Teamwork Makes Entertaining Work
I was under the impression that life would slow down as I got older. Newsflash to all the youngsters: it does not. I did so much more entertaining when I was in the thick of it with little kids than I do now with an empty nest. It makes no sense. However, getting together with friends in the comfort of a home is much nicer than always going out to eat.
My friend Jana and I were on a walk one day when this topic came up, and Jana had the brilliant idea to combine efforts. She would host, I would cook, problem solved. Not only did it lighten the load, but it was fun to have a project to work on with a friend. We created our guest list and had fun choosing friends we knew who did not necessarily know each other.
Then we set our sights on a theme and menu. February has a lot to offer in the theme department. Should we do a football theme in honor of the Super Bowl? Go the Valentine’s Day route? Or turn up the volume and the heat in honor of Mardi Gras? We chose door number three. However, seeing as how Jana is from Louisiana, I hardly felt qualified to spearhead any authentic cuisine, and that is when the real fun started. Jana said she would teach me how to make gumbo.
We met up at Whole Foods after work on Friday, went back to her house, and started chopping. Her husband, Andy, put on a NOLA playlist and poured us a cocktail, and we were off. The key, I learned, is in the roux (a mixture of flour and fat that thickens the sauce) and to never stop stirring, or else it will burn. Be sure to scrape up the small pieces of chicken that may be stuck to the bottom of the pan and be patient. The darker the roux, the more delicious. We stirred for probably 10 to 15 minutes; Jana said people in Louisiana measure stirring time by “three beers or four beers.”
Making the gumbo the night before was strategic. Jana’s kitchen stayed clean the day of the gathering, keeping her free and clear to do other things (like set her beautiful table, smothered in Mardi Gras beads). And the flavors marinated and blended overnight, which took the gumbo to another level. Our friends raved about it, and my husband declared it the best gumbo he had ever had — and he has had a lot of gumbo.
With the main course handled, I focused on hors d’oeuvres, salad, rice, crusty bread, and dessert. But, no! Andy got in on the action and tackled Oysters Rockefeller, a classic New Orleans dish. He chose Ina Garten’s recipe, and it was off the charts. Non-oyster eating guests went back for seconds. (The recipe can be found at www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/easy-oysters-rockefeller-13571987.)
So, this whole divide-and-conquer deal was really working out well for me. To round out this rich, hearty menu, I did a crudité for anyone who might be craving a veggie. My simple Caesar dressing (which I have written about before) doubles as the perfect dip, because it is emulsified and therefore thick.
Along with a couple of fresh baguettes, I brought my rice cooker, which is a game changer for any meal because you simply push a button and forget about it. When it is finished cooking, the rice cooker defaults to warm until you need it.
Finally, before we served the gumbo, we plated a refreshing and colorful salad that featured seasonal oranges in both the vinaigrette and the salad and worked well in between the rich oysters and cozy gumbo.
No Mardi Gras themed meal would be complete without a King Cake, but we left that to the pros, and Jana ordered one from Gambino’s in New Orleans. Because Jana is an adventure expert, we did not just have King Cake — we had King Cake, Champagne, and salted chocolate caramels in her luxurious yurt in the backyard. Changing up the scenery was the perfect cherry on top and added just the right touch of whimsy.
While this menu was perfect for our Mardi Gras theme, it is also spot on for a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner, but maybe swap out the King Cake for a molten chocolate cake. And if you are having friends over for the Super Bowl, it is perfect to feed a crowd. One recipe, three occasions, now that is efficient.
All this to say, many hands make light work.
Chicken ‘N Sausage Gumbo
½ cup plus 2 T. vegetable oil
1½ lbs. Andouille sausage, in quarter-inch slices
3 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed of fat
3 T. plus 1 t. K’s Cajun Seasoning (see *note below), or salt and pepper
1 cup flour
1 cup white onion, diced
¾ cup green bell pepper, diced
¾ cup celery, diced
1 t. Tabasco sauce
3 T. Worcestershire
2 bay leaves
4 cups chicken broth
5 cups hot water
½ cup scallions, sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
In a large Dutch oven, heat 2 T. oil and add sliced sausage. Cook until golden brown. Spoon sausage into a bowl and set aside.
Meanwhile, add generous amount of K’s seasoning.
Add remaining ½ cup oil to pot. Once heated, cook the chicken in batches until lightly browned on both sides. Set aside.
To make the roux, start by adding flour to hot oil in pot. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon over medium-high heat until medium-dark brown. Approximately 10 minutes, or longer. Stir onion, bell pepper, and celery into mixture; cook vegetables until tender, approximately 5 minutes. In between stirring, cut chicken into bite-sized pieces.
Return chicken to pot and add Tabasco, Worcestershire, bay leaves, 1 teaspoon K’s, chicken broth, and water. Cover and allow to simmer for one hour. Add scallions, garlic, and sausage, stir, cover, and simmer another hour.
Serve over hot rice.
*Note: To make a batch of K’s Cajun Seasoning, you’ll need:
26-ounce box of kosher salt
3 T. black pepper
2 T. garlic powder
1 tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. nutmeg
2 T. dried parsley flakes
4 T. cayenne
2 T. chili powder
Mixed greens with Orange Vinaigrette,
(For the vinaigrette)
Juice of 1½ honeybell oranges
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. honey
1 T. white wine vinegar
½ tsp. kosher salt
¼ tsp. fresh ground pepper
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
(For the salad)
5 endive, 1½-inch slices
1 bag watercress
1 head radicchio, large rough chop
1 head Boston bibb lettuce, large rough chop
1 to 2 honeybells, segmented
¼ cup toasted sliced almonds
1 large avocado, large dice
For the vinaigrette, whisk all the ingredients but the olive oil in a small bowl. Slowly add the oil while whisking. Season to taste.
For the salad, put all the lettuces into a large bowl and gently toss so they look mixed. You can do this in advance and cover with a wet paper towel until ready to serve. Right before serving, add the oranges, almonds, and avocado. Dress with vinaigrette, toss and serve.