Charles Siskin: True Sticker Shock

  • Wednesday, November 2, 2022
  • Charles Siskin

Growing up in the 50s, food was always a top conversation in my house. My parents both grew up during the Depression so food was an integral discussion at our table. Whether it was a discussion about the next meal or lunch after Sunday school or where the best barbecue could be purchased.(George’s on Market Street in a tiny hole-in-the-wall place by the Market Street Bridge.)

Shopping for groceries in the early 1940s was pretty much settled. We went to the EZ Way on Market Street just before the bridge to what is now referred to as north of the river. There were no Publix or Krogers but there were the Home Stores as I remember.

I’m not sure what $5 would buy you in those days but it seemed like a lot. Those paper shopping bags would be filled to overflowing. If we happened to run out of milk during the week, my dad would stop on his way home for a bottle of milk. Yes milk came in bottles in those days. For a while, several years ago, you could find those bottles in stores like Whole Foods but that seems to have faded away.

I was in Whole Food recently pretending I had just won the lottery. As I entered the sacred portals of this glamour spot I take note that Teslas are jockeying with Range Rovers for parking spots near the entrance. Poor BMW convertibles and Mercedes SUV’s are relegated to the second tier while my ’08 Toyota winds up next to the designated empty buggy corral or in the overflow parking lot.

Now I am no stranger to grocery shopping, however since I retired from the food service business a decade or more ago I have left it to my bride to handle the grocery side of our marriage. She deep dives into grocery shopping much as she did writing for the newspaper.

Perusing the fresh produce is always a joyful experience. It’s like a first date with the girl that you thought was so hot back in Junior High. I fear to know how she looks 60 years hence. Hopefully she is still around and not looking like wilted 3 day old kale.

Consequently when I saw a beautiful basket of fresh okra on a produce display I thought it would be the basis for a Cajun meal since I knew there was andouille sausage in my freezer plus cooked chicken . Then I checked the price and had true sticker shock. While I knew I was in fresh produce Valhalla, had the Gods gone totally mad?

I found an employee who appeared to be barely over 9 years old but was likely 15 or 16. (Getting anyone to work here in Destin is a true challenge). I asked if there had been a pricing mistake? He laughed condescendingly and intimated that I was some old guy well above the age of dreadlocks and multi tattoos and likely to have varicose veins. (Nailed it!) Then he suggested I check out the frozen food section at Wal-Mart.

Having been put in my place by that playground bully, I went over and feasted visually on fresh artichokes and exotic mushrooms, beautiful leeks and white asparagus whose price was in the stratosphere. Then I headed to the door and drove to the nearest Publix. That was no biggy since down here on the Gulf Coast there is a Publix on what seems like every other block.

Once in the store, home of the interminable BOGOS, wrapped in the warmth of 2 for 1 chips, coffees, wines, and numerous unnecessary foodstuffs that wind up on your pantry shelf till horribly out-of-date, I made my way to the fresh produce section where to my disappointment there wasn’t any okra whereupon frozen okra and I teamed up for my gumbo. Since I don’t digest green peppers I substituted red and yellow peppers instead. Purists just snicker at this point because the holy trinity of onions, green peppers and celery is the proper way to add to your roux which has cooked slowly for at least an hour long. Confidentially, at my age improper in any form sounds excellent.

It is important to cook your roux slowly taking time to get it dark, not burned as often happens if you get into a hurry. Gumbo is not a dish you do just before guests arrive. Furthermore if it sits for a day or two it gives the ingredients a chance to blend well together. That being said, should you choose to make the gumbo ahead don’t add the sausage, chicken and shrimp until a half hour before you are about to serve it.

In addition to the okra, which incidentally comes already cut into bite sized pieces, I like to include small shrimp, 31-40 count, already deveined that you just have to slip the shells off and add to the gumbo but first I sauté in olive or avocado oil with a goodly amount of garlic. The sausage and chicken already cooked should also be diced.

Incidentally if you have a slow cooker once you get all your ingredients together you could transfer to a slow cooker for several hours on the day you are serving. I think ladling directly from your crock pot makes for a great casual presentation at a buffet. If that is the case, then have a bowl of rice ready to add to your gumbo. A couple of tablespoons of rice are more than sufficient.

Ingredients
For the Roux:
• 1 cup all-purpose flour
• 1/2 cup oil- more if needed (vegetable or canola oil)
For the Gumbo:
• 1 bunch celery , diced.)
• Cooked white rice for serving
• 1 green / red or yellow bell pepper, diced
• 1 large yellow onion , diced
• 1 bunch green onion , finely chopped optional for garnish
• 1 bunch fresh chopped parsley , finely chopped for garnish
• 2-3 cloves garlic diced
• 1-2 Tablespoons cajun seasoning or file powder
• 6 cups water of Chicken broth
• 2 or 3 andouille sausages , sliced into 'coins' (substitute Polska Kielbasa if you can't find a good spicy Andouille)
• Cubed or hand pulled Chicken
• 2 cups Shrimps , pre cooked

Instructions

1. Make the Roux*: In a large, heavy bottom stock pot combine flour and oil. Cook on medium-low heat, stirring constantly for 30-45 minutes. This part takes patience--when it's finished it should be as dark as chocolate and have a soft, "cookie dough" like consistency. Be careful not to let it burn! Feel free to add a little more flour or oil as needed to reach this consistency.

2. Brown the sausage. In a separate skillet on medium-high heat place the sausage slices in one layer in the pan. Brown them well on one side (2-3 minutes) and then use a fork to flip each over onto the other side to brown. Remove to a plate.

3. Cook the vegetables. Add ½ cup of water or the chicken broth to the hot skillet that had the sausage to deglaze the pan. Pour the water or broth and drippings into your soup pot.

4. Add remaining water or chicken broth or a combination of both. Add veggies, parsley, and roux to the pot and stir well.

5. Bring to a boil over medium heat and boil for 5-7 minutes, or until the vegetables are slightly tender. (Skim off any foam that may rise to the top of the pot.) Stir in cajun seasoning, to taste.

6. Add meat. Add chicken, sausage, and shrimp before serving giving them enough time to heat in the broth

7. Taste and serve. At this point taste it and add more seasonings to your liking--salt, pepper, garlic plus a couple of good shakes of tobacco sauce-until you reach the perfect flavor. Serve warm over rice. (Tastes even better the next day!)

Footnotes:

In checking through several recipes I found that diced or crushed tomatoes are added to the gumbo. While not traditional certainly a nice addition.

Should you decide to head to Louisiana there is the annual gumbo Festival each October in New Iberia and worth the drive.


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