Woke up Sunday morning with a powerful craving for Cajun gumbo. The bad news was that, in order to eat said gumbo, I would have to make the dreaded roux. The first time I ever had this dish, it was served to me by a friend who was a chef in Tribeca NYC. I was exposed to amazing dishes at her table over the years, among them osso buco, boeuf bourguignon, choucroute garnie, and moussaka. Until I met Nina, I was only a fair to middlin’ cook. I could serve a good Thanksgiving dinner for 24, and knock out enchiladas, pasta dishes, grill a good steak, bake a potato, toss a salad. The usual. But when I met Nina in 1987, it was like a curtain was pulled back, revealing an amazing world I’d never known existed. Of course, I’d lived in Europe and traveled and eaten through that world more than the average bear, but entering the world of a professional chef was like Disney for big girls!
The instant I would try one of Nina’s recipes and fall in love, nothing would do until I learned how to recreate it. I’m sure I was a horrible pest, but I could not rest until I could produce what I had experienced in her kitchen in my own, whenever the spirit and the craving arose. I felt like a former nun, recently freed from years in a convent, and suddenly sprung into the world of dating. I wanted to try it all, sample everything, truffle oil, bluefin tuna tartare, lemon grass, daube provencale, immediately. The night she made her Cajun gumbo, an amalgam of several recipes from “The Prudhomme Family Cookbook”, I knew on the spot that I was surely one of God’s chosen creatures! There were so many different flavors and textures, from the saltiness of the tasso ham to the heat and complexity of the andouille sausage, the silkiness of the perfectly done okra, and so many other tantalizing flavors I could not begin to identify. When we said goodnight, I proudly announced that I would buy that cookbook the next day and try to master this on my own that very weekend.
She drew me aside and pointed to the angry red burn on her wrist and told me that this was an extremely dangerous recipe and that I must read about the roux in detail before attempting it myself, and also to wear the proper protective gear while making it. Also, don’t let anything or anyone interrupt you, no children, no phone, no Publisher’s Clearing House, no Jon Hamm wearing nothing but an apron, no serial killers, NADA! Sure enough, the very first words in the section under gumbos, were “Cooked roux is called Cajun napalm by the cooks at Paul and K’s restaurant because it is extremely hot and sticks to your skin. So, be very careful to avoid splashing it on you.” There follow 3 more pages of cautions and advice about how not to end up in the Burn Unit. You are working with oil dancing just on the edge of the smoking point, and adding flour to it in stages. Flour has moisture in it, and adding it to hot oil often creates steam, which is an additional danger.
If at any point black specks appear in your roux, bend over and kiss your arse goodbye. It has burned and you have to start over. Also tricky is the color of the roux. The lighter your protein, i.e. chicken, shrimp, or pork, the darker your roux should be. The darker the roux, the longer you have to work with it and risk that sucker splattering out of the pan and onto your mortal skin. Naturally, I play the game called “How Dark (Almost Black!) Can I get This Roux Without Burning It And Having To Start Over?”. Why in God’s name would anyone in their right mind even be tempted to make such a deadly concoction in their home?? Why not just marry a Louisiana boy and let his mamma and sisters take all the risk?
Then, as if all this weren’t enough adventure, you can still have the perfectly completed roux ‘break” on you when it’s added to the hot stock. Sadly, you won’t know this will happen until after you have escaped grievous injury and made what looks to the eye like a perfect roux! If you like to live dangerously, why not just bring home a cobra, a water moccasin, and a rattlesnake and let them loose in your baby’s nursery?
I’m not sure what makes me choose to spend hours every weekend in my kitchen, slave to the stove. It’s an addiction I’ve tried hard to break, after all, there are the most beautiful beaches seven minutes from this kitchen, there’s a gym within walking distance where I could lose a few pounds, there’s a lovely golf course in the backyard, and an aqua beach bike in my garage, so I’m not lacking things to do. Maybe all foodies have a screw loose, “bats in the belfry”, as my mom used to say. Or maybe it’s living in a tiny village where “exotic food” is fried shrimp and sugared coleslaw, and your cutlery is plastic and presented in cellophane wrappers, a land where Domino’s is thought of as a culinary palace. With the exception of sweet tea and Jello, I think every restaurant item is offered deep-fried. If you crave excellent and unique food, and don’t want to drive 2-3 hours to get it, do-it-yourself really is your only option.
So, I think I’ll head off to the kitchen now, pull on all my protective, full-body, anti-burn gear, disconnect the phone, turn off all distracting media, and inform the kid and The Spousal Unit that if they’re planning to do anything that might require a trip to the ER, please hold off for half an hour…..IT’S ROUX TIME!!!