Thursday, August 16, 2012

Julia Child and the Summer Gumbo

All yesterday I had open Julia Child's teal tome--Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It was the 100th anniversary of her birthday, and many were celebrating. I read and reread her section on vegetables, and considered my need to try baked cucumbers again--because we have too many, and because anything baked in cream should be given a second chance. But I didn't make it, and I didn't make any of the cold dishes from the next chapter that somehow appealed to me intensely: Leeks "Cooked in Aromatic Broth", Poached Eggs in Aspic, Chicken Livers in Aspic, and Mousse of Duck. Instead, I did the next best thing. I sat in my living room and oogled, and dreamed, and all but channeled this wise matron of the American kitchen.

It is easy to like Julia Child. She was tall, like me, and had a playful sense of humor. She was a certifiable home cook, but she didn't really learn the trade until she was forty, which makes me less prone to attacks of envy and competition, and more prone to awe and inspiration. Even after she learned a good lot, she was still prone to mishaps in the kitchen, no matter how ripe her skills and deep her understanding. And this homeyness is why, I think, so many like her. If she can do it, so can we.

I love that she captured an audience of thousands, millions, for so many years. And I love my father was one of them. I grew up with consistent impersonations. Mostly, he would laugh like her, a female, funny version of Santa Clause, but he would also move like her, and talk about butter in her warbled voice, and use her example to warrant kitchen snacks for anyone helping out. There were special slices of roast beef eaten out of hand prior to plating, slurps of sauce, washes of wine, and so on.

But why would I talk about her today? The day after the celebration? And why would I bring her up at all if I have a recipe for some vegetarian, California clueless knock-off of gumbo? All things come together for good. All I can say is, it just seemed right. No apologies. No excess of seriousness.

This dish is my version of Gumbo.  Or, that is my version of Jambalaya. Or, that is a summer saute. I couldn't tell you exactly what this is, but I can say I looked some southern-styled dishes before I made it. And, I can say that the first time I made it, when I found myself with a bunch of okra I didn't know how to use, and the other usual suspects of summer excess, I made this. And it was incredible. It has been my one true triumph. Textured, light, but fulfilling at the same time. It had a nubby quality from the okra which I did not recognize, and even though the thing went through a slime stage, it dissipated, dispersed, dissolved. What was left was not slimy at all, but odd like okra is odd, and good like food should be.

Thanks Julia, for the extended instruction. Wish you were here. 

Summer Okra Jumble

This recipe is a good place to add the odd bits of summer produce you want to use up. Leftover corn, cut from the cob, eggplant, extra tomatoes, greens. I added bok choy to my first, coveted batch. Do note the differing needs for cooking time for those vegetables. You'll probably want the eggplant to go in after the tomatoes and before the zucchini. If you need some more ideas to explore the beauties of okra, try one of these, which are all completely different than what develops here: a saucy stir fry of sorts--where the okra stays crisp, and the zucchini is just done, and everything else melts.

8 ounces okra, sliced in 1/2 inch rounds
4 zucchini, small to medium, roughly chopped
a healthy handful of grape or cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
1 green and one red bell pepper, roughly chopped
a few sprigs thyme, leaves picked off
3 cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper
4 tablespoons butter

A note on "roughly chopped": the key I've noticed is to not only chop or dice the onion, pepper, and zucchini, but to roughly chop them. This means chopping as usual, or dicing, and then going over the pile a few times at a diagonal. The result is a mix of triangles as well as cubes, of varying sizes, which, in turn, mean varying degrees of doneness. This is a good thing.

Have veggies all ready. Cook onion and peppers in the butter over medium heat until translucent. Do not let brown. At some point early on, add a three-finger pinch of salt and a few healthy grinds of black pepper. When it is almost done, add the garlic and thyme and cook a few minutes, until gorgeously fragrant. Do not let brown. Add tomatoes. Cook until they loose their structure. Add zucchini and cook until it is tending towards soft and cooked rather than hard and raw, but just barely. Then stir in the okra. Test it every five minutes or so, and stir. If it hits the slime stage, let it cook until you like it again. There should be some liquid, and it should thicken a little. Serve alone or over quinoa, brown rice, or polenta either hot, cold, or at room temperature, . Enjoy!

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