Culinary Research in the Big Easy

January 11, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

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Midnight on Julia StreetA wonderful new “Author’s Cut” edition of my novel, Midnight on Julia Street, was recently released by Sourcebooks, and prompted so many memories from the days when I was researching life in modern day and 1840 New Orleans.   This “time-slip” story deals with burnt out television reporter who arrives in the Big Easy with high hopes that at last, she can tell the truth as a journalist without getting fired.  (No such luck, I’m afraid…)

Julia Street–once the heart of the cotton warehouse region of the city in the 19th century–is host these days to trendy galleries and fabulous eateries like Emeril’s.
This part of town became the focus of many a foray I made into the wonderful world of Louisiana cuisine that, at times, figured in the story of a young professional getting to learn about a city famous for a certain flavor of magic and mystery.  Scents, especially, became the “way back” for the heroine inexplicably to slip between the city’s storied past when “Cotton was King” and the modern day of cell phones, digital news-gathering, and a city that never stops celebrating.

Part of that celebrating that I had the good fortune to witness generally involved that most hallowed of all culinary traditions in NOLA:  making a good Gumbo!  Everyone, it seemed, had his or her own special recipe or way of making a roux–the “building block” of any respectable gumbo.  There are seafood gumbos, chicken and sausage gumbos, even vegetarian gumbos, but the one I developed over the last fifteen years was made either with quail, Rock Cornish Game Hens, or–if pressed for time–organic chicken thighs…or even a rotisserie chicken from the supermarket!

So, if you want to add to the sensory experience of reading my historical novel Midnight on Julia Street, get into the spirit of the Mardi Gras season that started with Twelfth Night (January 6, 2012) and will run until Fat Tuesday (February 21) by trying out my version of New Orleans Gumbo as posted in my blog…and if you like your gumbo spicier, just add pepper flakes and more cayenne!


Ciji’s Chicken and Sausage Gumbo

January 11, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

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My original recipe was from Emeril’s Christmas cookbook, but over the years, I’ve made changes–and then my niece Alison and I have made a few more key “adjustments” when we cooked it together over the holiday, allowing for wonderful flavors, with the spiciness adjusted to individual palates


1 cup of vegetable oil (Canola)

1 cup bleached all-purpose flour

1 tsp cumin

1 tbs New Orleans spices (bbq  or Alison’s  rubs, red pepper flakes mixed with oregano can substitute) to rub on poultry that will be roasted.

1 tsp salt

2-3 bay leaves

2 cups chopped yellow onions

1-2 cups chopped celery

1 to  1 1/2 cups mixed green and red sweet peppers (or more; I prefer to use both red and green peppers in a ½-1/2 mix)

½-1 tsp cumin

½ – 1 tsp. smoked paprika to taste

½ – 1 tsp sweet paprika to taste

1 tsp Crazy Salt or other herbed salt products

½ -1 tsp. chili powder to taste

1-2 tbls. dried parsley

1 Tbls oregano

1/4 cup Marsala wine (or sherry)

2 rock Cornish game hens (or one plump chicken cut up in pieces; or 12 organic chicken thighs, cubed after they’re  cooked)

2 garlic plump cloves, minced

juice of ½ lemon

8 cups chicken stock

1-1 ½  pound Polish Kilbasa sausage (or Andouille, if you want spicier) sliced in ¼-1/8


2-3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley for garnish

1 tbs chopped scallions for garnish


White Rice cooked separately for number of people served by gumbo




Pat the poultry with the spicy rub and place on a rack in a roasting pan. In an oven at 375 degrees, roast poultry for  45 minutes to an hour, until barely done (the leg should move freely but the skin should not be retracting firm the bone; do not over cook)

Remove poultry from roasting rack and allow to cool.   (While that’s happening, slice/dice the vegetables) If cooking bone-in chickens, when poultry has cooled, remove the flesh in pieces from the bone and set aside;  reserve the bones in a sieve or strainer that fits into the pot that will hold the chicken stock.


Chop/dice the peppers, onions, celery, and 1 minced elephant garlic (or 3 minced smaller garlic cloves) and distribute all this on the bottom of the roaster the chickens just came out of.  (If no drippings, sprinkle 1-2 Tbs. olive oil with ½ tsp. balsamic vinegar over vegetables before roasting, or:) if using drippings, then sprinkle ½ tsp. balsamic vinegar and stir the vegetables in the vinegar and chicken drippings, distributing this liquid, evenly across the roasting pan.  Sprinkle with scant salt and pepper and roast in an oven reduced to 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes, stirring vegetables occasionally to prevent sticking.  Add a tiny bit of warm water, if needed, to keep from sticking so they will caramelize and become soft, but not mushy.


I use organic chicken stock and put the 8 cups in a deep pot that will accommodate a sieve or strainer filled with the bones from which the poultry was removed after roasting.

Submerge the bones that are in the sieve into the stock so stock covers the bones and gently simmer for 20 minutes while vegetables are roasting or you’re preparing the roux.


Classic method: in large pot or big skillet, mix oil and flour in small batches; stir constantly with wooden spoon until the mixture is smooth and the color of dark chocolate. Add the cumin and stir for a minute To get the roux to the right color, it  could take as long as 45 minutes. Pay close attention, as it can easily burn. [My secret is to put on a headset and call a friend you haven’t talked to in ages…it helps make the time pass as you stir for 45 minutes to an hour to get that dark chocolately color!]  When the roux is the right color, REMOVE pan from burner and set aside until you combine the rest of the ingredients.

Microwave method: [NOT for the novice! Be careful not to overheat!] in four-cup measuring cup or microwave container at full heat, combine flour and oil and cumin and stir to blend.  Microwave 3 minutes (or less if you have a very powerful Microwave oven); remove and carefully stir with wooden spoon to avoid splattering; repeat another 3 minutes as roux begins to turn golden brown.  In :30 second increments, keep microwaving and carefully stirring, until the mixture becomes the color of dark chocolate…may take 3-6 thirty second “zaps.”


Gently reheat the finished roux and add the dried parsley, the roasted, diced vegetables and bay leaves, oregano, pinch of cayenne (to taste; I use very little and allow guests to add their own, or pepper flakes, etc, at the table),  Add salt,  the smoky paprika and sweet  paprika (to taste) and cook the mixture for 2-3 minutes until  the additions are well blended into the roux.  Add Marsala (or Sherry), along with the lemon juice, and stir until well blended..

Add poultry pieces and more minced garlic (to taste) and stir to coat.  Add the sliced sausage and stir well.

Remove the sieve with the chicken bones from the chicken stock and discard.  Add the chicken stock, cup by cup,  to the roux-poultry-sausage-vegetable mixture, constantly stirring.

Bring the mixture to a brisk boil and then turn it down to medium-low and simmer for about 30-45 minutes, stirring occasionally to scrap anything off the bottom of the pot.  Allow to cool completely.

BEST IF MADE 2-3 DAYS AHEAD so ingredients will blend and mellow. If you like it spicier, use andouille sausage instead of Kilbasa and add more pepper flakes and cayenne…but watch it! Add a little at a time, ’cause you can’t go back!!

Keep covered and refrigerated.  When ready to serve, removed from refrigerator and allow gumbo to come to room temperature. Remove bay leaves.

Put gumbo in big pot on top of the stove and reheat slowly at low-medium temperature for at least a half hour, or until hot and gently bubbling.  (If in a microwave container, okay to warm for five minutes; check and continue till hot)

When piping hot, serve is soup bowls with an ice-cream-size scoop of  steaming white or brown rice in the middle. (This is New Orleans style).  For a big buffet, serve over the rice.  Use nice big soup spoons for guests.

Sprinkle each serving with chopped parsley and/or chopped green scallions.  Serve with a crisp salad and hot, crusty bread or butter biscuits

YUMOLA! as they say in N’Awlins!

New Year’s Eve in New Orleans!

January 5, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

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It’s been several years since we owned our Creole cottage on Ursulines Street in the Lower French Quarter in New Orleans…but every year as the holidays roll around, I get an irresistible urge to make “my” gumbo.

Actually, there is no “official” recipe for this dish…families have handed down their ingredients and techniques for generations.  I developed my own version when I spent a few years there researching and then writing Midnight on Julia Street, and created a chicken-and-sausage gumbo that evolved over the years from a recipe I found in Emeril LaGasse’s wonderful cookbook, Emerl’s Creole Christmas.   His used quail, and since that wasn’t always handy, I subsituted small Rock Cornish Game Hens.  His used alot of cayenne and spicey andouille sausage, but my Western-raised family liked smokey flavors that wouldn’t burn your tongue, so I made a few more adaptations.

During this same period, my husband Tony and I became great friends with another historical novelist, Michael Llewellyn who’d written a wonderful novel, also set in New Orleans, called Twelfth Night and who made the best chicken gumbo I ever tasted.  He shared a few secrets with me which altered and refined my “morphing” version until I thought I’d reached pretty much perfection, and stopped messing with it.

Enter my wonderful pal from my KABC Radio days in Los Angeles, Diane Rossen Worthington, author of some twenty-two cookbooks (a number of them in the Williams-Sonoma series–but probably her best known and best loved is the classic:  Seriously Simple).  She now writes a syndicated column for The Chicago Tribune and we were chatting on the phone this autumn about holiday fare.  I mentioned how I loved to make my gumbo, stirring the roux –which is made from slowly combining oil and flour together and takes about 45 minutes to attain a rich, dark, chocolately color–while thinking of all the friends and family members I love.

“Can I use that in my column?” asked Diane.

“Sure,” I replied. “I can email you the recipe and you can put your own spin on it.”

“Oh, no, thanks,” she said. “I have my own seafood version I’ve been doing for years.  I just want to borrow the part about you thinking of family and friends while you’re stirring the roux!”

Well, she did just that in December, and guess what?  I’d completely forgotten about our conversation and suddenly I hear from the publicist Beth Pehlke at my publisher, Sourcebooks Landmark, that Diane’s piece, kindly mentioning my 2011 release of Midnight on Julia Street, had hit tons of newspapers all over the country.  So, here’s a link to Diane’s article and version of seafood holiday gumbo–which makes a great Winter meal anytime it’s cold outside.  And if there’s interest, I’ll post my chicken and kilbasa sausage version in a later blog.


Meanwhile, Happy New Year, everybody…and for 2012, Laisser Les Bons Temps Rouler, y’all!

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