef Trova and my guests around my table love it, too, particularly when paired with Barbera, one of Piemonte’s signature quintessential wines. I don’t have the patience or the time to make gnocchi always, so polenta, another staple of the cucina piemontese, makes a delicious accompaniment for this sauce. Keep in mind, however, that the starch from gnocchi adds a richness to the ragu that you can’t duplicate with polenta.
Just like the saying that great wine can only come from great grapes, delicious culinary results can only be achieved with fine ingredients. Of course, the Italians have us beaten on that one, even in their supermarkets. Chef Trova uses the king of Piemontese sausage, salsiccia di Bra, a bovine (usually veal) sausage.
Salsiccia di Bra resulted from an exception in the Albertine Statutes of 1848 – the precursor to unified Italy’s first constitution – that all sausage must contain pork. You have to love the Italian’s reverence for food to the extent they codified sausage-making requirements in their first constitution. This was Charles Albert of Sardinia’s way of providing an alternative to pork sausage for the Jews of Cherasco, a bustling hilltop town nearby Bra. Today, pork finds its way into salsiccia di Bra, but the classic sausage is pure bovine.
Colorado Meat Company
Trying to find the prized sausage in ski country Colorado, or to pry the recipe out of a Piemontese, is impossible. Fortunately for meat lovers here in central Colorado we have a great resource for the sausage used in the ragu: Colorado Meat Company in Avon. Husband and wife team of Chris and Brittany Hudgens own the Colorado artisanal butchery they opened in August 2015.
It’s a risky business, but thanks to their dedication to high quality Colorado products and, equally important, excellent personalized customer service, Chris and Brittany have succeeded in carving out a niche for preserving the butchery craft in a high country region with a rich ranching history.
Each week Chris and his assistant Jake Lebowitz prepare several different types of sausage from over 40 recipes in Chris’ repertoire. My favorite for salsiccia ragu is their Italian sausage. I use 2/3 hot to one-third sweet sausage for a perfect balance of heat, herbs Chris picks himself, and spices. Made from 100% Colorado sourced meat, this sausage is a perfect substitute for the salsiccia di Bra Chef Trova uses in his Asti kitchen. It’s best to call ahead and ask Brittany to reserve the sausage for you since it’s not made every week.
So time to learn how to make it.
Chef Enrico Trova’s Salsiccia Ragu
Ingredients for six (6) main course servings:
2 pounds of bulk fresh sausage (avoid store bought!)
1 carrot, chopped
1 onion (purple or yellow), chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped,
1 clove of garlic, chopped
2/3 bottle of red wine (I like to use a good quality Barbera – either d’Asti or d’Alba – since it is a great pairing for this dish).
2 cups of tomato purée (passatarustica – Chef Trova describes this as “uncooked sauce”)
In a heavy 5-quart Dutch oven, sauté the sausage on medium-high heat until it begins to brown. Next, add the chopped vegetables (mirepoix) to the sausage. Sauté the sausage and vegetables until all the liquid has evaporated from the meat. This is an important step, so be patient. Lower the heat to medium. Pour the red wine to cover the meat and then add the tomato puree. Stir then simmer gently to boil off the alcohol. If the mixture is too dry, add a little water. Chef Trova warns not to add stock or more wine since that will alter the flavors at this point. Simmer covered for another 60 minutes to let the flavors meld. Add salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste.
For a traditional Piemontese dish, serve over polenta or gnocchi. But this is equally tasty over pasta, such as penne or rigatoni. You can top with grated Reggiano Parmigiano or Pecorino, or a dollop of fresh ricotta, or it’s simply delicious as is.
Variations: Colorado Meat Company’s Italian sausage is a perfect blend of seasonings, so I don’t have to add any other herbs or spices. But depending on the sausage you use and your own taste, you might have to get creative with herbs (e.g., thyme and oregano) and spices.
Suggested wine pairing: Barbera d’Alba from producers such as E. Pira e Figli (Chiara Boschis), Paolo Scavino, Sottimano, and Mauro Molino, all of which are readily available in Colorado through Giuliana Imports. Or just pop into Riverwalk Wine and Spirits in Edwards and ask owner Jarrett Osborne for guidance.
If you’d like more of Chef Enrico Trova’s traditional Piemontese recipes, including his gnocchi recipe and technique, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The glue that has held cultures together through time has been food, most importantly the family meal. The energetic dynamic in the kitchen as the food is prepared is matched only by the enjoyment of traditional dishes shared around the dining table. I’ve been blessed to be a guest around several family tables in Piemonte which is a quite an honor and evidence of acceptance. Those are epicurean memories I shall cherish forever.
Given the beauty of the simplicity and flavors of the cucina piemontese, I asked some of my wine families to share with me their favorite recipes for traditional dishes. Silvia Altare, one of Lucia and Elio Altare‘s two daughters, shared with me her recipe for one of the classics of cucina piemontese – Vitello Tonnato.
I don’t just love vitello tonnato because it’s such a delicious dish, but it reminds me of the cultural importance of gumbo in bayou country Lousiana where I was born and raised. Everyone has their own twist on the dish and the recipe becomes part of a family’s heritage as it’s passed from generation to generation.
So here is Silvia’s recipe in her own words:
Silvia Altare’s Vitello Tonnato
I have learned cooking and from my mom and I love it!
Actually, both Elio and Lucia are good cooks. Lucia can set a wedding lunch for 30 people in 1 hour!
Here is the recipe of Vitello Tonnato, super quick and easy, everyone loves it. Even vitello tonnato sandwiches are a big deal here in my family, sometimes that’s what you get when you don’t have time to sit down for lunch!
1 big chunk of ”girello di vitello”, which I think translates in English with veal roast beef, to be either roasted in the oven or boiled with water and vegetables (carrots, celery, and onions)
The time of cooking is always suggested by the local butcher, very important you want the meat to stay pink inside.
Let it rest until cold, so any extra juice or blood is eliminated. When cold and dry then you can slice it very thin, if possible with a slicer.
2 eggs (1 yolk and 1 full egg)
Pinch of salt
Put eggs and salt in a mixer glass, and start mixing with an immersion blender, start adding the sunflower oil very little at a time, and you will see your mixture texture magically turn from liquid to thick. Keep adding oil until the quantity of mayo you want is made. Finish with a couple teaspoons of lemon juice. It adds a little acidity and makes the mayo taste “lighter”
(Wine buying note: In Colorado, Giuliana Importsrepresents the Altare family and many other Piemontese wine families. And they also import fabulous artisanal olive oils that are available direct to consumers.)
Suzanne’s Note – Silvia didn’t have any photos of her dish to share in time for me to post, so here is one of Villa Tiboldi’s Vitello Tonnato.
Long before the Cordon Bleu and Culinary Institute of America were founded, there were mothers and grandmas who taught their female offspring to cook, binding generations together with culinary traditions. In Piemonte, Italy, this “nonna culture” has cultivated many fine chefs. Elide Cordero, Chef/Co-owner of Ristorante il Centro in Priocca, Italy is a culinary offspring of that culture.
Piemonte, the large province located in northwest Italy, is home to a diverse landscape that yields a cornucopia of agricultural bounty, perfect for instilling in her inhabitants a rich culinary legacy. In the mountains, milk and cheese are the primary products. The region’s sub-alpine hills are home to Alto Piemonte’s vineyards. On the flatlands, fed by the Po River, cattle, rice and crops such as beans and other vegetables flourish. Finally, vineyards and hazelnut groves carpet the undulating landscape of Langhe, Roero, and Monferrato. That’s just a bird’s eye view of the region’s agrarian landscape.
It’s in that surrounding Elide’s grandmother and mother nurtured her culinary roots. At her family’s restaurant Il Centro in the Roero town of Priocca, Elide Cordero has blossomed into one of Italy’s leading chefs, although in her shy, modest manner she’d deny that stature. Her well-deserved Michelin star gives the Cordero family’s restaurant global notoriety, but Elide, like her cuisine, has remained humble and true to the region.
Unlike many of her peers who earned degrees at expensive private culinary schools, Elide studied at one of the oldest and most prestigious of all – the family kitchen. Her earliest memories were of a yearning to cook. Under her grandmother and mother’s tutelage in their farmhouse kitchen in Pocapaglia, 32 miles south of Torino, Elide fell in love with nature’s bounty growing just beyond their kitchen door. The two women she loved and admired most showed her how to coax delectable flavors out of the simplest ingredients. Those experiences set her on a path well-deserved fame.
Youthful Farm Life
The evolution of Elide Cordero’s culinary prowess began on her family’s farm. Growing up in the middle of nature instilled in Elide a solid work ethic and keen appreciation of the seasonality of food and the time needed to produce it. Elide finds the ability to buy strawberries from some distant land in the cold of December unnatural.
Food has a seasonality that should be respected. Gone are the days we pined for our favorite fruit or vegetable to be ready for harvest. Strawberries in spring. Melons in summer. Grapes in autumn. Today, Western societies have settled for “on-demand” food, available anytime of the year. As Elide notes, the demand may be met, but the price paid is quality and health.
On Elide’s parents’ farm, chemicals – a given in today’s industrialized farms – were eschewed. It was unheard of to alter a plant or animal’s development. Nature would take her time. She needed no interference from man’s chemicals. Fertilizer came from cows not a chemical plant miles away.
In the face of commonplace economic hardships, farmers like Elide’s father, Francesco Mollo, possessed a complete understanding of nature’s ways. They knew the origins of everything their families ate and respected nature for providing it. Sadly, industrialization of the food industry has tainted – perhaps forever – the land once so lovingly tended.
The knowledge transfer Elide enjoyed came each day after school when she and her brother Giovanni would tend the farm animals and harvest vegetables and herbs for dinner. She then would help her mother Francesca cook. It was a hard, demanding life, but in her words, “It was a life lived from the heart, so it wasn’t tough.”
Wood, not gas, fired the stoves of Elide’s childhood home. In winters, Elide would accompany her father to collect wood. The wood’s use was dependent upon its characteristics. Slow burn was obviously best for the kitchen. Rovere and Quercia – types of oak trees – are prized for their very slow, even burning characteristics. Elide’s daughter Valentina fondly remembers peering through a hole in the top of the stove while her grandmother added more wood to fire a slow-cooking dish.
From this respect for nature that cocooned her budding culinary skills, Elide learned how to coddle a product, developing its best flavors. It’s the essence of her philosophy in her kitchen at Il Centro. The best products cooked in the correct manner – usually slow – yield the best dishes. That philosophy, engrained in Elide long before she became a chef, drives her creative cuisine that pays homage to the rich Piemontese culinary heritage.
Journey to Il Centro
Elide’s journey to Il Centro began in her early 20s. Her workweek consisted of 8-hour days in a garment factory followed by evenings helping on the farm. Fridays didn’t signal an end to work. Weekends presented another work opportunity when she would travel about 16 miles to work as a server and a barista at a bar in Priocca.
In early 1980s’ Piemonte, restaurant excursions were primarily weekend events. That’s when bars such as the Cordero family’s Il Centro would be transformed into restaurants serving patrons celebrating birthdays, weddings, christenings and first communions. Elide had little interest in serving. Cooking for restaurant patrons was closer to her heart.
The alchemy of cuisine energized Elide and filled her dreams. An encounter with a “coup de feu” when she met Enrico Cordero helped make those dreams come true.
Love at first sight is often viewed as a cliché. Not for Elide and Enrico. Within 6 months of love’s lightening strike, they celebrated their nuptials. Once again, Elide’s culinary education was in the hands of two women, her mother-in-law Rita and Enrico’s grandmother Lidia, each with a love of cooking. A year later, they welcomed their first child Valentina into their lives.
Mornings found Elide in Il Centro, behind the bar, making coffee. Afternoons she moved to the small kitchen for her cooking education. With no formal culinary background, Elide stressed over the dishes she prepared.
Her first task was learning to make pasta. Piemonte is famous for its traditional pasta – agnolotti di plin, small ravioli; and egg-rich tajarin, a tiny version of tagliatelle only 1/12” wide. Making each is time-consuming and challenging, but Elide mastered the techniques. Then came desserts. Although happy to be cooking, she yearned to expand the bar-restaurant’s menu.
A few years after Valentina, her brother Giampiero was born. The little family was complete. Six years after her wedding, Elide realized she needed to venture to other restaurants to absorb knowledge from seasoned chefs to achieve her full potential.
Elide’s first culinary experience beyond Il Centro was a 3-day stage with Georges Cuny, a French chef in Piacenza she discovered through a long-time customer. The short stage yielded a wealth of knowledge that helped her better organize and operate Il Centro’s kitchen. But since she believed “the hand of woman is very different than that of a man,” Elide wanted to continue her education under the guidance of a woman chef. She found that opportunity in the medieval hilltop town of Montemerano, halfway between Florence and Rome.
Chef Valeria Piccini’s restaurant Da Caino is located in an agricultural zone much like that surrounding Elide’s beloved childhood home. Here Elide reveled in learning new techniques under the guidance of the Michelin two-star chef. Having enhanced her culinary repertoire, Elide now had the confidence she needed to take Il Centro to the next level. Chef Piccini urged her to take the plunge. And plunge she did.
Creating an Epicurean Center of Excellence
Enrico Cordero’s chef-father Pierin bought Il Centro in April 1956. For 100 years before and in years since he purchased Il Centro, it had always been a bar first, restaurant second. The restaurant concept didn’t fit Elide’s vision. The pool table and pinball machine certainly weren’t suitable furnishings for a white linen restaurant. The tiny kitchen was woefully inadequate. Changes were needed.
In the late 1980s, the transformation from bar to world class restaurant began. Although the entrance is still a bar where patrons can enjoy a coffee or something a bit stronger, the pool table and pinball machine are gone. In their place is a small, discrete private dining room with soft lighting under the original vaulted brick ceiling, giving guests a feeling of renaissance dining. The elegant, but non-pretentious main dining room is bright and airy with pale yellow walls and stately white molding.
The kitchen more than doubled in size, becoming a stage for Elide and her team’s epicurean performance six days a week.
Elide’s dessert station was once her entire kitchen.
As it always has been, Il Centro remains a family affair.
Valentina, now a journalist in New York City, spent her childhood with her brother Giampiero working with and learning from their parents. Even now, when she visits from New York, Valentina joins her family in the restaurant.
Giampiero, a graduate in enology of the prestigious Alba enological school, now works in the front of the house with his father Enrico.
Together, they manage the impressive wine cellar and insure Elide’s beautiful cuisine receives the presentation it rightly deserves.
The road from the farmhouse kitchen in Pocapaglia to the heady atmosphere of Il Centro, where people from around the world flock to enjoy her cuisine, has been a long, but happy one for Elide. Her smile and her delight at creating simple but sumptuous dishes out of Mother Nature’s bounty are key ingredients in Elide Cordero’s cuisine. Her successful journey from farmhouse to world class restaurant kitchen where she cultivates culinary excellence is now complete.
DISCLAIMER – This is an essay about my recent experience digging down to my cultural roots deep in south Louisiana to cook smoked goose gumbo. I highly recommend you pour a glass of your favorite vinous drink – and keep the bottle handy – to sip as you come along on my bayou country adventure in my Colorado kitchen. One more comment, sorry I don’t have more photos to share. Making gumbo and shooting my own photos was a recipe for disaster.
In the beginning…..
When I set out to write a column on the fine art of creating goose gumbo, I didn’t realize how difficult it would be. Not that it’s difficult to make gumbo since it’s actually surprisingly simple once you get the hang of it. It’s because I’m a child of the bayou country, rooted deep in its fertile culinary ground. With that, I feel a weighty responsibility to get it right.
As I began to free-write, memories of smells, tastes and countless family meals enjoying hearty gumbo possessed my fingers. I couldn’t stop writing. That’s a problem since my word budget in the Vail Daily is 1,200 words per column. Even 2,400 words weren’t enough to share my passion for this centuries-old – if not older – dish Chef John Besh refers to as a “cultural stew.”
Another impediment to staying within my word budget is the wealth of information and stories about gumbo out there in cyberspace and on bookshelves. Louisiana luminary chefs such as John Folse have penned reams about gumbo. There’s no way I could compete with that and I felt intimidated that my qualifications to weave a tale of gumbo might be lacking.
With all those thoughts swirling through my mind, I decided to restrain my writing voice in favor of a shorter Vail Daily piece, comply (sort of) with my word budget and just tell a shorter gumbo story in my column. But I also wanted to tell my story and share it with my readers, so you’ll find it here in my own little corner of cyberspace.
What Does Gumbo Have to do with Winefamilies?
“Why here?” you say when this is a blog about wine families. Hey, you have to eat when you drink beautiful vinous creations from these family-owned wineries, so why not eat gumbo!
Gumbo is a dish with many faces and can dance with an array of varietals, blends and terroir expressions. Stick with me and I’ll share with you some spirited tips on pairing gumbo, particularly my smoked goose creation, Master Sommelier Sean Razee, Beverage Director of Vail Resorts Mountain Dining, shared with me.
Yes, I could have bought “manufactured” stock from a grocery story, but that would be cheating. Needless to say, you won’t find goose stock in your local grocery store and even if you could, store-bought goose stock would pale in comparison with what resulted from hours of extracting flavors from herbs, vegetables and the marrow, fat and residual meat from my goose carcass. (Visit Schiltz Food’s website to order this delicious smoked goose to make your own gumbo.)
The stock was the easy part. Let’s go to my kitchen get into some hardcore gumbo making!
First You Make a Roux
Roux is the essence of every kind of gumbo, etouffée and many other Louisiana dishes such as shrimp creole. Since this simple amalgamation of flour and hot fat is the cornerstone of gumbo, a perfectly crafted roux is the Holy Grail chefs and home cooks strive to attain. Before we make our roux, let’s prepare our mise en place.
Everything in its place
As with everything you cook, preparation is key to minimizing stress and maximizing quality. It makes no sense to stop in the middle of a process, grab a knife and start chopping away at your ingredients or start rooting for the correct pan. Stress is an unwanted ingredient in epicurean creations.
With gumbo, it’s extremely important to have your mise en place ready. Making roux is a relatively slow process, but when it’s ready, things will happen very quickly so make sure you’re prepared to meet the challenge when the time arrives.
Sidebar: I am a bowl freak. I have a broad assortment of bowls ranging in size from 1-ounce glass bowls – great for holding small amounts of spices and liquids such as vanilla extract – to 9-quart stainless steel mixing bowls great for holding prepped items.
My stock recipe yielded about six quarts. I used four quarts and froze the other two. I always like to have some stock on hand when the urge to make gumbo strikes me!
Although the process of making gumbo is fairly standard, what goes in it is limited by your imagination and, of course, logical choices. Here’s what I use for my goose gumbo that begins with four quarts of stock. Keep in mind, unlike making bread and pastries, gumbo ingredients don’t have to be exact. This is truly art, not science. Like painting, there are rules to follow in getting the paint on the canvas, but the colors you use and designs you create are purely your own. So go for it!
Dicetwo large onions, three stalks of celery and seed and dicetwo green bell peppers. If you want to play Picasso, substitute a red bell pepper for one of the green peppers to add a dash of color. Mincetwo or three large cloves of garlic.
I love okra in my gumbo, but only fresh will do for me, not something easy to find during long Colorado winters. I’ve learned to do without it. But if you can get your hands on the fresh stuff, use two cups of frozen (and defrosted) sliced okra.
Nowadays with mass hydroponic production of tasteless fruit, tomatoes challenge discerning home cook. Since Colorado in winter isn’t a haven for fresh tomatoes, I use a handful of canned San Marzano tomatoes when the snow’s flying. In summer, I use the real deal, grown in dirt. Pity I can’t get the red, sweet and delicious Creole tomatoes I was raised on. Whichever, my recipe requires one tomatoseeded and diced.
Leaves from a couple of sprigs of fresh thyme provide a subtle, woodsy taste. We’ll also need two bay leaves. I like California laurel leaves that are large and a bit pungent, so I only use only one. Grind a couple of tablespoons of black pepper and measure a bit of Kosher salt. A tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce will provide a je ne sais quoi that would definitely be missing otherwise.
I also use about an eighth of a teaspoon of cayenne pepper, teaspoon of ground cumin and a quarter of a teaspoon each of ground allspice, sweet paprika and ground coriander. Some recipes call for Cajun spice mixes that include onion and garlic powders, but this is my answer to that. It actually becomes a question of taste, but please, whatever you do, don’t kill the flavors with a ton a Tabasco or cayenne pepper. Use those two sparingly.
For our meat, we need a half-pound of andouille sausagesliced or chopped. I like to slice it on the bias, place on a sheet pan and bake on 350 degrees for about 10 minutes to render the fat. Since my goose carcass had been picked clean at Christmas, I ordered more smoked goose breast from Schiltz Foods of South Dakota. Three to four cups of rough choppedgoose meat is perfect.
A few words about the andouille. First, this is not andouillette you may have eaten in France (if you had buy accident, you’d know it!). It’s a course smoked pork sausage typical to south Louisiana. There are some great purveyors of Jacob’s in “The Andouille Capital of the World,” La Place, Louisiana, is a great source for andouille, if you happen to live within driving distance of the store. Shipping costs more than the sausage, so I turned to Aidells Cajun Style Andouille as a reasonable substitute. It’s good quality and I can even pronounce each ingredient on the label, always a plus for me.
Don’t forget to prep ingredients for the roux: fat and oil. Fat choices include clarified butter, rendered duck or chicken fat and oil. If you were making etouffee or bisque, I’d say go for the butter, but with gumbo I use oil. Chef Folse, recommends using vegetable oil. I use canola. Perhaps next time I go with the expert’s suggestion.
A quick note about butter-based roux. Butter burns easy as you’ve probably discovered. To make a dark roux, you need heat and time. Both of those don’t agree with butter so much. Accordingly, butter is glorious for etouffee where a light roux is preferred – at least that’s my opinion – and for a dark (black) roux that’s part and parcel to the deep, rich flavor of goose or duck gumbo, oil is the preferred route. NEVER OLIVE OIL in any case!
As to flour, Chef Folse advises cooks use “fresh and properly stored flour.” In Louisiana, the high humidity makes that an issue. “Mee-mees” in flour is one thing I do not miss about Louisiana! Cooking at altitude may be challenging, but storing staples like flour is a dream.
My mom used Wondra flour because it’s fine and resists clumping. I generally use all-purpose, unbleached King Arthur flour for my roux. Do not – I repeat – do not consider any other thickener for your roux than white flour. Chef John Besh believes “only a flour-based roux yields that traditional flavor” of gumbo. Bottom line, if you want the real deal in your bowl, there’s no gluten free alternative. Make soup, not gumbo.
A one-to-one ratio of flour to oil is ideal. One cup of oil – vegetable as Chef Folse advises or canola – and one cup of fresh flour works great for four quarts of stock.
Serious Business of Roux Making
Now, as I walk you through making the rest of the process, you’ll discover why prepping is so important. Before you begin making the roux, take care of all calls, including Mother Nature’s, and walk the dog because there’s no stopping once you’ve started.
SIDEBAR – Roux can be an incredibly contentious issue between Louisiana cooks. There’s so much written about it and even 40 years since I made my first roux, there is still so much for me to learn. Chef Folse is one of those who have written reams on the subject and I doubt he’s covered everything he knows about it.
Back to cooking.
Which pot to use? Certainly not a shallow one, definitely not non-stick and preferably heavy-bottom. My grandmother had a cast iron Dutch oven that seemed to be the only pot she ever used except the small one for boiling milk for her coffee that I proudly gave her for Christmas one year. She was a fabulous Sicilian-American cook whose love of family and food fused in her pot to create memorable meals, particularly Sunday lunch.
But I digress. See why I couldn’t write a short article? This is family history for me and memory lane leads right to my kitchen.
I prefer to use a large pot, so my 13.25-quart gargantuan Le Creuset Dutch oven Santa Claus gave me last year is my pot of choice for a large batch of gumbo.
It’s heavy and can easily overheat, but the most important quality is it is heavy and heats evenly. Since moving to a house with a gas stove, I find my Le Creuset pots much easier to use on gas than on halogen.
With my treasured pot on high heat and my whisk and trusty 30 year-old wooden spatula in hand, I’m ready to go. Oh, I forgot. My step stool. At 5’1”, the extra 6” helps me see into the pot and is easier on my arms.
Chef John Besh advises heating the oil before whisking in the flour. He believes it speeds up the process and produces a deeper dark chocolate color. I concur.
Once the oil is “dancing” – making ripples – add the flour, whisking until it’s all dissolved.
Next, lower the heat to medium – continue to stir and watch the heat, lowering as needed to keep it from burning. If you see little specks of black, that’s not a good sign. Toss it and start over. Don’t feel inadequate if you do burn your roux. We’ve all done it and it will actually help improve your skills.
More sage advice from Chef Folse: “Risk is the tariff paid to leave the shores of predictable misery.” I’ve risked burning my roux – which I’ve done several times – to speed up the process. Confession time. I did burn the roux last week because I was taking photos; almost dropped the camera in the pot, too. Not to be deterred, I started again and, with better focus, had a glossy, dark chocolate-colored roux in 20 minutes.
Initially, the flour will bubble and then settle down, releasing a fragrant nutty aroma as it begins to cook. It’s a smell of my childhood particularly Lenten Fridays when dinner consisted of seafood gumbo and fried catfish or speckled trout. With duck and goose gumbo, a dark chocolate-colored (black) roux is desirable. For seafood and chicken, it’s more like milk chocolate. We’re going for dark.
Once the flour is completely dissolved, I switch to my wooden spatula. I believe moves the roux around better than a whisk.
This is when being ambidextrous comes in handy. It’s a process that imperfect cooks like me need to take slowly, which sometimes means 20 minutes or so of constant stirring. I’m getting better. It used to take me 45 minutes to make a dark roux because I was so paranoid about burning it; now I can do it in 20.
Sidebar: Time for a health warning (sorry, but it’s the lawyer in me). Hot flour and oil splashing on tender skin – like fingers and forearms, not to mention foreheads – leaves pretty nasty burns. The combination of hot oil and flour gave roux its name “Creole napalm” since it’s sticky and contact with skin quickly results in a nasty burn. I have the scars to prove it! Take care to keep the roux in the pot, not in the air. Hot roux “spits” if you’re not careful, so it’s important to continue carefully stirring not just to keep the roux from burning, but to keep the roux from burning you! It’s not a bad idea to have some Aloe Vera gel nearby.
When the roux is glossy and the right color, it’s time to assemble the gumbo.
Here’s where another great tip from Chef Besh I use. After stirring and stirring, you’ll have the urge to dump the onions, bell peppers and celery – the Holy Trinity – into the roux all at one.
Resist that urge and just add the onions first. I tried it and it works fairly well.
As the hot roux cocoons the onions, a tantalizing, nutty aroma emerges. Adding the onions first also allows the onions to caramelize and release its sweet juices without interference from the water in the vegetables.
Reduce the heat, add the onions and stir for about 5 to 10 minutes. Next, add the other vegetables, herbs and spices, stirring well while cooking for another few minutes.
The stock is next and, as you’ll see, is another opportunity for disaster if not done correctly.
After recently breaking my roux – after burning the first batch (wasn’t a good day) – I turned to Chef Folse for some troubleshooting advice. If, after adding stock, flour separates and floats instead of mixes with the liquid, it’s broken. To avoid this, add the liquid in one-quart intervals, stirring constantly to allow the roux to absorb the stock before adding more. I was flustered from my previous roux failure and added the stock too quickly.
My second mistake was not to warm my stock. Chef Folse cautions that when “Cold liquid is added to hot roux, the fat may coagulate as it rises.” He advises to bring the liquid to a boil then briskly whisk to blend the mixture back into suspension. Problem solved.
Once you’ve successfully crossed that bridge, add the andouille, goose meat, Worcestershire sauce, file, and balance salt and pepper.
A few dashes of Tabasco will add some kick, but only add a little at time. Don’t forget to remove the bay leaf. Stir, bring to a boil then simmer for about an hour to let the flavors meld, skimming fat that floats to the surface. Note that you’ll find many recipes that call for a different ordering of ingredient additions at this stage, but this is what I do. You’ll discover over time how gumbo can be a very personal dish.
While the gumbo is simmering, it’s a good time to prepare the rice. Since I grew up on it, I often use extra long grain Mahatma white rice, but I recently discovered Full Circle organic long grain brown rice at Village Market in Edwards that is quite nice.
Place about a half cup of steaming rice into a bowl, spoon the gumbo over it and garnish with sliced green onions, parsley and filé, preferably homemade from dried sassafras leaves. Salad and crusty garlic bread – baguette or ciabatta – are perfect partners for your gumbo.
What to drink?
Quite honestly, Barq’s root beer was my favorite soda growing up. It wasn’t the kind made with high fructose corn syrup sold today – yuck! Until the late 70s, no one had to put “real sugar” on the label. My other favorite root beer was homemade using Zatarain’s root beer extract. Oh the memories! Therefore, I must confess that root beer is hands down my favorite drink with gumbo.
But since this is a wine blog, I thought I’d turn to Master Sommelier Sean Razee, Beverage Director of Mountain Dining at Vail Resorts, for some advice to share with my readers who stuck with me for the last 2900 words.
Since Sean so perfectly articulated his recommendations, here are his words verbatim:
My first wine inclination (following an amber ale or sweet tea) to pair with a dark roux, goose meat, and likely some spice, is to serve a thin-skinned red grape with a hint of sweetness—something like a Côtes-du-Rhône Grenache-based red.
I envision the goose meat lending a hint of gamey earthiness to the dish that would be complimented by a Grenache/Syrah/Cinsault/Mouvedre blend
Any herbal notes in the dish would merge beautifully with the Southern French flavors that are typical in these wines (thyme, rosemary, parsley, bay leaf)
Grenache will carry a hint of sweetness to counter the spiciness of the dish
Gumbo has French, Spanish, etc. influences and this wine is a French wine based on a Spanish grape (Garnacha/Grenache); so there is a nice cultural connection
For small, estate producers, my recommendations would be:
I discovered Schiltz Foods’ smoked goose gumbo at a dear friend’s house on Thanksgiving. Delicious, moist meat that make bird my new go-to star for my holiday feast! From that point on, I was on a mission to make smoked goose gumbo. This article emanated from that mission.
Gumbo is such an amorphous dish that can challenge your imagination. Other proteins that are at home in gumbo include shrimp and crab, turkey, chicken and duck. Here are some resources that you might find helpful whether you’ve made gumbo before or inspired to broaden your cookery horizons.
I truly hope my musings provided you with some food for thought and that you’ll experiment with this wonderful dish steeped in centuries of Gulf Coast history. Since this dish represents all that is good about familial cooking in my home region, it goes perfect with the concept of honoring family-owned wineries, which is what I strive to achieve on this blog.
Let me know how it goes or if you have any questions. I may not have the answer to all your queries, but I’m blessed to have wonderful Louisiana culinary resources available to me.