Wednesday, June 10, 2009

MAN IN A CRISIS: The Emergency Management Cookbook

About a month ago I had asked someone to guest host my blog, so that I would not have to put much of my energy into it for a few weeks. I found my first volunteer to be a pot full of wonderful...I chose to start off his guest post with this photo; which in the cooking world, represents layering a dish with flavor, and Irish Gumbo is quite a dish...

“…as a man always falls back upon what he knows best in a crisis---the murderer upon murder, the thief thieving, the liar lying.”

---from “Absalom, Absalom!” by William Faulkner

It only precipitated a minor crisis when the lurvely and multi-talented Chef E first broached the question of a guest post here at cookAppeal (vacationing in Texas). Chef E has been following Irish Gumbo for quite some time, and I was very flattered and honored to be asked. So without really thinking it through that much I said “Yes!”

And then it hit me: What were my credentials to write about food? Let’s see:

--Gumbo is in the name of my blog.

--I like to eat.

--I eat food every day.

--I like food.

--A lot.

There you have it! No sweat, I was good to go. Except then I was freaking out because I had no idea for a post. None. Nada. Nyet. Zilch. This precipitated the second minor crisis: what in the world would I write about? Think, man, think! I was getting wound up because the ideas just refused to manifest themselves. I was chewing (get it? chewing. That’s a good eating joke!) on that for a few days, getting increasingly nervous, when salvation arrived in the form of a cast iron Dutch oven. There it was, sitting on the shelf in my new cabinet, the seed of a story held within its deep grey-black interior. I put my hands on it and asked it to tell me a good one.

I received the Dutch oven as a gift years ago, and it always speaks to me of comfort and home. It carries within it the memory of hearty meals past and the promise of good ones to come. It has solidity and heft. Think of it in some ways as a solid security blanket, with a handle and a lid. It is something to count on, an anchor, and an old friend to turn to in times of need.

Security and old friends are very much in demand in the Gumbo house these days, as I have undergone some major changes, serious crises, in my life in the past six months or so. I lost my job late last year, which was bad enough (although it gave me the blessing in disguise of time for blogging and writing). Then earlier this year, after prolonged and slow disintegration, my marriage of nearly twenty years fell apart and I became officially separated from my wife. As part of that terribly painful process, I moved out of the house and into an apartment not far away, so I could be near my young daughter. I took with me a decent assortment of cookware, including my maternal grandmother’s 50+ year old cast iron skillet and my newer Dutch oven.

Crisis. You bet. The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset said a crisis “…is no more than a deep and intense change; it may be a change for the worse, but it can also be a change for the better…” and I think that is true. It could be both, too, depending on how one views it. One thing is certain; it is a deep, intense change. So deep and intense that the mind just starts reacting, running on instinct and engaging with what it knows, rather than incur the strain of learning something new.

So it was that this deep crisis found me in the kitchen of my new apartment, about a week after I moved in. I was in a daze, panicked because I was faced with the task of cooking my first real meal in the new place. A meal just for me, alone, at the table, and the prospect thoroughly flummoxed me. I had been to the grocery store, but it had been a hurried trip, grabbing stuff that seemed vaguely familiar, mainly for the sake of having something in the cart. Not having a real plan, I started rummaging through the freezer and the produce bin, whereupon I discovered some chicken thighs, carrots, celery and a red bell pepper. A glimmer of hope and I quickly checked the pantry to find some fresh garlic, some chicken broth and rice. The knot in my stomach loosened as I opened my tackle box of spices, finding bay leaves, thyme, oregano and a bag of black peppercorns. It was as I was staring at these that a memory stirred in my head, of a dish I have made many, many times. I had been calling it my “chicken and rice thang”, and I received my initial inspiration for it after reading a chicken with rice recipe in Richard Olney’s Simple French Food. Looking at it all, I decided it was time to officially name this recipe, something more meaningful than just “thang”.

I was a man in a crisis, falling back on what he knew best. It was a time of deep and intense change, but I knew what I would be eating for my first real meal, in my new apartment, in the first days of my new life. In times like that, we all need some familiar comfort.

Ladies and gentlemen, from my kitchen to yours:



5-qt. Dutch oven, with lid

Small saucepan, with lid

Fine mesh strainer


Stirring implement of your choice


Vegetable oil (see notes below)

4 chicken thighs, bone in, skin on

1 bell pepper (I used red, but green or yellow or a combination is all good)

1 large or 2 medium sized carrots

2 stalks celery, trimmed (see notes below)

1 medium onion (yellow or white)

½ lb. andouille or Hungarian sausage (optional)(see notes below)

2-3 cloves fresh garlic (to taste), mince now or crush in a press later

1 cup long grain rice

2 cups chicken broth (see notes)

1 bay leaf

3-4 whole peppercorns

1-2 sprigs thyme (fresh) or ½ teaspoon dried

Pinch of dried oregano

Pinch of saffron (optional)(see notes)

Kosher salt, fresh ground pepper (to taste)


1. Rinse chicken thigh and pat dry. Trim off excess fat. Leave skin on. Season both sides with a generous pinch of salt and a grinding of black pepper. Set aside.
2. Rinse rice under cool water, until water runs clear. Set aside to drain well.
3. Seed and core bell pepper. Chop coarsely, about 1/3 inch pieces. Peel carrots, or just rinse and gently clean, if desired. Halve carrots lengthwise, then chop into pieces about the same size as peppers. Trim celery, cut off and discard any woody white parts, then chop coarsely into pieces similar to peppers and carrots. Peel onion, then dice it. The onion pieces can be smaller than the other vegetables, they meld into the dish a little better that way. But remember, it’s what you like that matters, so size to taste.
4. Cut sausage into small dice, if using, and set aside.


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Put rack low enough to fit Dutch oven. Place 2 cups broth, the bay leaf, peppercorns, thyme, oregano and saffron (if using) in saucepan, cover and place it on stove over low heat. Try not to let it boil; the idea is to get it to a simmer just before it gets poured into the Dutch oven, later.
2. Place Dutch oven on stove over medium-high heat. Pour just enough oil into it to cover the bottom evenly with a thin layer. About 1/16th of an inch, if that makes sense. Heat oil to just smoking, then place chicken breasts skin side down into pan. Fry for approximately 4 minutes, until skin is nicely golden brown, then flip them over to fry for about another 3-4 minutes. Remove from Dutch oven and reserve on a warm platter.
3. Skim off excess fat/oil, if necessary, to have 1 to 1-1/2 tablespoons left. Bring back up to heat over medium-high, and place the chopped vegetables in the pot. Stir to coat, sprinkle with a generous pinch of salt and let fry for about 2-3 minutes, just long enough for them to pick up some color but not get totally soft. The sausage, if desired, can be added at that point and the whole thing left to cook for another 1-2 minutes. Add minced garlic or press garlic into the mixture, stir and let cook for another 30 seconds.
4. Push contents of pot to the sides, making a hollow in the center of the vegetables. Pour rice into pot and stir it to coat with whatever oil remains in the pot, cooking for about a minute. You can let it sauté until it starts to get translucent, but I have found that often leads to overcooking in the oven.
5. By now the broth should be simmering. Get strainer and hold over Dutch oven. Take saucepan of simmering broth and, pouring away from you, pour the broth through the strainer. It will hiss and bubble loudly. That’s okay, all part of the fun. Discard the leavings in the strainer. Stir to distribute rice/vegetable mixture; it should continue to bubble.
6. Place the chicken thighs (use your tongs!) into the pot, nestling them down into the rice/vegetable/broth mixture. There should be just enough liquid to barely cover the tops of the chicken. If not, add very little hot water or more broth to cover. Cover Dutch oven with lid.
7. Put the pot into the now preheated oven and let bake for 30-35 minutes, until the chicken is just done. Remove from oven, let rest a bit, then (again, use your tongs!) place a chicken thigh on your favorite plate, spoon up some of the rice with, sit down and enjoy!

Notes and Other Scribblings:

Oil: I have been using olive oil for a while, but canola or peanut oil works great too. Maybe better, because the higher smoke point of those two lends itself to crispier chicken skin in a shorter time. An intriguing variation, in place of oil, is to fry 4-5 slices of good bacon until crisp, remove from the pot, and then cook the vegetables in the bacon fat. MMM…the bacon I have been using is from S. Wallace Edwards & Sons, in Virginia ( but any good-quality bacon should work.

Celery: Sometimes I discard the leaves and stubby shoots at the top. Other times, I strip the leaves and mince them really fine, adding them to the pot just before pouring in the broth. They add some color and a nice depth of flavor.

Sausage: Smoked sausage is better. I started out using hot andouille from Gerhard’s until I couldn’t find it anymore. Later, I came across the Hungarian sausage at Wegman’s, and man, was it a tasty substitute! I also use that to make gumbo, sometimes.

Broth: From scratch would be ideal, but Swanson’s does quite a good job. There is a lot going on in this dish, so the nuances of the broth may not be as important as the depth of flavor it adds. Plain water is fine, just not as much body as the broth.

Saffron: This isn’t strictly necessary for this dish. It’s bordering on “gilding the lily”, I think. Having said that, though, I really enjoy the deep yellow color it can add to the rice when it cooks. Lovely, lovely stuff. A treat for the eyes!

A cook confesses: Almost every time I make this dish, I end up “dogboning” the rice. Sigh. A Low Country cook I ain’t. I know some people might not like the look of the rice that way, but I have yet to solve that particular problem in my own cooking. I’ll say this: it may not look purty, but it sure tastes good.

Well, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit at Chef E’s kitchen, and I hope you all did as well. I hope to see you in mine sometime, stop in, we’ll share a big bowl of gumbo. Bon appétit!