Our honeymoon in New Orleans earlier this year was too short.  I wish we could go back now for the Treme Creole Gumbo Festival going on right now.  The Treme is 200 years old this year.  When we were there, we had some perfect fried chicken at Dooky Chase’s, and then a tour of the Back Street Cultural Museum (along with about 50 kids in a summer camp).   I loved this musuem, as it was really a small house, full of hand-beaded Indian costumes used for Mardi Gras and other festivals where African American men dance and recite impromptu rhymes and compete with each other in tribes for who is most Indian.  It is a great example of the amazing confluence of cultural traditions and artistic heritage of the city.  They allowed me a couple photos.

I came home and started to work on gumbo recipes.  The one I finally settled on is a combination of authentic gumbo from John Besh’s cookbook My New Orleans (complete with lots of photos of his family duck hunting in the bayou), along with some Zen inspiration from the Tasajara Recipe Book (tofu!).   I used to make the Tassajara Tofu gumbo all time, but felt it needed a better method for the tofu, and fewer steps over all.  You can make this recipe with chicken, shrimp, sausage, duck, or, in this case, fried tofu.  That’s right folks, if we can have tofu po-boys, we can have tofu gumbo.  And it can be awesome.  Creole spice loves it some bean curd.

Gumbo is a wonderful fall or winter dish– a hearty warm stew with lots of spice and complex flavors.  It usually has okra, which also gives it thickness.  Frozen okra is fine to use, but here in San Antonio it grows plentifully, so it is easy to find fresh until late fall.

First make the two most important ingredients:  Creole spice mix, and fried tofu.  If you dont like tofu because it looks mushy or tastes bland, this method will blow your mind.  It absorbs creole flavors really well, and it will be crisp on the outside, and creamy but firm on the inside.  No jiggle here.

This dish is extra French, since we are using a roux and also preparing the parts separately and then combining– the primary reason why French food is so good and such a pain in the ass to make.  But totally worth it.

Fried Tofu

Slice 3 lbs of extra firm organic tofu into 1/2 to 1/4 inch thick slabs.  Lay them out on a cutting board. (you will have to do this in batches with this much).  Place another cutting board on top of the tofu.  Use something about 2 inches thick to prop up one end of the cutting board (here I used a smaller cutting board), while the other end is on the edge of your sink.  You will have created a ramp of sorts, so the water in the tofu will drain into your sink.  If you have a cutting board with a gutter along the edge, use that as your base so the water has a draining path.  Now, place a heavy shallow casserole dish on top of the whole thing, and inside that, a brick (or two). 

I have found a brick wrapped in foil to be an indispensible ktichen tool.  Let the tofu press for at least 20 minutes.  You will see the water draining after a couple minutes. 

Meanwhile, make the mixture of creole spices (Recipe below).  This makes quite a bit, because it is super yummy.  I just stir fried some kale and peppers with it the other night and it blew my mind. 

Slice the slabs of tofu in half diagonally, and then each triangle in half again.  Heat some canola oil or other high heat oil.  You will need 3/4 to 1 inch of oil, depending on how thick your tofu is.  Dont worry, most of the oil does not end up in your tofu in the end.  The pressing of the tofu is key, as the more water in it, the more spitting your oil will do, and the slower it will cook, and therefore less crispy it will be.  Also, it will stick more to whatever it touches.  Sprinkle the tofu with the creole spice on both sides.

When the oil is very hot (medium high heat, preheat for about 5 minutes), Use a long slatted spoon or spatula to slide the tofu into the oil.  Be very careful.  Move the pieces around a bit when they first get in the oil, so they dont stick to anything.  Set a timer and cook them at least 3-4 minutes on each side.  They should be floating the whole time, not on the bottom.  When they are done they will be golden brown, with a kind of battered look.  Let them cool on paper towels.  Try not to snack on them.

Creole Spice Mix

(from My New Orleans)

Combine in an old mustard jar with a wide opening so you can fit your tablespoon inside.

2 tablespoons celery salt

1 tablespoon sweet paprika

1 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon pepper

1 tablespoon garlic powder

1 tablespoon onion powder

2 tsps. cayenne

1/2 tsp. allspice

Gumbo

1 cup canola oil

1 cup all-purpose flour

2 large onions, diced

2 stalks celery

2 green bell peppers

1 tomato, chopped

2 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped

2 tablespoons creole spice mix

2 sprigs fresh thyme

3 quarts stock (veggie, chicken, or seafood)

2 bay leaves

2 cups sliced fresh or frozen okra

1 tablespoon worcestershire

salt and pepper

Okay, now you will make a roux.  The cooks at Cooks Country claim a roux in creole cooking is for flavor more than thickening, as it is cooked so long it loses its thickening agency; as opposed to roux for making french sauces like bechamel, etc., which are much more “blonde” and are not meant to add much flavor, just thickening power.  I am not sure about this, as this gumbo comes out quite thick.  But I do agree it gives plenty of flavor.  I also like Besh’s method  (although Cooks Country has a clever one using the oven.)  Instead of standing around stirring the roux for 45 minutes, he says to just get your oil really hot before you add the flour, instead of heating them together.  This shaves off about 1/2 of the time.

In a large soup pot, heat the oil until it spits and sizzles when a drop of water hits it.  Add the flour (it should sizzle a lot) and whisk briskly until well combined and smooth.  Reduce the heat slightly, and continue to whisk, as you do not want it to burn.  Cook 15 minutes, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon.  It should be a nice amber at this point.  Add the onions and raise the heat again.  Continue stirring constantly for 10 more minutes (they should start to carmelize).  Now it should be the color of milk chocolate, or a dark penny.

Add celery, peppers (complete the trinity).  Then add the tomato and garlic and creole spice mix.  Mix well and cook3-4 minutes on medium high stirring.  Now add the thyme, stock, bay leaves, and bring to a boil.  Reduce to simmer for 20 minutes. 

Add the okra and Worcestershire, and simmer 15 more minutes.  Gently add the tofu, and let it simmer about 10-15 minutes more on low.

Remove bay leaves and thyme stems.  Serve over rice, or on its own.  Garnish with filé powder.

(If you are using chicken, add one large chicken cut into 12 pieces (on the bone) to saute for 10 minutes with the roux after it becomes copper, but before you add celery and peppers.  After you add stock, you will want to simmer for 45 mintes instead of 20.  You will want to skim off the chicken fat once in a while.   Add andouille when you would add the okra, otherwise it will overwhelm the flavors.)

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