Posts tagged #Tomatoes

Gumbo Is the Perfect Food When Tying on Some Mardi Gras Fun

It’s Mardi Gras all over the world right now and no food says “Carnival!” quite like a bowl gumbo from a warm Louisiana kitchen. And no food better represents the diversity that is critical to the culinary world that we all enjoy each and every day.

American gumbo owes its first conception to the French settlers who colonized the southern region of the Mississippi River for King Louis XIV, hence the name "Louis-iana", in 1682. Being on a great river and near the Gulf of Mexico, they adapted their beloved bouillabaisse fish stew from the French port city of Marseille to include the local ingredients that were then available.

Home cooks who lived near the region's various waterways enriched their sea stew with crawfish, catfish, oysters, crab and shrimp. Those cooks who lived further inland added instead wild birds, deer, duck, squirrel, goose and boar instead – all flowing with the season’s availability.

The resulting hunting trips and journeys along the area’s many bayous and streams, led to the French colonists encountering the region’s first inhabitants, members of the Choctaw Indian nation. The tribe’s resourceful cooks shared their knowledge of file’ - a unique flavorful powder created from ground sassafras tree leaves, with the newly arrived Europeans. Everyone agreed the resulting difference in the stew was simply amazing.

As Louisiana expanded and grew in wealth, its cuisine continued to develope, embracing in a unique way all the influences that made it then and now one of America’s truly great cities.  

Spanish influences added the tomato, still considered a poisonous fruit in the northern English colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut, as well as bell peppers, celery and onions.

Black slaves were soon brought from Africa to work in the vast landed cotton plantations and rice fields of the South in one of the darkest periods of American history. And though enslaved, many still remembered their homeland and added okra to flavor and thicken the stew. In fact, it is the Africa word for okra that gives gumbo its present name.   

Many of the freed black slaves of New Orleans (yes, there were freed black slaves in the city and many ran very successful businesses) were known as outstanding cooks. Many spoke French and ran restaurants, bakeries and taverns  – all adding to the elegance and flare that is still the hallmark of Mardi Gras today.

That unique style can be seen in how the freed black women of New Orleans worked around a restrictive and oppressive law that required all freed female slaves to wear a scarf or fabric tie around their head instead of the fashionable hats worn daily by the elegant white ladies of the City.

Working again with the ingredients at hand and their rich African heritage, these remarkable women created wrapped head turbans, called tignon, that were works of art and far more stunning than any milliner’s creation.

Today those head wraps form the basis of many of the much more elaborate head pieces worn in Mardi Gras parades in Rio de Janeiro and around the world. 

Similarly when file’ and okra were not available, these cooks reread their vaulued French cookbooks and created a roux of flour browned in pork lard that added color, texture and taste to the now legendary gumbo of Louisiana.

Later additions would include cayenne peppers, Tabasco and other hot seasonings, but to this day, the purist among southern cooks adds NO additional spices and depend on the essence of the base ingredients (along with the mandatory roux, okra or file’) to do the job.

Perhaps that simplicity is a lesson to us all as well as a reminder to do the simple with such flair and style that our efforts become as unique and as unforgettable as la belle New Orleans herself.

Laissez le Bon Temp Rouler! Longue vie Carnival!

Your Culinary World copyright Ana Kinkaid/Peter Schlagel 2012

The French Connection and Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Tomatoes

Although the Aztecs and Incas of the Americas had cultivated tomatoes since 700 C.E., their acceptance in Europe took centuries longer.

First discovered by the Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortez in 1521 as he smashed the Aztec capitol of Tenochtitlan (later renamed Mexico City) into submission, it took another century for the tomato to appear in coastal Spain.

At first this culinary treasure from the New World was rejected by Europe’s chefs as it was erroneously associated with the dreaded mandrake and nightshade plants. Both plants were considered favorites of witches and poisoners. Ouch!

But sometimes beauty wins out as it did in this case.  A bright red, orange and green, tomatoes became a sought after accent for the centerpieces of the French aristocrats. But only for décor, not as part of la cuisine noble.

But there are always those, both rich and poor, who make their own decisions whether political or culinary. In the southern French region of Provence, country chefs and cooks slowly discovered from the Spanish and Italians how exquisite the tomato actually tasted. And no one died!

Searching for a sauce name, these regional chefs remembered that the tomato seeds had arrived from the Americas via boat so it seemed appropriate to title the new creation a “mainara sauce” from the Italian language meaning “of the sea”. 

Meanwhile in Paris there was an amazing man, a true gentleman of the Enlightment Era – the American Thomas Jefferson

A true renaissance man whose interested seemed to have no bounds, he was fascinated by all matters culinary and agricultural.

We know that on returning to his newly born nation, he grew tomatoes at his much loved Monticello estate. His beloved daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, included many tomato recipes in her personal cookbook, including the soup recipe listed below. Sadly at the same time, disorder and terror gripped France as a violent class war tore through the nation.

As blood began run in the streets of Paris until it was a torrent, the new ruling class now wore red "Phrygian" liberty caps as a symbol of their loyalty to change, violent or otherwise.

France’s skilled professional chefs, who once worked largely for the nobility, were at this time seeking not only new employment, but also how to keep their heads while others were losing their's.  What better way to appear patriotic then to echo the revolution’s favorite red color in cuisine?

And what was redder than a fresh red tomato! Soon the tomato was the darling of Paris chefs – saving many a sauce and an equal number of talented chefs! And the rest, as they say, is culinary history. Bon appetit!

Jefferson’s Truly Revolutionary French Tomato Soup

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2 ribs celery, diced
28 ounces fire-roasted diced tomatoes
28 ounces fire-roasted crushed tomatoes
3 cups vegetable or chicken broth
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons dried basil
1/4 teaspoon cayenne or to taste
8 cloves roasted garlic 

2 tablespoons minced parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
1 or 2 tablespoons sugar 

4 tablespoons plain yogurt

Sauté onion and celery in olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. When onion is translucent, add the tomatoes, broth, oregano, basil, and cayenne. Bring to a boil, then simmer on low heat for 10 minutes.

Transfer half of the soup to the blender, add the roasted garlic, and purée until fairly smooth. If you'd like a chunky soup, add the blended half back to the pot. For a smoother soup, blend the rest of the soup and return it to the pot. Add the parsley and salt and pepper to taste, and simmer for about 10 minutes to allow the flavors to blend. Taste the soup, and if too acidic, add sugar. Serve with a tablespoon of yogurt stirred into each bowl.

Your Culinary World copyright Ana Kinkaid/Peter Schlagel 2011