(MCT) — The first time I met chef Paul Prudhomme, he was peering over the stove in his narrow test kitchen, a converted shotgun house just outside the French Quarter in New Orleans. Chef was heating oil in a large cast-iron skillet, and when he saw me, he invited me over to watch him fix gumbo.
When the oil was smoking hot, he quickly whisked in flour to form a roux — “Cajun napalm,” he called it — the bubbling mass darkening to a deep chocolate brown in minutes. He stirred a trinity of vegetables into the roux to stop the cooking — onions, celery and bell peppers — then added the roux to a pot of boiling stock. Chopped andouille sausage and garlic went in as he patiently watched the stew, tasting occasionally, over a slow, quiet hour while it gently simmered away. When the rich aroma was almost too much to bear, Chef added chopped chicken, and soon the gumbo was ready.
I can’t say which I savored more: the depth of flavor from a seemingly simple dish or the unhurried quiet, almost sacred, time spent preparing it.
Unlike a typical weeknight dinner rushed to the table after a long day, stews are patient, as much about the sheer pleasure of cooking as the finished dish itself. It’s the simple alchemy of time and ingredients layered in a pot to form something lush and rich, with a depth of flavor that cannot be duplicated with a shortcut.
I spent a recent rainy weekend fixing Paula Wolfert’s oxtail daube, a provincial French stew. It’s a two-day project, requiring several hours of gentle braising. The weather was cold and wet, a perfect winter weekend for laboring over the dish. A bottle of red wine here, a little prosciutto there, a handful of fresh herbs, the building aroma gently wafting through the house. Sunday evening, I served the finished daube spooned over fresh pasta, the fork-tender meat coated in the most beautiful thick reduction.
While a good stew demands patience, not all of them demand a lot of time. The other night I fixed a spiced butternut squash stew, the cubed squash simmered with browned onions, raisins and roasted peppers. It came together in about an hour, the broth thickened with stale whole-grain bread and cream, the spice rounded out with the sweet notes of maple syrup, cinnamon and nutmeg.
It made a perfect weeknight meal, though I’ll admit it tasted even better as leftovers, after a quiet night in the fridge.
OXTAIL DAUBE (DAUBE DE QUEUE DE BOEUF)
Total time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, plus 7 hours braising time and overnight chilling time
Servings: 5 to 6
Note: Adapted from “The Cooking of Southwest France” by Paula Wolfert. She recommends serving the daube with noodles, followed by a salad of bitter greens.
4 ½ to 5½ pounds oxtail, cut into pieces
1 calf’s foot or pig’s foot, split (optional: for extra body)
¾ pound slab of lean salt pork
1 tablespoon olive or peanut oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 onions, coarsely chopped
1 bottle full-bodied red wine, such as Syrah
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
Herb bouquet: 3 sprigs parsley, 1 sprig thyme and 1 imported bay leaf tied together with a string
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 ounces jamon de Bayonne, prosciutto or Serrano ham, cut into ½-inch dice
¾ ounce dried French cepes or Italian porcini, crumbled
1. The day before you plan to serve the daube, heat the oven to 275 degrees. Trim off all excess fat from the pieces of oxtail.
2. Blanch the calf’s foot and salt pork in a saucepan of boiling water for 3 minutes, then drain. Slice the rind off the salt pork and reserve. Cube the salt pork and divide into 2 batches. In a heavy, nonreactive skillet, heat the oil and slowly cook half of the salt pork, stirring often, until the cubes turn golden brown and a great deal of their fat has rendered out, about 10 minutes. Line a flameproof earthenware or enameled cast-iron 5- to 6-quart casserole with the pork rind, fat side down. Transfer the browned salt pork to the casserole.
3. Season the oxtail pieces with 1½ teaspoons salt and one-half teaspoon pepper. Brown the oxtail pieces over moderately high heat in batches without crowding the skillet used to cook the salt pork, about 10 minutes per batch. As they brown, transfer the pieces to the casserole.
4. Remove and discard half the fat in the skillet. Cook the onions in the remaining hot fat until golden brown. Add the onions to the casserole.
5. Deglaze the skillet with 1 cup of the wine. Boil down to a glaze. Add another cup of wine and repeat. Add the remaining wine, vinegar and 1½ cups water. Bring just to a boil and skim carefully. Pour over the meats. Add the calf’s foot, herb bouquet and garlic. Cover tightly and place in the oven to cook very slowly for 3 hours without disturbing.
6. Carefully remove the oxtails to a deep bowl, cover and keep moist. Remove the meat from the calf’s foot while still warm and place in a food processor. Add the remaining salt pork cubes, the cooked pork rind, cooked garlic and the ham. Grind to a smooth paste.
7. Strain the cooking liquid, pushing down on the onions to extract all their juices. Remove as much fat as possible and pour the juices into a large saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium, and boil slowly, skimming from time to time, until reduced by one third.
8. Carefully return the pieces of oxtail to the casserole and spread the meat paste on top. Add the reduced liquid. Rinse the cepes under running water, drain and add to the casserole. Cover and bake in a 275 degree oven for 2½ hours without disturbing.
9. Remove the casserole from the oven and transfer the oxtails to a work surface, discarding any loose bones. Season with salt and pepper, pour into a bowl and cover and refrigerate. Separately, cover and refrigerate the cooking liquid.
10. About 2½ hours before serving, heat the oven to 275 degrees. Remove the jellied liquid from the refrigerator, and lift off and discard all congealed fat. Combine the liquid and add the meat in the casserole, cover and reheat the daube without stirring for 1½ hours.
11. To serve, remove the oxtails to a deep heatproof platter. Cover with foil and keep warm in the turned-off oven. Strain the sauce into a small saucepan, pressing down on the solids. Bring the sauce to a boil and cook at a slow boil, with the pan half off the heat, skimming, until the sauce lightly coats a spoon, about 20 minutes. Adjust the seasoning. Pour over the meat and serve hot.
Each of 6 servings: 778 calories; 66 grams protein; 12 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 50 grams fat; 9 grams saturated fat; 28 mg cholesterol; 4 grams sugar; 1,066 mg sodium.
SPICED BUTTERNUT SQUASH STEW
Total time: About 1 hour, plus cooling time for the chiles
Servings: 6 to 8
2 poblano chiles
4 tablespoons (½ stick) butter
2 tablespoons oil
2 onions, diced
5 pounds butternut squash (2 medium, or 1 large), peeled, seeded and cut into ½-inch cubes
1/3 cup dry white wine
6 cups vegetable broth
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon New Mexico chile powder
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup maple syrup, divided
½ cup raisins, coarsely chopped
6 to 8 pieces stale bread, preferably dark whole-grain, coarsely chopped
1 cup heavy cream
Fine sea salt
Tabasco sauce, optional
1 bunch green onions, thinly sliced on the bias
1. Roast the poblano chiles over high heat on a rack over a stove-top burner. When the skin is charred all over, place the peppers in a paper bag. Leave them for about 10 minutes, then remove and peel the skin — do not rinse. Discard the stem and seeds, and chop the peppers into a one-fourth-inch dice. Set aside.
2. In a Dutch oven or small stock pot, combine the butter and oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook until the onion just begins to brown, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the cubed squash and cook, stirring frequently, until the squash begins to soften, 10 to 12 minutes. Add the wine and scrape all the cooked bits from the bottom of the pan, and cook until almost all of the wine is absorbed. Stir in the broth, the diced chiles, the paprika, chile powder, cinnamon and nutmeg, and season with 1 teaspoon salt and one-half teaspoon pepper. Stir in 3 tablespoons maple syrup and the raisins. Adjust the heat so the stew reaches a low but steady simmer. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the squash is very soft and tender, an additional 10 to 15 minutes.
3. Uncover the soup, and ladle 2 to 3 cups broth, with some squash, into a blender. Add the chopped bread and blend until the bread is pureed and the mixture is thickened. Pour back into the Dutch oven, stirring to thicken the stew.
4. Slowly stir in the cream, and gently heat the stew. Taste and adjust the seasoning as desired. Add the remaining tablespoon maple syrup to sweeten, if needed (depending on the sweetness of the squash) and a few dashes of Tabasco if desired. Remove from heat.
5. Pour the stew into bowls, and garnishing each serving with a little of the sliced green onion. Serve immediately.
Each of 8 servings: 465 calories; 8 grams protein; 63 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams fiber; 22 grams fat; 11 grams saturated fat; 56 mg cholesterol; 22 grams sugar; 738 mg sodium.
CHICKEN AND ANDOUILLE SMOKED SAUSAGE GUMBO
Total time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Note: Adapted from “Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen” by Paul Prudhomme.
1 small (2- to 3-pound) chicken, or ½ of a large (5- to 6-pound) chicken, cut up
1 ½ teaspoons salt, divided
1 teaspoon garlic powder, divided
1 teaspoon ground red pepper (preferably cayenne), divided
1 cup finely chopped onions
1 cup finely chopped green bell peppers
¾ cup finely chopped celery
1 ¼ cups flour
Vegetable oil for deep frying
About 7 cups chicken broth
½ pound andouille sausage, or any good pork sausage (such as Polish kielbasa), cut into ¼-inch cubes
1 teaspoon minced garlic
Cooked white rice, for serving
1. Remove excess fat from the chicken pieces. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon salt and one-half teaspoon each garlic powder and ground red pepper over the chicken, rubbing the seasoning over both sides of each piece. Set aside at room temperature for 30 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, combine the onions, bell peppers and celery in a bowl.
3. Combine the flour, remaining one-half teaspoon each salt, garlic powder and ground red pepper in a paper or plastic bag. Add the chicken pieces and shake until the chicken is well coated. Reserve one-half cup of the flour mixture.
4. In a large, heavy skillet, heat 1½ inches of oil until very hot (375 to 400 degrees). Fry the chicken until the crust is brown on both sides and the meat is cooked, about 5 to 8 minutes per side; drain on paper towels. Carefully pour the oil into a glass measuring cup, leaving as many of the browned particles in the pan as possible. Scrape the pan bottom with a metal whisk to loosen any stuck bits, then return one-half cup hot oil to the pan (discard the remaining, or strain and save for another use).
5. Place the pan over high heat. Using a long-handled metal whisk, gradually stir in the reserved flour. Cook, whisking constantly, until the roux is a dark red-brown to black, about 3½ to 4 minutes, careful not to let it scorch or splash on your skin. Remove from heat and immediately add the vegetables, stirring constantly until the roux stops darkening. Return the pan to low heat and cook until the vegetables are soft, about 5 minutes, stirring constantly and scraping the pan bottom well.
6. Meanwhile, place the broth in a 5½ quart saucepan or large Dutch oven, and bring to a boil. Add the roux by the spoonful to the boiling broth, stirring until dissolved between each addition. Return to a boil, stirring and scraping the pan bottom often. Reduce the heat to a simmer and stir in the andouille and minced garlic. Simmer, uncovered, for about 45 minutes, stirring often toward the end of the cooking time.
7. While the gumbo is simmering, bone the cooked chicken and cut the meat into one-half-inch dice. When the gumbo is cooked, stir in the chicken and adjust the seasoning as desired. Serve immediately. (To serve, mound one-third cup of cooked rice in the center of a soup bowl and ladle about 1¼ cups gumbo around the rice.)
Each serving: 540 calories; 32 grams protein; 41 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 27 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 86 mg cholesterol; 3 grams sugar; 1,605 mg sodium.