The first time I met chef Paul Prudhomme, he was peering over the stove in his narrow test kitchen, a converted shotgun house just outside the French Quarter in New Orleans. He was heating oil in a large cast-iron skillet, and when he saw me, he invited me over to watch him fix gumbo.
When the oil was smoking hot, he quickly whisked in flour to form a roux - "Cajun napalm," he called it - the bubbling mass darkening to a deep chocolate brown in minutes. He stirred a trinity of vegetables into the roux to stop the cooking - onions, celery, and bell peppers - then added the roux to a pot of boiling stock. Chopped andouille sausage and garlic went in as he patiently watched the stew, tasting occasionally, over a slow, quiet hour while it gently simmered away. When the rich aroma was almost too much to bear, Chef added chopped chicken, and soon the gumbo was ready.
I can't say which I savored more: the depth of flavor from a seemingly simple dish or the unhurried quiet, almost sacred, time spent preparing it.
Unlike a typical weeknight dinner rushed to the table after a long day, stews are patient, as much about the sheer pleasure of cooking as the finished dish itself. It's the simple alchemy of time and ingredients layered in a pot to form something lush and rich, with a depth of flavor that cannot be duplicated with a shortcut.
I spent a recent rainy weekend fixing Paula Wolfert's oxtail daube, a provincial French stew. It's a two-day project, requiring several hours of gentle braising. The weather was cold and wet, a perfect winter weekend for laboring over the dish. A bottle of red wine here, a little prosciutto there, a handful of fresh herbs, the building aroma gently wafting through the house. Sunday evening, I served the finished daube spooned over fresh pasta, the fork-tender meat coated in the most beautiful thick reduction.
While a good stew demands patience, not all of them demand a lot of time. The other night I fixed a spiced butternut squash stew, the cubed squash simmered with browned onions, raisins and roasted peppers. It came together in about an hour, the broth thickened with stale whole-grain bread and cream, the spice rounded out with the sweet notes of maple syrup, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
It made a perfect weeknight meal, though I'll admit it tasted even better as leftovers, after a quiet night in the fridge.
Chicken and Andouille Smoked Sausage Gumbo
Makes 6 servings
1 small (2- to 3-pound) chicken, or 1/2 large (5- to 6-pound) chicken, cut up
1 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 teaspoon garlic powder, divided
1 teaspoon ground red pepper (preferably cayenne), divided
1 cup finely chopped onions
1 cup finely chopped green bell peppers
3/4 cup finely chopped celery
1 1/4 cups flour
Vegetable oil for deep frying
About 7 cups chicken broth
1/2 pound andouille sausage, or any pork sausage (such as Polish kielbasa) cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1 teaspoon minced garlic
Cooked white rice, for serving
1. Remove excess fat from the chicken pieces. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon salt and one-half teaspoon each garlic powder and ground red pepper over the chicken, rubbing the seasoning over both sides of each piece. Set aside at room temperature for 30 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, combine the onions, bell peppers, and celery in a bowl.
3. Combine the flour, remaining one-half teaspoon each salt, garlic powder, and ground red pepper in a paper or plastic bag. Add the chicken pieces and shake until the chicken is well coated. Reserve one-half cup of the flour mixture.
4. In a large, heavy skillet, heat 11/2 inches of oil until very hot (375 to 400 degrees). Fry the chicken until the crust is brown on both sides and the meat is cooked, about 5 to 8 minutes per side; drain on paper towels. Carefully pour the oil into a glass measuring cup, leaving as many of the browned particles in the pan as possible. Scrape the pan bottom with a metal whisk to loosen any stuck bits, then return one-half cup hot oil to the pan (discard the remaining, or strain and save for another use).
5. Place the pan over high heat. Using a long-handled metal whisk, gradually stir in the reserved flour. Cook, whisking constantly, until the roux is a dark red-brown to black, about 31/2 to 4 minutes, careful not to let it scorch or splash on your skin. Remove from heat and immediately add the vegetables, stirring constantly until the roux stops darkening. Return the pan to low heat and cook until the vegetables are soft, about 5 minutes, stirring constantly and scraping the pan bottom well.
6. Meanwhile, place the broth in a 51/2 quart saucepan or large Dutch oven, and bring to a boil. Add the roux by the spoonful to the boiling broth, stirring until dissolved between each addition. Return to a boil, stirring and scraping the pan bottom often. Reduce the heat to a simmer and stir in the andouille and minced garlic. Simmer, uncovered, for about 45 minutes, stirring often toward the end of the cooking time.
7. While the gumbo is simmering, bone the cooked chicken and cut the meat into one-half-inch dice. When the gumbo is cooked, stir in the chicken and adjust the seasoning as desired. Serve immediately. (To serve, mound one-third cup of cooked rice in the center of a soup bowl and ladle about 11/4 cups gumbo around the rice.)
by Paul Prudhomme
Per serving: 540 calories; 32 grams protein; 41 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams sugar; 27 grams fat; 86 milligrams cholesterol; 1,605 mg sodium; 2 grams dietary fiber