experiments in cooking

Archive for the ‘Soups’ Category

Granny’s Chicken Gumbo

If you want to be a kid again, recreate the good smells you smelled as kid.

The part of the brain involved with scents also deals with memories. (See this UPI.com Health News article “Same brain part deals with scents, memory”)   and, as Discovery Health  has reported, because we encounter most new odors in our youth, smells often call up powerful childhood memories.

That’s why, when I smell a spring morning, I’m six again, leaving for kindergarten from my grandparents’ house in Longview, Texas.

When I smell hot chocolate, I’m eight, coming in from playing in the snow—or 12, daydreaming by the window on a winter morning—or 17, doing a crossword puzzle by myself on a Saturday night, listening to haunting Celtic music, and mooning over some boy who didn’t love me back.

Yes, food has tremendous power to revive our childhood memories.

The other night, I made my family’s chicken gumbo for the first time since I moved out on my own. As the gumbo simmered, the scent made me recall with sweet clarity how it felt to be a kid. Memories of dozens of family meals, conversations around the table, helping my mom clean up after dinner, all washed over me. And with the first bite, the distance that separates me from my younger self was gone. I felt younger than I have in a long time.

Chris had never had the dish before, but he ate two bowls of it. “This is one of the best things I’ve had in a long time!” he said.

“Brings back memories for me,” I said quietly. And that was an understatement. I was surprised by how happy I felt.

It happens to all of us. I read today that when French memoirist Marcel Proust dipped a pastry into his tea, the distinctive scent it produced suddenly opened the flood gates of his memory. And sometimes, you don’t recall a single memory, but instead find yourself feeling suddenly content.

I am the third generation to make this dish, and it’s tied to special memories for more than just me. My mom tells me she started making this simple gumbo before I was born. She got the recipe from her mother-in-law, my paternal grandmother. Mom first tasted this dish when Dad took her to meet his parents nearly 40 years ago. They drove several hours from Tucson, Ariz., north to Prescott, and Granny served her chicken gumbo to my mom, the thin, 19-year-old girl with the long, blonde hair who was going to marry her son.

This chicken gumbo is easy and quick to make, and it probably doesn’t taste anything like an authentic gumbo you’d find down in Louisiana. Granny did live in Shreveport for a couple of years, but a classic gumbo is a lot more complicated than hers. I’ve only had a real spicy Cajun gumbo once in my life. That’s a memory too. But this simple gumbo is the one for me.

What foods take you back?

 

Granny’s Chicken Gumbo

This dish offers a good chance to use up some leftovers—you can ladle it over leftover rice or potatoes and possibly day-old pasta. Chris ate his second bowl over a pile of oyster crackers that I bought on a whim because I thought the kids would enjoy eating little octagons.

1 chicken or equivalent in chicken pieces (I used just two boneless skinless chicken breasts)

1 ½ cups chicken broth or stock (a 14-oz can of broth will work fine)

Water

2 T butter or olive oil (I used olive oil)

1 large onion, chopped (I used a shallot)

1 green pepper, chopped

2 Tbsp flour

1 small can tomato sauce

½ Tbsp thyme

Salt and pepper to taste

Tabasco (optional)

Hot pepper (optional)

Okra (optional)

Put chicken in a pot and pour chicken broth over it. Add enough water to cover the chicken pieces. Bring the water to a simmer over high heat, then lower the heat until the liquid is barely bubbling. Cook until the chicken is done, approximately 25–30 minutes for chicken pieces but only 12 minutes for boneless skinless chicken breasts. Remove chicken from the pot; cool and debone. Remove chicken liquid from the heat.

Put butter/olive oil, onion and pepper in a large skillet and sauté until tender. Add flour and brown to nice color. Add chicken liquid, tomato sauce, salt and pepper, and thyme. Shred chicken, add to sauce, and simmer. Add peppers, okra, and Tabasco for a spicier gumbo.

Serve with hot sauce, steamed rice, potatoes, or crackers.

Who Needs Meat When You’ve Got Homemade Soup and Breadsticks?

Soup, Salad, and Breadsticks


In my house, we eat a lot of meat. Pork chops, bacon, sausage, chicken, steak, roast, hamburger, bologna, ham, salami … the list goes on and on.

Yes, I will admit, we are one of those households that eats meat for two out of three meals every day. But I’ve been thinking it would be a good idea to have some meals in my repertoire that don’t involve meat.

Why?

Why would I want to eat a meal without meat when bacon tastes so, so good?

I know that’s what my husband wonders. And if I wanted to serve a meal without meat, I knew I’d have to make it a meal so tasty that Chris wouldn’t even notice there was no steak or pork chop on his plate.

Back to why I would want to prepare a meal with no meat main dish: First, meat costs a lot, and there are times at the end of the month when nothing is on sale and I could save a little money if I didn’t have to run out to the store to buy high-priced chicken or beef or whatever. Second, eating meat makes calories add up fast, and I like to have some “light” suppers on my list for days when I’ve had a big lunch or when I’d like to indulge a little for dessert after supper. Third, I know that decades ago, people ate a lot of meals without meat, largely because of reason #1 above (they couldn’t afford it), and now and then I like to experience what things were like for previous generations. Although I must admit my personal journey back in time would only be a partial historical re-creation; I wasn’t planning to shut off our electricity or move the bathroom out to the backyard for the night of the big Meatless Dinner.

Anyway, for my meatless meal experiment, I settled on a menu of soup, salad, and homemade breadsticks. I figured, if the breadsticks and soup turned out great, we could stuff ourselves with bread and allow the aroma of the chicken stock-based soup to fool our brains into thinking we’d feasted on chicken.

Would it work?

My Joy of Cooking includes a simple recipe for stracciatella, or Italian parmesan and egg soup that I decided to try. It’s essentially a deconstructed matzo ball soup, with egg, parmesan, breadcrumbs, and spices cooked just a couple of minutes in a simmering chicken stock.

Garnished with the magical spice nutmeg, my current favorite, the soup turned out pretty yummy. No, it wasn’t filling, but for that purpose we had—oh, yes!—steaming, buttery, parmesan-sprinkled hot homemade breadsticks.

They were beautiful. They smelled heavenly. They tasted delicious. And, as Chris pointed out, they looked, smelled, and tasted a fair bit like Crazy Bread from Little Caesar’s, the cheapest pizza chain in America.

“Is that a compliment?” I asked. I wasn’t sure.

“Well, you love Crazy Bread,” he said.

It’s true, I do.

I ate four breadsticks, one bowl of soup, and a simple side salad. And guess what? I did not miss the meat. I really didn’t.

But I have a confession to make.

While the chicken stock was coming to a simmer, while the breadsticks were baking, before the salads were made, I got worried that Chris would freak out when he figured out there wasn’t any meat for dinner. So I sliced up some summer sausage to put on his plate next to the soup. And I ate a slice myself. So help me, I did.

Below are the recipes needed to make for this simple soup and homemade breadsticks (which, incidentally, reheated well for a meal the next day).

I have left out any reference to the pre-meal summer sausage snack. I was weak … but you don’t have to be.

Italian Parmesan and Egg Soup (Stracciatella)

A Roman specialty, stracciatella derives its name from the word straccetti, little rags—describing the strands of egg that float in the broth.

Bring to a simmer in a medium saucepan:

3 cups chicken stock

Meanwhile, whisk together until blended:

1 large egg

1 ½ tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

1 tablespoon dry unseasoned breadcrumbs (I had only Italian breadcrumbs and used them instead)

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley (I didn’t have any so I left this out)

1 small clove garlic, finely minced

Stir this mixture rapidly into the simmering stock and stir until the egg is set, 30 to 60 seconds. Garnish with:

Freshly grated or ground nutmeg or grated lemon zest

Ladle into warmed bowls

Homemade Pizza or Breadstick Dough (from Aunt Marilyn Hill)

1 1/3 cup warm water

1 pkg (2 ¼ tsp yeast)

1 ½ tsp salt

2 tbsp oil

3 ½ cups all-purpose flour

Dissolve yeast in water. Stir in salt, sugar, and oil. Add flour one cup at a time. Mix well. Add ½ cup flour if dough is too sticky. Allow to rise for 30–45 minutes. (You may freeze the dough at this point.)

For breadsticks (from Our Best Bites):

Remove dough from bowl and place on a lightly floured surface. Spray a baking sheet with cooking spray. Roll into a rectangle and cut into 12 strips with a pizza cutter.

Roll out each piece of dough into a snake and then drape over your forefinger and twist the dough. Place on baking sheet and repeat with remaining 11 pieces of dough. Try to space them evenly, but it’s okay if they’re close.

Cover pan and allow dough to rise for another 30 minutes. When there’s about 15 minutes to go, preheat your oven to 425. When done rising, bake for 10–12 minutes or until golden brown. Rub some butter on top of the breadsticks (just put a Ziploc bag on your hand, grab some softened butter, and have at it) and sprinkle with garlic bread seasoning or the powdery Parmesan cheese in a can and garlic salt. Or you could sprinkle them with cinnamon sugar.

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