by Myra Saturen
April 02, 2013
What is gumbo? According to Chef Thomas Beckmann, Northampton Community College's Chef in Residence for April 1 and April 2, "every single gumbo is different," largely varying with the district of the city where the stew is cooked. One feature does not change, however, and that is the care and time taken with the roux, the fundamental brown butter sauce indispensable to gumbo and jambalaya. "The essence of a gumbo is the roux," the chef said. "The only way to prepare it is to stay with it all day. You've got to keep it going until it is nutty brown." A speck of charred food will not do. "You might as well throw the whole gumbo away," Beckmann said.
The soul of gumbo, the chef said, is the "trinity," onions, celery and peppers. In fact, many Creole and Cajun dishes start out with this succulent combination.
As Beckmann stirred and whisked, he talked about New Orleans -- its people, its history and its chefs, as well as its cooking. Creole cooking derives from French, African American and Spanish influences dating from the 1700s. The word gumbo itself derives from an African word for stew. Cajun cooking is the ancestral legacy of French people forced by the English out of Canada, refugees who searched for and found farmland in Louisiana. Cajun cooking tends to be one-pot and rustic, while Creole cuisine is multi-pot and more elaborate, with a greater number of ingredients, including plentiful tomatoes. In Cajun cooking, specifically jambalaya, crawfish is king or queen. Crawfish fat adds essential richness to the dish.
Both Creole and Cajun cooking share some common characteristics. Dishes are layered. Heated, flavored oil forms the bottom stratum; piled on top, one ingredient at a time, lie the vegetables, meat and condiments. French bread is ubiquitous at all meals and is accompanied by lots of butter. Jasmine rice is another staple of the New Orleans kitchen. Beckmann recalled visiting a rice paddy, where fragrant aromas enchanted him.
Beckman has strong opinions of his own about food. He shuns okra and insists on long-cooking grits rather than the instant kind. "Long-cooking grits are smoother," he said. "Instant grits are like sand from the beach." Cast iron is the preferred cooking medium, since it allows food to heat evenly. This is a cuisine where more is always welcome. "You can always add," Beckmann said "You can never take anything away."
Beckmann, who grew up mostly in the Midwest, loves New Orleans culture as much as its cuisine. He described the festivals --all kinds, including of course, music--which enliven the city from April until October. Monarch of all of these is Mardi Gras, with its exuberant colors and flamboyant costumes. The chef depicted the Cajun way of celebrating Mardi Gras by going from farmhouse to farmhouse, gathering ingredients for gumbo or jambalaya before coming together to cook and enjoy the results.
To cap off the evening, Beckmann served white chocolate bread pudding, an award-winner judged best of its kind at a competition sponsored by the United Way.
Chef Thomas Beckmann, who has had more than 30 years of experience in Cajun and Creole cuisine, is presently general manager of dining operations at Tulane University. Prior to joining Tulane, he served as senior banquet chef and executive sous chef at the New Orleans Marriott and as the senior sous chef at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis. He has received two American Culinary Foundation bronze medals, several medals from the Louisiana Restaurant Association, and Sodexo 2005 Chef of the Year Humanitarian Award.
Northampton Community College's Chef in Residence program was established in 2000 by the Wood Company, now Sodexo, to offer culinary arts students the opportunity to work alongside and learn from outstanding chefs. A cooking demo precedes a multicourse dinner the following evening. You can try making jambalaya and Chef Beckmann's award-winning white chocolate bread pudding yourself using the recipes below:
CHICKEN AND SAUSAGE JAMBALAYA
1 ½ tablespoons Vegetable oil
1 ½ pounds Smoked sausage
1 pound Pulled chicken
14 ounces White rice
24 ounces Chicken stock
10 1/3 ounces Canned diced tomatoes
5 ½ ounces Canned tomato puree
3 tablespoons Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons Italian seasoning
1 ½ tablespoons Cajun seasoning
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
2 ½ teaspoons Peeled garlic cloves, chopped
Heat oil in heavy bottom skillet. Add sausage, sauté to caramelize. Add chicken. Add rice. Add chicken stock. Add diced tomatoes and paste; blend. Add Worcestershire sauce and seasonings. Bring to a boil. Reduce to simmer and cover. Cook for 45 minutes. Turn heat off. Cover and rest for 30 minutes.
WHITE CHOCOLATE BREAD PUDDING
8 ounces Unsalted butter
8 ounces Light brown sugar
1/8 each Whole orange
3 tablespoons Heavy cream
1 teaspoon Vanilla extract
1 2/3 ounces White chocolate coins
Melt butter in sauce pan. Add sugar and allow to come to a boil. Add oranges and peel, split and squeezed; place in sauce, allow to steep for 5 minutes. Remove orange peel and sections. Add cream, bring to a boil. Add vanilla, allow to simmer 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Add chocolate, blend well.
12 each 1 ounce croissants
1 quart Whole milk
6 each Eggs
½ teaspoon Vanilla
¼ teaspoon Cinnamon
6 ¾ ounces White sugar
Tear croissants into 1 inch pieces place in tub. Add milk, eggs, vanilla, cinnamon, and sugar. Blend well. Place in greased loaf pan or full size pan and bake for 45 minutes, serve with sauce.
Other dishes prepared at the demo included seafood gumbo and barbecued shrimp and grits. The audience, which sampled all the dishes, applauded each one.
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