January 23, 2007

make the damn roux

I'm from South Louisiana, so I am supposed to know all about cooking, and I should be able to whip up a fabulous gumbo in no time flat. And I can charm the crawfish so they jump right into the pot, right, chere? Except that I'm actually from the most white-bread suburb of New Orleans, the one where cooking usually involves cream of mushroom soup and/or Velveeta. My mom raised four very lively children and she tried to use shortcuts wherever possible in cooking, which is why we ate spaghetti from which the water wasn't strained, very wet rice that wasn't quite finished cooking, very crunchy rice in an undercooked boxed jambalaya mix, and a lot of frozen fish sticks on Fridays during Lent. My mom made turkey gumbo by dumping a turkey carcass in a pot, boiling it down with water (like you would to make stock), removing the bones, and adding some sausage. My mom never understood why we scarfed down gumbo and jambalaya when we had it at other people's houses or at restaurants when we so clearly told her that we didn't like those two dishes. I was in graduate school before I found out that ordinary people cook with actual cloves of garlic and not garlic powder, and that this definitely made a difference in taste. (Admittedly, that's my grandmother's fault -- she claims to be allergic to garlic, so my mom never really learned to use it herself.)

Lately my husband and I have been trying to cook at home more, because we're tired of going out to eat. I thought it would be smart to make one big one-pot dish every week, and what we didn't eat, we could freeze as leftovers. Last week I made chili. I've been making chili for years and it's very tasty. This week, I ran through my mental list of things I could cook. I love daube (the kind you serve with spaghetti, not the gelatinous kind) but we just had a tomato/beef thing last week with the chili. Plus, daube is slow cooking so you have to be home for four hours; I wish I'd had the fixings to make it during last week's ice storm. I wasn't sure jambalaya would freeze well. I wanted something with chicken instead of beef, anyway.

Somehow this led me to chicken fricassee. I've had the South Louisiana version, which is brown-ish and not creamy, and I thought I'd like to try it again. I started looking for a recipe, both in cookbooks and on the web. I didn't want anything too complicated. I mean, we're talking about chicken and gravy here, primarily, which I thought I might serve with some biscuits if I got truly ambitious. (The husband has a knack for making biscuits.)

I found too many recipes that involved that primary step of South Louisiana cooking: "Make a roux." I looked around for a recipe that did not involve this particular step. Because the truth is that the only time I have ever made a roux was in high school cooking class as part of a group and under heavy supervision. My mom doesn't do roux. Roux-making is not for the timid, and the instructions for making a roux have always scared me, because there are lots of warning about it can take up to half an hour, how molten hot it gets, how easy it is to burn, how quickly you can set your kitchen on fire or at least ruin your good pots and pans, and so forth.

That's right. I'm 38 years old, I grew up in South Louisiana, and I hadn't ever made a roux. Don't faint.

At any rate, I found a recipe online for making chicken fricassee without a roux. It was allegedly taken from a Junior League cookbook in a south Louisiana town so I figured that had to be reputable. You brown the chicken, take it out of the pot, brown your veggies in the oil you used for the chicken, add the chicken back in with some water, let it simmer, and voila! Chicken fricassee magically appears. I bought the necessary ingredients at the store and on Monday night, after a quick dinner, I put Shock Treatment on the DVD player and got to work.

The chicken browned beautifully. I was worried that the recipe seemed to call for too much onion, and that there was too much oil left in the pot, but I figured these things would somehow resolve themselves. I innovated by including some chicken stock I had in the freezer instead of just adding water, although the quantity of liquids added to the pot remained the same. I stirred everything up nicely, let it simmer, and checked regularly on the big pot on the stove.

Eventually I realized something was wrong. The chicken looked fine, nice and tender. But the "thick gravy" that was supposed to form was still very thin. I tasted the liquid and suddenly experienced deja vu. The oily broth reminded me strongly of my mom's turkey gumbo. Blech. I thought about how much money I spent on all that chicken, which was probably going to go to waste because there was no way either my husband or myself was going to want to eat that stuff. I thought maybe I could take the chicken out of the liquid and salvage it somehow, but it was very discouraging. I let it simmer while I went into my bedroom to simmer a little myself and decide what to do next while checking my email.

I was half-involved in an IM conversation with my husband, who was working late, when I realized what the problem was. I hadn't made a roux. The recipe probably did call for a roux and some dumbass had left out that step when republishing it. Once I thought about it, the recipe made no sense -- it really was like my mom's gumbo, only with more oil. There were other recipes that didn't require a roux, but they weren't the same type of chicken fricassee. (It's apparently a very fluid term that describes any type of fried-then-stewed chicken.) I knew how to salvage the food, if I dared to face the challenge of the roux.

I took a minute to do a quick search for my friend Columbine's instructions on roux-making. I remembered that the instructions were very plain and clear, although they had included those terms like "molten" and "half hour" that had helped scare me away from roux. Still, Columbine is first-rate at any kind of procedural or explanatory writing, so I dug around until I found the roux instructions. The most helpful part was the reminder that you cannot do anything else while you are making roux -- you have to stand there and stir and focus on the roux and that is what you do, until it is finished.

I found a small pot to make the roux in, because the big pot already was full to the brim of chicken and liquid. I measured out an equal portion of oil and flour (four tablespoons each was what Columbine used for gumbo, and I figured that ought to be just about right). I also figured I was less likely to burn the roux if I used a smaller pot. It was too bad I had to use fresh oil and not something with chicken drippings, but it was a minor consideration. I focused on the pot of oil and flour on the stove and started to stir. And stir. And stir.

The roux started very pale and began to turn browner. It was working. I turned away for a quick second to grab another packet of stock from the freezer so I could thaw it in the microwave. I quickly went back to stirring, and stirring, and stirring. It didn't take anywhere near a half-hour, probably more like 5 to 10 minutes. I may have had the heat on a little high, but I had my eye on that roux continually. It started to turn a pecan-colored shade and I pulled it off the heat. I did not burn myself. The roux did not explode. The roux did not burn. I was triumphant. Roux!

And then I realized I had no idea what to do next. The chicken was in our only large pot. Should I strain the liquid mess, put the roux in the big pot, then dump all the solids back in? I hated to toss all that liquid in which onions and chicken and seasonings had been cooking for awhile. I found a big Pyrex bowl and dumped everything in there, then moved the roux to the big pot. It was a little darker by now, but still not burned. I scooped some of the onions and veggies out of the big bowl and added them to the roux, which wasn't ideal, but again -- it was what I had. I moved the chicken to the pot, and noticed that it was in fact falling-off-the-bone tender. In fact, most of the bones came off during the transfer, so I eventually went through the whole pot and removed all the bones. The bits of chicken still hanging on the bones were delicious.

I added the stock and suddenly everything in the big pot looked right -- a thick brown gravy and tender chicken starting to shred on its own. It still needed a little more liquid, so I strained as much grease as possible off the liquid in the Pyrex bowl and scooped out some of the remaining liquid, trying also to scoop as many veggies as possible. (We don't have any kind of degreasing gadget; I used a spoon, which took forever but worked.)

My mom and I share one important cooking ability: we can salvage food that we've totally screwed up, if we want. My mom knows a half-dozen ways to get pralines to work right if they're not hardening properly, and also points out that if those methods all fail, you then have yummy praline sauce for ice cream. And I now know how to fix a dying chicken fricassee. I swear, this could be a cookbook all on its own: "How To Fix Any Dinner Disaster."

This morning I boiled up some egg noodles to have with the chicken fricassee, because we haven't have time to make biscuits and somehow I thought rice wouldn't work as well as noodles. (Usually I am a total rice-and-gravy fiend, so I'm not sure what I was thinking.) Tonight we're going to have it all with a big salad before we go to a neighborhood association meeting, which will be much nicer than trying to get in and out of a restaurant on time. I'm sure we'll have tons of leftovers, too.

And although it's been a good 18 hours or so, there's still a little voice in the back of my head shouting exuberantly: "I made roux! I made roux!" Next week, maybe the big dish will be gumbo ... and not with my mom's recipe, either.

Posted at January 23, 2007 01:40 PM

She returns from filmdom. Cooking. Cool.

Posted by: LB at January 24, 2007 08:12 PM

OMG, it sounds like we were raised in the same house. can we get together a group of NOLA girls that are supposed to know how to cook, but whose only vegetables came out of a can until college? I can make a few good New Orleans dishes, but am sadly lacking. I found your site while looking for a recipe for daube like my mom used to make. It had a red gravy, not a brown one. Any ideas? I live in Austin now since Katrina. My son is here for SXSW. He wrote the book Hacking Movable Type, so I was delighted to see that you used MT and LJ.

Any ideas on the daube? Want to get together and try a gumbo????

Posted by: at March 10, 2007 05:46 PM