MEETING THE SPICE BOYS

Forget about tossing pancakes. This week, New Orlean's revellers will be tucking into gumbo to celebrate Mardi Gras. Michael Bateman discovers how to it's made
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The Independent Culture
While we are tossing pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, Americans launch into a week of festivity and feasting. In New Orleans, it's Mardi Gras.

I experienced the adrenalin of visiting the world's number one jazz city for only the first time last year (laisser les bons temps rouler). I became an instant convert, not least to their enviable appetite for tasty food, especially gumbo. What a dish.

Gumbo is to the southern states of the US what bouillabaisse is to the south of France, what feijoada is to Brazil, what steak and kidney pudding is to Britain. Yet, in the UK, in spite of our adventurous palates, probably only a handful of people will have eaten it.

So what is gumbo? It's essentially a hot, spicy stew of chicken, meat or seafood with layers and layers of flavour. And it has a glutinous and gummy texture which seems to echo its name.

Exactly how it should be made is a matter of fierce debate among its practitioners, many of Creole extraction (a mixture of Caribbean African, Spanish, Sicilian, German, Chinese and other settlers in Louisiana), and 800,000 Cajuns.

Despite arguments, gumbo tastes good any way you make it, claims Paul McIlhenny, head of the famous Tabasco company based in Lafayette, the heart-beat of the Cajun patrimony. "It's a wonderful thing. It's a dish you can't get wrong."

That's not the case in Britain. Chef Kenny Miller, the only gumbo cook I've met in the UK, says he's never come across anyone in this country who has got it right.

Most agree that the seasoning should include strong-flavoured herbs such as thyme and oregano, and spices such as paprika, cayenne and other peppers. They are in accord, too, regarding the "trinity" of aromatics, chopped onions, green peppers and celery which need to be first slowly sweated or "smothered" as they call it.

The debate about authenticity centres on what is gumbo's essential ingredient. Cajun and Creole gumbos differ in this respect. Should the base be a roux, the thickening of flour and oil? This was a cooking method introduced by the French. So, Cajun gumbo is made with roux as the base.

This may be blonde (white) for a crawfish gumbo, or browned for chicken and other gumbos (duck, turkey, pork, steak, alligator). The colour of the roux can range from that of peanut butter through to dark chocolate, and provides not only colour and thickening, but a sweet, nutty flavour.

The Creole gumbo, however, is seldom made with roux. The glutinous thickener which gives their gumbo its unique character is chopped okra (otherwise known as ladies' fingers). It's not usual, but some chefs use a belt and braces approach, using both roux and okra (Kenny Miller among them).

If Cajun and Creole cooking dates back two centuries and more, serious interest in it is comparatively recent. In 1979 charismatic chef Paul Prudhomme emerged as its champion, taking America by storm. Through his restaurant, K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, his books, his television promotions, videos, through sales of his spice mixtures. Now he's set out the ground rules of Cajun/Creole cooking.

He is a huge, black-bearded and fierce-looking character, so you wouldn't want to argue with him about the authenticity of a recipe, least of all his signature dish, blackened redfish. Redfish is a local species, and Prudhomme rolls it in Cajun spices (we'll come to them) and blackens it in an iron pan heated to white hot.

The sheer heat seals in the juices, concentrating the flavour of the spices. Choking black smoke ascends with the force of a volcano. Not a dish to attempt at home or, at least, not indoors.

In my too brief visit to Louisiana, having sampled some pretty satisfying gumbos, I was lucky to meet two home cooks at work, demonstrating their gumbos at Lafayette's Vermillionville Cajun and Creole Living History Museum and Folklife Village.

One, cooking for the visitors' canteen, made gumbo with a brown roux, patiently browning it for nearly half an hour, the base to which other ingredients are added. The other, Pat Turner, in a demonstration, used only okra (frying it gently in oil for a good half hour before adding any other ingredients).

What they had in common was the unhurried, patient way they cooked, somewhat out of tune with the pressures of modern life. The flavours were sublime, one containing smoked pork, the other the local speciality andouille, a smoked sausage.

Back on British soil, I decided to check out gumbos with Kenny Miller, our leading Cajun/Creole cook, now chef at Brian Stein's new Chelsea restaurant, Cactus Blue, uniquely featuring the cooking of America's south-west (a cut above Tex-Mex; to ensure authenticity they spent 200 hours trawling the Internet to check out all the south-west restaurants and their menus).

Kenny is a Glaswegian who became hooked on things American while working for the late Bob Peyton (the pizza king). Kenny worked in the American South and returned to open his own Cajun restaurant, Kenny's, in Hampstead, before moving on to Chelsea.

Gumbo is one of his favourite dishes, and it's on the menu at Cactus Blue. It's also in his bright new book (details below) from which the recipe opposite comes.

So, on to Kenny's masterclass. He produces a saucer of essential Cajun spices. He uses ground white, black, cayenne and paprika pepper. "Each one delivers a different kind of heat to different parts of the mouth," he claims. "They are added in three batches, at the beginning, in the middle and at the end, to give layers of flavour."

The flavouring mixture also includes onion powder and garlic powder, though not file. This is a key Cajun spice added at the end of cooking, a bitter brown powder the colour of tobacco. It acts as a flavour enhancer and thickener, breaking down the the cells in food. "File is the ground leaf of sassafras, similar to bay or laurel," Kenny explains . "But it's not imported. In the UK it's considered poisonous."

Kenny chops the "trinity" of onion, green pepper, celery. ``Roughly. We don't want to leave the flavour on the chopping board." These will be sweated gently in oil to release their flavours.

Now the roux. His assistant chef Lane Lindsey, who is from Louisiana, cooks the roux, from blonde, then beige, and through to mahogany and ultimately dark chocolate.

"We call it Cajun napalm," says Kenny. "If it catches fire it can splash on to your skin. Darkened roux is highly combustible." Especially when they make it at speed in the restaurant .

Lane pours two cups of peanut oil into an iron-based pan placed over a flame turned up to full force. When it's very hot he shakes in an equal volume of flour, and beats it strenuously with a whisk. "If you stop stirring, it'll burn," says Kenny, "the sauce will split, and the gumbo will fail to thicken."

I've read that Louisiana ladies will allow up to an hour to cook their roux through to the required colour. "If they were making a very large amount," corrects Kenny. "But they wouldn't work on such a fierce heat."

After 10 minutes of furious beating and Lane's roux turns beige. Very quickly it goes through all the browns till it's like runny chocolate. "If there's too much oil, you can leave the mixture to cool a bit. The oil rises to the surface. You can pour it off."

Lane takes the mixture off the heat, but continues beating a few more minutes. It's still continuing to cook in the heat of the pan. "You'll have to let it cool a bit. If you put it straight into your gumbo like this it will explode. I know."

That's the belt and now the braces. Kenny drops whole okra straight into the pot, unchopped. "It really doesn't matter, they will cook to shreds."

The roux made, that's the hard work done. Now you leave the pot to simmer and simmer. His 10-litre restaurant pan will cook away for three hours or more, reducing by half in that time, concentrating the flavours. Doesn't the chicken cook to rags? Yes. But in a restaurant, you can pretty it up with some extra chicken pieces.

And now you eat it? You could. But honestly, you'd rather leave it to cool, allowing the flavours to marry, and eat it the next day.

It seems to me a great candidate for a party dish so, hoping to add it to my repetoire, I put Kenny's lesson into practice at home. There being no fresh okra in the shops, I used a can, definitely second best. Everything went well. I've never made a dark roux before but it turned out to be a doddle, and being a small amount, it was done in less than 10 minutes.

If you make too much roux, by the way, you can keep it in the fridge. If you were entertaining you could therefore make the roux some days in advance to remove anxiety, but frankly, the dish is as stress-free as any dish imaginable.

BROWN ROUX

Makes 175g/6oz

125ml/4oz groundnut oil

60g/212oz flour

Over a high heat, using a thick-bottomed pan, heat the oil and slowly stir in the flour.

Whisk continuously for 10 to 15 minutes, patiently scraping up the goo when it tries to stick. When it reaches desired shade of brown (make it dark for the recipe below) take it off the heat, but continue to stir till it begins to cool down. Any black specks, I'm afraid, means you have scorched it and you have to start again.

CAJUN SPICES

Make up a quantity to keep in a jar

2 tablespoons garlic salt

2 tablespoons onion salt

1 tablespoon garlic powder

3 tablespoons cayenne pepper

3 tablespoons paprika

1 tablespoon ground white pepper

1 tablespoon coarse black pepper, freshly ground

2 tablespoon dried thyme

1 tablespoons dried oregano

KENNY'S CHICKEN GUMBO

Serves 4 to 6

212 litres/412 pints chicken stock

1 small ham hock, preferably smoked

3 level tablespoons Cajun spices

2 Spanish chorizo sausages

1kg/2lb 4oz chicken

175g/6oz roux

150g/5oz okra

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

For the trinity:

150g/5oz each of roughly chopped celery, green pepper, peeled onion

groundnut or vegetable oil for frying

To garnish:

cooked white rice

chopped parsley

Make a roux. Set aside. Sweat the trinity ingredients in oil till soft but not browned. Add the stock, the ham hock and a third of the seasoning. Simmer for 30 minutes.

Slice the chorizo, and fry gently in oil. Remove. Cut chicken into 10 pieces, and lightly fry in the same oil to give colour. Drain. Now stir in the roux, adding the chorizo. When the roux has dissolved, add the chicken pieces. Simmer for another 30 minutes.

Remove ham hock, cutting and chopping the meat, discarding the rind and fat. Return meat to the pot with the bone. Remove surplus fat or oil with ladle. Add the second one-third of seasoning.

Add the okra and chopped garlic, turn heat to lowest and simmer for one hour more. Check seasoning, adding the last one-third of Cajun spices. Serve now, poured over rice, garnished with parsley; or leave to cool, to reheat next day.

The recipes are taken from Kenny Miller's book `Kenny's Cajun/Creole Cookbook' (Prion pounds 12.99)

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