BY JOHN DeMERS
Make no mistake: I always hate it when the Astros preempt my food and wine radio show on a Saturday morning – no ifs, ands or buts about it. On the other hand, if you’re lucky, there just might be chicken and sausage gumbo.
That’s the feeling I get after “celebrating” my lack of airtime this week by driving the 10 hours to Far West Texas, the setting of my upcoming series of mystery novels, led off by Marfa Shadows in early 2010, followed by Marfa Rocks and eventually, whenever I get around to writing the damn book, Marfa Blues. By the way, “the damn book” is a term of endearment in all known languages, used by writers the world over.
I’ve taken up housesitting in a big country place on the northwest edge of town, with a backyard garden bursting with tomatoes, squash and cantaloupe and a black-and-white border collie named Al that I’m supposed to walk over the hills once or twice a day. Hold on a minute, Al! Can’t you see I’m trying to write something!
With no TV and no phone, I’ve been cooking and eating out of this garden all week – tomatoes in and with everything, of course, and demand still can’t keep up with supply. One night I even overpowered an 18-inch-long zucchini enough to whip up a Moroccan version of cous cous, complete with chick peas, pine nuts and sultanas – and cocktail-sized meatballs, just because I wanted them. Sultanas from the Sultan, I suppose. Other days, for a light lunch, I just layer sliced pastrami from a Houston deli on whole-wheat bread and then cover it with slices of yellow tomato and leaves of green and purple lettuces from the garden. Truth be told, I haven’t even been washing this stuff. It seems disrespectful somehow, under the circumstances.
And this morning… I rolled out of bed at 6:30 to boil the chicken that makes the stock that lives in the House that Gumbo Built. I’m having friends over tonight: one couple my favorite landlords in all of Marfa, another a long-lost pair of co-conspirators from New Orleans, who now live in an old house on a mountainside 20 miles away in Fort Davis. Lloyd, a veteran photographer for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries as well as for that state’s Seafood Promotion Board, and his wife Karen had me over for a crawfish-pasta dinner the other night – apologizing the whole time about the puny frozen crawfish that were the best they could find. When in Rome, I guess the moral is: don’t try to eat like you’re in freaking Tahiti.
Even so, tonight is Gumbo Night in Marfa. And, to paraphrase a movie filmed near here: There Will Be Leftovers. I made as much as I could fit into the huge black cast-iron pot (the proof is in the photo) I found on a shelf near where I keep Al’s leash. Also on the menu: green salad from the garden with balsamic vinaigrette, hot garlic bread and flambéed bananas Foster (definitely not from the garden).
I’m thinking, hmm – maybe Beaujolais-Villages by Louis Jadot, since Lloyd and Karen seem to prefer French. The other night they poured an amazing Cotes-du-Rhone with that crawfish pasta, and I won’t even think about getting them Goats Do Roam from South Africa, since I haven’t seen it anywhere here. Beloved Blackstone merlot would be terrific with gumbo too – but then again, so would my favorite “cheap thrill” wine of all time, the 1.5-liter merlot from Corbett Canyon. At Spec’s, that double bottle runs about $6 – yes, like $3 each – but I’m afraid my friends might laugh at me. I love the stuff, year after year after year. Where did that backbone get off to, anyway?
I love making gumbo, anywhere and everywhere, from New Orleans and Lafayette to Fredericksburg and even Ajijic, Mexico. You can always find the right stuff, if you poke around the shops a little. Ajijic, for instance, inspired me with the best (and cheapest) roast chicken I’ve ever seen, turned bright red from hours in its spicy marinade. And now Marfa inspires me, selling me fresh-picked pods of okra at the Marfa Farm Stand, the Saturday farmers market an onion’s throw from Presidio County’s peach-and-cream wedding cake of a courthouse and even closer to the graceful old Paisano Hotel.
Heck, that historic property is where Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean stayed when they were here filming Giant in the 1950s. And it’s where the Quaids stayed far more recently, when they were here trying to get arrested. Do you think, just maybe, they might want to come over tomorrow night for some excellent gumbo? There will certainly be enough left!
NEW ORLEANS GUMBO IN MARFA
Note: Nothing is ever measured when you make gumbo, since it (like so many things) is all about relationships. It’s about steering toward what you know you want in the pot. I measured nothing to make the following. But I’ll try to describe where you’re going and why.
1 whole chicken, 4-5 pounds
3 yellow onions
3 stalks celery
1-2 pounds andouille or other smoked sausage, sliced
2 green bell peppers
1 pound fresh (or frozen) okra
2 cups tomato salsa (controversial, see Note below)
Creole seasoning to taste
Powdered caldo de pollo, optional
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup vegetable oil
Tabasco or other brand hot pepper sauce
Steamed white rice
Chopped green onions
To make the stock (while cleverly cooking the chicken), cut up the whole chicken and set in a large stockpot, filling with water. Sacrifice 1 onion and 1 stalk celery, chopping and adding to the water – along with scraps from all other vegetables cut up a bit later. Season with Creole seasoning and bring almost to a boil, reduce heat. Simmer for about 1 hour, until the chicken is cooked. Remove chicken and let cool enough to handle.
While stock is being made, heat some oil in a large (preferably cast iron) pot, kettle or Dutch oven. Brown the sausage pieces until starting to get crisp on outside, then chop and add: 2 remaining onions, 2 remaining stalks celery, 2 bell peppers. Stir until the onion starts to caramelize – don’t be afraid of golden brown, for here lies flavor. Stir in cut-up okra and cook until the “strings” of sticky stuff begin to cook out – don’t be afraid of sticky stuff, for here lies thickening (not to mention the West African name for okra that gives us “gumbo.”)
Add the salsa, or other chopped or puree tomato – Ro-Tel is great for this too. Season the thick, vegetal mixture with Creole seasoning and all other spices. Strain the stock into the gumbo pot. Taste and add caldo de pollo powder (chicken bouillon) for a more intense chicken flavor. Debone the chicken and add the meat in bite-sized chunks. In a separate pan or skillet, thoroughly combine the flour and oil until smooth, cooking over medium-heat until this roux turns dark brown. And no, don’t be afraid of heat – just, as the old saying goes, watch that basket! To help smoothly incorporate the roux into the gumbo, carefully pour a cup of the gumbo into the roux in the skillet – DO be afraid of a steam burn to your hands. Get in, and get out fast. Stir the roux, applying more gumbo until it’s a kind of delicious-smelling sludge. This is perfect to add to gumbo.
Add roux and let gumbo simmer another hour or so, so all the ingredients can learn to get along. Season again as needed. Add pepper sauce as desired. When ready to serve, ladle gumbo over steamed white rice in large bowls, topping with chopped green onions. Serves, well, 6-30, depending.
Note: In southwest Louisiana, the heart of Cajun Country, putting any kind of tomato in gumbo is heresy. In New Orleans, the heart of Creole country, putting tomato in gumbo is pretty much mandatory. I love the burnt sienna color and the extra layer of complex sweetness tomato brings – and I haven’t worked on cookbooks with bazillions of great chefs over the years not to care about layers! Over the years, I’ve tried all versions of tomato in gumbo and, by far, the best, is chunky tomato salsa right from the supermarket. Don’t yell, don’t scream – just eat it, okay? Which, I promise, even if you’re from gray-gumbo Lafayette, you WILL!