By Kara Kimbrough
In a couple of days, we'll be in what I call the safe zone. Basically, it's the fleeting days between food-heavy Thanksgiving and the frenzied weeks of the Christmas season. I plan to take full advantage of the all-too-brief days after Thanksgiving and the month of December, which flies by at warp speed.
And, since the weather has turned uncharacteristically cold for November, it provides a great excuse to fill my freezer with plenty of what I call “winter food,” i.e. soups, stews, chilis and heavy fare like red beans and rice.
Before delving more into the contents of my free-zone week's worth of freezer food, I have to share the heated feedback from a social media post/photo of a simple bowl of gumbo served to me at Doc’s Seafood in Orange Beach, Ala. I jokingly posted, “You know you’re not in Mississippi when the gumbo contains okra,”- or something to that effect. I was striving for humor. It backfired.
The reason for the comment that appeared to offend so many? I’ve interviewed many Gulf Coast cooks and they never definitively said, "Okra is a prerequisite for gumbo." As long as your file’ powder or roux is on point, gumbo does not HAVE to contain okra.
Also, I’ve eaten many, many bowls of gumbo along our state's coastal region and some of them, including many from reputable restaurants, did not contain the slimy vegetable. Side note: I do like fried okra in the summertime. It’s the boiled variety that leaves me cold.
Anyway, I was clearly in the minority among friends who felt I needed my head examined for even suggesting that gumbo is perfectly fine sans okra. I truly never knew that okra inspired such loyalty among Mississippians. Trust me, I do now. But I still prefer my gumbo okra-free. Feel free to send me your thoughts – Team Okra…or not?
Second, I received a lesson in judging other states for, to put it bluntly, not being “Mississippi.” I mean, they can’t possibly create food that rivals anything Mississippi cooks place on the table – right? I actually caught myself about to pass up a cookbook containing the best recipes from California. The fact that it was part of the “Best of the Best” state’s cookbooks series published by Mississippi’s Quail Ridge Press AND cost only fifty cents on a library’s book sale table caused me to purchase it.
As I thumbed through the pages, I was shocked to find so many recipes I actually wanted to try, including chicken pot pie, shrimp Creole, peach pie and seafood salad, to name just a few.
In my defense, my misconception about California’s cuisine stemmed from tales from friends who lived in the state for a while and talked about the “seeds, nuts, berries and kale” on which health-conscious Californians seemed to survive in order to be able to wear bikinis and Speedos to the beach year-round.
Lesson learned: don’t judge an entire state OR its cooks by hearsay. I even selected a taco soup recipe from the cookbook that I’ll make in a double batch to stock my freezer for a while.
Last, I said this week was a reprieve from thinking about either Thanksgiving or Christmas, but I have one small request. Please send me the “best of the best” Christmas activities, decorations and places to enjoy holiday meals in your surrounding area. I’ll include them in columns before Christmas, along with tips on how and where to shop for food and gifts.
In the meantime, enjoy this “in-between week,” filled with plenty of winter comfort food, before the Christmas season officially arrives. .
Super Cali Taco Soup
8 ounces ground beef
½ cup chopped onion
1-1/2 tablespoons flour
2 cups water
17-ounce can whole kernel corn, drained
16-ounce can kidney beans
16-ounce can tomatoes
2 tablespoons taco seasoning
1 tablespoon mild taco sauce
1 teaspoon seasoned salt
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
Salt and pepper to taste
Brown ground beef and onion in skillet, stirring frequently; drain. Add flour, stirring until dissolved. Add water. Pour into large saucepan. Add corn, beans, tomatoes, taco seasoning, taco sauce, seasoned salt, garlic powder and salt. Bring to a boil; reduce heat. Simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Ladle into soup bowls. Garnish with shredded cheddar cheese, sliced green onions, crushed tortilla chips and sour cream. Serves 8. (doubles easily)
Recipe from Best of the Best from California Cookbook. Quail Ridge Press, 2000.
Best Red Beans and Rice
1 pound dry kidney beans
¼ cup olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 tablespoons minced garlic
6 cups water (for beans)
1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon dried sage
1 bay leaf
1 pound Andouille sausage, sliced
4 cups water (for rice)
2 cups long grain white rice
Rinse beans thoroughly, then soak in a large pot of water overnight.
Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat. Slice sausage and cook in oil until browned. Drain and move to a plate; refrigerate. Cook onion, bell pepper, celery and garlic in remaining oil (add more if needed) for 3-4 minutes, or until translucent.
Rinse beans again, then transfer to a large pot filled with 6 cups water. Stir cooked vegetables into beans. Season with Cajun seasoning cayenne pepper, sage and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer for about 2 1/2 hours.
While beans are cooking, prepare rice by bringing water and rice to a boil in a saucepan. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes
Stir sausage into beans; simmer for 30 minutes. Remove bay leaf before serving. Serve beans and sausage mixture over steamed white rice.
Favorite Chili Recipe
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 pound ground chuck
2 1/2 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1-1/2 cups beef broth
15-ounce can petite diced tomatoes, undrained
16-ounce can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed (can omit beans if you prefer)
8-ounce can tomato sauce
Add olive oil to a large skillet and turn heat to medium-high. Add chopped onion; cook for 5 minutes until translucent. Add ground chuck and separate to cook thoroughly. Cook 6-7 minutes, until the beef is browned. Pour onions and beef into a large stockpot.
Into the stockpot, add chili powder, cumin, sugar, tomato paste, garlic powder, salt and pepper; stir until well combined. Add broth, diced tomatoes (with juice), drained beans and tomato sauce. Stir well.
Bring liquid to a low boil, then reduce the heat to gently simmer the chili, uncovered, 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove pot from the heat. Let chili rest for 5-10 minutes before serving. Serve over steamed rice (my preference, but not a requirement) and top with shredded Cheddar cheese, sour cream, chopped chives or other favorite topping.
Kara Kimbrough is a food and travel writer from Mississippi. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.