Thursday, February 19, 2009

Gumbo Grumble

* Ruth's Chris Gumbo (photo courtesy of Ruth's Chris New Orleans' marketing team) ... and it really looks exactly like this every time. *

I was watching the semi-finals episode Top Chef last night on Bravo (since being a very proper foodwhore, my channels are--for the most part--pretty permanently affixed to the Travel Channel, Food Network, and marathons of Top Chef) which for 2009, takes place in this wonderful city I live in. The Quickfire Challenge was for three returning chefs to compete for a fifth spot (!!!) for the semi-final challenge by way of crawfish. I'll admit that I'm a bad New Orleanian in one respect, that I don't enjoy the taste of these distinctive little mudbugs, but I can appreciate what it's supposed to taste like and what would be a good representation of the critters.

Segue into the elimination challenge, where the contestants cook for the highly respected and celebrity-studded Krewe of Orpheus' masquerade and for esteemed chef Emeril Lagasse. The one and only criteria for these key players as they run amok through Emeril's Delmonico on St. Charles Avenue? That they show an ability to cook Creole food.

Now, that sounds pretty simple, since Creole encompasses so many different styles. There's a lot of flexibility. The main ethnic foci are French (well, duh), Spanish, African-American ... with a touch of Caribbean thrown in. Other important aspects include:
  • the presence of the Holy Trinity; bell peppers, (yellow) onions, and celery, often diced very small
  • use of fresh, local ingredients
  • fearlessness of subtle heat, adventurous spices
  • generous heapings of sauce and/or butter.
The flavor profile of New Orleans is huge, so there's a whole lot you can do with all this. I give great props to Hosea, who really read up on the cuisine of New Orleans before coming here (they all had months and should have done the same) and was able to put out the most accurate dishes for the area, showing inventiveness while preserving what makes Big Easy food Big Easy food.

However, it's very annoying when people that aren't from this region automatically assume that when people ask for New Orleans dining, they want gumbo. I cringe when people that are unfamiliar with the food here attempt to make and serve gumbo, since there are age-old traditions that--no matter how avant garde you fancy yourself--should always be adhered to. And Stefan was right in saying that everyone serves their own particular kind of gumbo with different ingredients, since recipes are all passed through families and altered generation through generation ... but still. Here is where Stefan went wrong:
  • You can't make gumbo without a roux. I don't know what he was using to thicken up his, but it didn't fluff up right. For a healthier option, many choose to bake their roux versus the classic laborious stove top method (which Hosea did, and more power to him to spend the appropriate amount of time on it), but I certainly didn't see Stefan do either of those things.
  • Gumbo on grits?! No, no, no. There should ALWAYS be a nice dollop of firm, medium-grain white rice in the middle of your bowl. Not mixed in, but almost serving as an extremely functional point of interest. It adds a neutral slightly sweet flavor to the usually salty dish, and makes it even heartier. There's also something so satisfying about mixing it all up. How can you mix up grits that way? They'd get watered down and diluted and sit at the bottom like a big old sandbar.
  • Gumbo is usually dark(er) than that red mess he served on the show. Normally a brackish brown, like the color of the Mississippi River, swamp food needs to look like swamp food. I mean, gumbo is more Cajun than Creole (Cajuns are big fans of the one-pot slow-cooked medleys), anyway.
As for actual ingredients, as I mentioned before, that may vary according to taste. I prefer my gumbos to be free of seafood, with an allowance for fresh, cleaned shrimp. My favorites are made with andouille sausage (this is the only must-have, I believe); either slow-roasted chicken, braised off the bone, some nice duck, or delicious turkey; and plenty of the Trinity with bit of okra's bite. Seafood gumbos usually include crab, oysters, and some fish, but don't confuse seafood gumbo with bouillabaise -- it's not.

This is just a smattering of what New Orleans has to offer for gumbo-philes, but for spot-on land animal (mostly) gumbos, check these places out:
  • Cafe Amelie in the Princess of Monaco Courtyard and Carriage House (shown right): 912 Royal St., French Quarter
  • Brennan's: 417 Royal St., French Quarter
  • Drago's: Hilton Riverside and 3232 N. Arnoult Rd. in the Fat City neighborhood of suburban Metairie
  • Commander's Palace: 1403 Washington Ave., Garden District
  • Ruth's Chris: 228 Poydras St., Downtown and 3633 Veterans Blvd., Metairie

3 comments:

  1. I beg to differ on the necessity of rice in gumbo. I consider my grandma to be a pretty traditional example of south louisiana cooking, and she often serves gumbo with potato salad in it. Scoop of potato salad in the center of the bowl, then fill with gumbo. It's awesome.

    I agree that gumbo on grits is just plain wrong, though. :D

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  2. Sounds intense! What an interesting concept. I mean, everyone does gumbo a little differently, which is the beauty of gumbo, I believe. But at least the potato salad has that bite and resistance that grits, decidedly, does not, and that's what I'm looking for.

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