We gather. On a sunny frosty day in November Chris and I set up tables in the back yard and a long string of Christmas lights on the ground which forms a runway from party to house. The fifty pound pig from this farm is collected the night before and brined with salted apple cider. Coals are lit on the caja china at 7:30 am as cook time will be about seven hours. There are two fire pits to sit around and battery operated lanterns to light the forest path so that later when it’s dark they will look suspended; purple and white globes dotted against the trees. I make two pots of chicken/sausage gumbo, thickened by roux and studded with peppers and okra. We also ask folks to bring a dish and they come bearing cornbread, venison stew, two kinds of corn chowder, salads, pickles, anchovy flatbread, cookies, s’mores for the campfires and all the fixins for homemade dark n stormies.
We connect the dots and the dots connect us, and introducing friends to one another widens our circles into ever bigger constellations. These days in our over-scheduled world, we don’t gather often enough away from phones and screens to eat and talk. Let’s change that.
This is our version of a Thanksgiving feast, and under the thin sun and soon- emerging stars of late fall, we eat this thoughtfully prepared animal whose life I thank for feeding us. We eat it to the bone and trotters and then use them for stock the next day.
When it gets inky dark we huddle by the flame and toast marshmallows. Next year I want to sit there longer.
When I was twenty-two, I landed a job in a new Cajun Creole restaurant in downtown Ithaca and soon became sous chef. We made everything from absolute scratch right down the to the blackening spice for meats and fish, olive tapenade and rolls for muffalettas and aoli for po’boys. The pace and pressure convinced me that I didn’t want to be a chef by profession, but I learned a lot there, gaining in skill, perspective and broadening palate awareness. We made blackened snapper drizzled with sweet buerre blanc whose buttery wine combined with the spice rub’s heat into a beautiful pink pool, thickly cut sweet potato fries, pecan encrusted chicken, jalepeño skillet cornbread, crawfish etouffee, crawfish pie, pecan pie, jambalaya served in neat scoops on delicate broth, and every other day in a massive stock pot- gumbo. I didn’t think of writing down the recipe when I worked there (why not?!) but have recreated a version of it from compiling and tinkering with four different sources. At the restaurant we used file´ powder made of ground sassafras for thickening and flavor, added to the roux: a flour/oil gravy which must be continually whisked or stirred with a wooden spoon in a cast iron pan over medium heat until it is the color and consistency of dark peanut butter. My twist is one part smoked paprika for the creole seasoning and fire-roasted chopped canned tomatoes to impart a smoky, complicated flavor to this southern stew. There are seafood gumbos and meat gumbos, but for holding up to a large party and to heating and reheating, meat gumbo is a good choice. Traditionally it is served over rice, but I added chicken stock to ours to make it a thick soup. Gumbo is a bit of work but well worth it.
- 1 five-pound whole pasture raised chicken cut into 10 pieces
- 1 pound andouille
- Creole seasoning
- 1 cup vegetable or grape seed oil
- 2 1/2 cups flour
- 2 chopped green (or color of your choice) peppers
- 2 stalks chopped celery
- 2 diced yellow onions
- 5 cloves minced garlic
- 1 cup chopped (fresh, frozen or canned) tomatoes
- 2-3 cups okra (1 bag frozen)
- 8 cups homemade chicken stock(you can make with carcass/giblets)
- hot sauce and salt and pepper to taste
- 1 tablespoons smoked paprika
- 4 tablespoons Hungarian paprika
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme
- 1 tablespoon ground pepper
- 2 tablespoons garlic powder
- 1 tablespoons Old Bay
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon chile powder
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- Chop vegetables and set aside.
- Dry the chicken pieces and coat them liberally with creole seasoning.
- Let them sit at room temperature for 20 minutes.
- Place 1 1/2 cups flour into brown bag and shake chicken to coat
- Brown chicken on all sides in one cup of vegetable oil (it won’t be cooked through) (cast iron frying pan is best for this)
- Let chicken cool and then rip meat off the bones, cut into chunks (can be done with scissors) and set aside.
- Place the chicken bones into a stock pot with 8 cups of water and bring to a boil to make the soup’s stock. Otherwise, save for later if you already have stock made.
- In the same skillet, maintaining medium heat, make the roux by adding 1 cup of flour to hot oil, whisking or stirring with a wooden spoon continuously so it doesn’t burn. Add more oil if needed (or more flour): you want the consistency to be like peanut butter, and the color like dark peanut butter. This will take about 15 minutes.
- Shut off the roux’s heat and stir in all the chopped vegetables except for the okra- stir to coat and partially cook.
- Transfer roux/vegetables to stock pot and lower to simmer.
- Add chicken, tomatoes, chopped sausage and simmer for 15 minutes or until chicken cooked.
- Add okra right before serving.
- Gumbo can be served as soup on it’s own or over cooked rice.