Make Lemon Gumbo

When life gives you okra, make lemon gumbo. Life didn’t give me lemons last week, but it gave me some HUGE okra pods. A mere two days away from the garden and tiny pods grew so big my grandmother would have disinherited me for not picking them sooner.

The pods weren’t really hard or dry, but they were large and slightly tougher than anything I would want to fry. After the planting, weeding, and watering, I don’t like to throw away anything I’ve grown unless I must. I decided to use the pods in a stew.

Actually, I decided to use the pods in a stew made from ingredients I had on hand. That turned out to be a lemon, some boneless/skinless chicken breasts, chicken stock, brown rice, and seasonings.

While gumbo may technically be a stew thickened with okra, no one I know would call a dish gumbo unless it began with a roux. This did not. Maybe I should call it Coulda-Been-Gumbo.

Anyway, I began with a 32 oz box of ImagineR Organic Free Range Chicken Broth and 2 quarts of water. Into that, I squeezed one fresh lemon.

I removed the ends of each okra pod and sliced them about 1/8” thick. I added the slices to the stock along with one shishito pepper with the non-stem end removed. Then I chopped a small carrot and threw it in. While this mixture was heating, I sprinkled salt and a few grinds of fresh black pepper over the mixture.  

I wanted to add a little more flavor to the broth, so I dug around in the spice cabinet opening jars and smelling spices. I like to do this while standing close enough to the boiling pot that I can smell the spice jar and the broth in the same breath. Then I pick the best combination of aromas.

This time, I chose a blend from Penzeys Spices called Ruth Ann’s Muskego Ave Seasoning. The aroma reminds me a little of the chicken bullion cubes my mother used. It’s a blend of salt, black pepper, garlic, lemon peel, and onion. I sprinkled in about a half teaspoon.

Unlike when I test recipes, when I cook like this I rarely measure. That means I can’t tell you precisely how much I added. I can tell you it smelled right after I stirred everything together.

By now, the mixture was boiling. I reduced the heat and allowed it to simmer for 30 minutes. Then I removed the pepper.

Turning the heat back up, I added a cup of parboiled brown rice and 4 thin sliced chicken breasts. I sprinkled the chicken breasts and rice with salt, pepper, garlic powder and onion powder. I put on a lid, reduced the heat to medium low, and set a timer for 25 minutes.

Once the timer alerted me, I turned off the heat and allowed the gumbo to sit for about 5 minutes before I spooned some into a bowl. After a little cooling, I was ready to sample.

The flavors were scrumptious and the texture was pleasing. The lemon juice prevented the okra from making the broth slimy. The extra cooking time caused the slices to break apart into tender pieces of green pod and loose seeds. The chicken was moist and tender.

I was pleased enough that I want to try this again. Perhaps next time, I’ll use tilapia instead of chicken. And maybe I’ll add some lemongrass for added citrus zing.

I’m pretty sure the opportunity will present itself soon. Okra grows FAST!

Memory Soup

Welcome to today’s memory soup! Sunday’s Super Bowl made me think of Florida. This morning’s chill made me think of soup. It seems that red conch chowder marries the two. Apparently, this Caribbean dish is popular in Florida as well as the Bahamas. I’ve never eaten it, but I have eaten conch fresh out of the ocean.

Years ago, some friends and I took one of those overweight puddle jumper flights from Belize City to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. We took off over the water and slowly climbed with the stall siren blaring for what seemed like a solid five minutes. At the time, I didn’t realize it was a stall horn. I just knew it was an annoying, loud noise that wouldn’t stop. A few years later, during pilot training, I was overcome with a delayed feeling of terror when I recognized the danger we had been in.

Once we settled into our accommodations on the island, we found a guide to take us bonefishing. Bonefish, like redfish, flip their tails into the air and feed off the bottom in the shallows.

They aren’t easy to catch. When you can see the tails, all movement must be slow and quiet until you’re close enough to cast. A single errant throw of the line will scatter them away quickly. But when you hook one, it’s a fun fight until you land it.

After a morning of fishing, our guide pulled the wooden boat up to a pier and we got out. Several hours in the sun had left me thirsty and hungry. About four steps down the pier, we encountered a man using cupped fingers to happily dip ceviche out of a red Solo® cup. “Want some?” he implored.

While the thought of eating uncooked seafood from a cup into which a man is dipping his fingers is something I can’t even stand to think about now, at the time I just wanted to share what was making him so happy! The ceviche was made with conch the man had harvested that day. Soaked in fresh lime juice and seasoned with cilantro, salt, and hot pepper then mixed with tomatoes and cucumber, it was full of flavor and as delicious as this suntanned stranger had described. I’ve loved ceviche ever since.

Living in a landlocked state means saltwater fish and seafood must be flown in for them to be moderately fresh. That means we don’t eat a lot of clam chowder or oyster stuffing. We have to make up the difference with crawfish, trout, bass, and crappe. But that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate the occasional ocean catch. My neighbors have a big pot of fish stew on the stove right now. 

Now that you’ve sampled the memory portion, I guess it’s time for soup. What’s better than classic tomato soup? I like to use Pomi Italian Strained Tomatoes as a base, but there are other options. Dei Fratelli Condensed Tomato Soup is gluten-free comes in a restaurant or large family 50 oz size. Both of these can be used in lasagna, chili, pizza sauce, and marinara when you get tired of tomato soup.

There’s nothing better than homemade chicken stock, but it takes awhile so you have to plan ahead. Sometimes I decide I want chicken soup right now. For those occasions, I keep Imagine® Organic Free Range Chicken Broth in the pantry. I like drinking it from a mug as is, but it’s also a great base for chicken & rice or chicken noodle soup.

Potato soup is warm, filling, and doesn’t require any exotic ingredients. I can usually throw it together with what’s on hand: potatoes, garlic, onion, salt, pepper, butter, and milk or milk substitute…and water. It’s even better if I can scare up some bacon. Sometimes, I like to add cauliflower or corn.

With a pandemic stocked pantry, I have plenty of beans on hand. Black bean is a great option. I typically use dried beans, but you can use can beans as well. Carrot, celery, onion, bell pepper, garlic, broth, bay leaves, cumin, cilantro, salt, pepper, and lime juice are the other items needed.

And there’s always vegetable soup. I’m pretty sure the versions are unlimited. Sometimes I start with chicken stock and leftover veggies. Other times, I opt for fresh veggies in pot likker from greens. On a given day, my preferred version is any combination of vegetables that please me or empty the fridge.

Where are the actual recipes? That’s the great thing about soup. It’s a perfect culinary playground. You don’t need a recipe to make it delicious. You can use your memory and your senses.

If you’re not currently comfortable cooking by feel but want to give it a try, pull out any chicken soup recipe. Fill a soup pot with the recommended amounts of stock and water. Then measure the amount of salt recommended. Sprinkle the salt across the top of the liquid. Get a visual feel for that particular measure. Do the same with the pepper, garlic, and cumin or curry in the recipe (these are only examples). Next time you make soup, you’ll have a visual reference for what you need. Just shake it right out of the container.

Use your sense of smell at the same time. Smell after each addition. As you get comfortable, you’ll recognize that you can smell a difference when you add a bit more salt or garlic. As long as there are no raw ingredients of concern, taste after each stage as well. The more senses you use, the more information you’ll have.

While you’re playing, keep in mind that an addition of cooked chicken that’s already seasoned means you don’t need to add additional salt and pepper to season the chicken. The same goes for left-over vegetables.

I’ve thrown out my share of cooking mistakes, but it’s hard to destroy soup. If you over spice, dilute with additional liquid. And if you have difficulty deciding what to include, memories of soups you’ve previously enjoyed can help guide you. No matter whether you choose flavors from the Caribbean, Asia, the Pacific Northeast or the American South, you’re sure to end up with comforting warmth.

After a year without travel, it would be great to swim in clear Caribbean water and eat fresh conch ceviche. That won’t happen for awhile, so I’ll just have to savor the memories along with a warm cup of soup.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Scaled Back Super Bowl Snacks

It’s time again to plan some Super Bowl snacks (or Puppy Bowl if you prefer). Most of us will probably be scaling back the parties. Who am I kidding, it’s been years since I attended a SB party that ended with someone puking on their shoes. I scaled back years ago.

The most popular contenders for Super Bowl menus vary depending on who you ask, but Buffalo chicken wings, chips & dip, chili, and pizza seem to be universal entries. But a pizza that you’d eat for dinner any ole day won’t make the evening feel festive. Here are a few ideas for easy, gluten-free snacks to fit the immediate family and still make it feel like a party.

Pizza

If your family loves pizza, make party-style mini pizzas using parmesan crisps as the crust. If you make your own crisps, go for a football shape. The crunchy cheese will hold up to sauce and add even more cheesy flavor.

An easy way to play with variations is to start with Whisps. These cheese crisps are gluten-free, keto friendly, and come in many flavors including Hot & Spicy, Asiago and Pepper Jack, Tangy Ranch, Nacho, Cheddar, and Barbecue. Using cheese crisps as crusts will reduce carb consumption and add protein to your spread.

Football Frittatas

If you have young children, individual frittatas baked in mini football cupcake pans are easy, healthy finger food. The ingredients can be personalized for each child to reduce potential interruptive whining.

Chili (in dip, pie, or nachos)

Cooking a big pot of chili and then using it to make chili/cheese dip, Fritos® chili pie or chili/cheese nachos appeals to me. I can serve part of the chili as party food and save the rest for dinner later in the week.

Microwave Snack Mix

Crunchy snack mix is always welcome, but if I make too much, I eat too much. For smaller occasions, I make it gluten-free and in the microwave. I’ve shared this recipe before, but here it is again so you won’t have to search.

Here’s the recipe:

1/4 cup butter

1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce

3/4 tsp seasoned salt

1/2 tsp garlic powder

1/4 tsp onion powder

2 cups Rice ChexTM cereal

2 cups Corn ChexTM cereal

1 cup Kix® cereal

1 cup gluten-free pretzels

1 cup mixed nuts (optional)

In large microwave safe bowl, place butter, Worcestershire sauce, seasoned salt, garlic powder, and onion powder. Heat in microwave on high for 1 minute. If butter is fully melted, stir ingredients together until fully mixed. If butter is not melted, microwave in 30 second increments until it is.

Once spices and butter are mixed, add Rice Chex and Corn Chex. Mix making sure to spoon plenty of the spiced butter up from the bottom of the bowl. Add Kix and pretzels and mix again. Return bowl to microwave and cook on high for 6 minutes. Stop the microwave every two minutes and stir the mixture. Allow to cool.

Mozzarella-Stuffed Mushrooms

For years, before I created recipes or lived gluten-free, my favorite potluck contribution was mozzarella-stuffed mushrooms. The recipe I used came from the 1982 Beta Sigma Phi International “Desserts & Party Foods Cookbook: Entertaining with a Flair” and was submitted by Miriam H. VanDermay of Lafayette, Indiana.

I have no idea how that cookbook ended up in my hands, but I still have it and that’s good for you! Why? Because I’m including the recipe…

20-25 mushrooms

1 clove garlic, minced

1/4 cup breadcrumbs (substitute gluten-free)

1/4 cup grated mozzarella cheese

3 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese

1 tsp parsley flakes

1 tsp. salt

Dash of pepper

1/3 cup melted butter

Remove…stems from mushrooms.

Combine…remaining ingredients in bowl.

Stuff…mushrooms with cheese mixture.

Place…on baking sheet.

Bake…at 450 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes.

Easy, peasy. And you won’t believe how delicious! You could cut this recipe in half, but I’m not sure that’s wise. You can always reheat leftovers the next day.

I never should have pulled that cookbook out of the bookcase. Now, I can’t stop reading the recipes. I’m not sharing any more because I haven’t tried them, but some certainly sound interesting.

Okay, I lied. I’m going to share one because I can’t envision it in my head so while I’m eating chili, I want you to try it and get back to me. This one was submitted by Janice E. Grover of Paradise, California.

Applesauce Dream

4 cups sweetened applesauce

1 bar semisweet chocolate, grated

1 cup whipping cream, whipped

Spread…applesauce in 8 x 8-inch dish.

Sprinkle…with chocolate.

Top…with whipped cream.

Chill…for 2 hours.

Garnish…with additional grated chocolate.

Yield…8-10 servings.

I also see a recipe for Ritz Cracker Pie in this book. My mother used to make a pie with Ritz crackers called Mock Apple Pie. I remember as a kid thinking it must be magic because it really tasted like apple pie.

That’s enough digression. It’s nice to have dessert on the party table.

Cookies and Cupcakes

Any rolled cookie can become a football. You just need the proper cookie cutter. It’s also easy to turn a regular cupcake into a football by piping brown icing across the top in the shape of a football, then adding white icing laces.

Cotton Candy & Cracker Jacks

If you don’t want the usual, but don’t want to cook, consider colorful containers of cotton candy and Cracker Jacks. These would go great with gluten-free corn dogs, hot dogs, and chili dogs, or cheese on a stick.

Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free Cheesecake Bites

Daiya offers a variety of frozen, gluten-free, dairy-free cheesecake flavors: New York Cheesecake, Key Lime, Chocolate, Strawberry, and Pumpkin Spice. Buy two or three flavors, cut them in bite-sized cubes, add a fancy party pick and mix and match on a cute tray to thaw and serve.

I’m going to stop there. There are millions of options from which to choose and you won’t need much for a scaled back watch party. I’m hoping these suggestions will help you expand, or narrow down, the possibilities you consider. Now it’s time to choose a quarterback – the young guy or the younger guy or tune in to the Puppy Bowl. Happy snacking!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

The Frost is on the Pumpkin

The frost is on the pumpkin and tomatoes are off the vine. Tonight we’re expected to have the first real freeze of the year. My cherry tomato vines have been by far the most prolific producers in the garden, but I grew them from seed and they got a late start.

That means the harvest began late. In August it started to pick up steam. Even today, you can see tiny yellow blooms mixed with a host of tomatoes. In anticipation of the freeze, I pulled most of the green tomatoes off the vines – 185 of them to be exact. Now the question is…

What can I do with green tomatoes?

While I didn’t want to leave them outside to freeze, I will preserve some in my freezer. If they were full size, I would wash them, remove the stem, and slice them before placing the slices in layers separated by wax paper or plastic freezer wrap. I can follow the same process for the smaller cherry size or I can quarter them.

Once they’ve been frozen, the tomatoes will be mushy and/or slimy. They won’t be suitable for a salad but they’ll be great for other things. If I want some for frying into a bite-size appetizer, it will be best to slice them. If I’m going to use them in salsa or pesto, quartering will work fine.

But before I begin the process of preserving, there’s no reason not to enjoy a few right away. Using a cup of quartered green tomatoes, a firmly packed cup of fresh arugula, a half cup of walnuts, a fourth cup of olive oil, a clove of garlic, and a fourth teaspoon of salt, I can create a scrumptious pesto. The lemony notes of the green tomatoes balance the peppery bitterness of the arugula. There’s no need to add cheese so this is a great lower fat, dairy-free pesto option.

Although salsa verde calls for tomatillos, it can be made with green tomatoes. They’ll need to be roasted, preferably charred slightly, and the rest of the ingredients remain the same – onion, cilantro, lime, salt plus some kind of pepper like jalapeño or serrano. My neighbor is willing to share the overabundance of serrano peppers she grew, so that will be my choice.

If the freezer is full, you may want to give some away. Pesto or salsa in a jar makes a great holiday gift. I like to include a card or label listing all the ingredients so it’s easy for anyone with a food sensitivity or allergy to identity a potential problem before they consume the gift.

For those with very sensitive tummies, green tomatoes may not sit right when eaten raw. They contain the toxic alkaloid tomatine. While you’d have to eat pounds and pounds of raw green tomatoes for the toxin to harm you, it could cause tummy upset and/or a headache for some.

Tomatoes are part of the nightshade family. Nightshades like tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant can contribute to inflammation and make some people with autoimmune disease suffer with related aches and pain. If you can’t tolerate potatoes, you may also want to avoid tomatoes whether green or ripe.

On the flip side, if you can tolerate them well, green tomatoes are a great source of antioxidants and at least one study has shown they inhibit human cancer cell lines of the stomach, colon, liver, and breast. They also contain vitamins A and C, potassium, iron, magnesium, calcium, and minerals along with fiber.

While I’ve been talking about unripe tomatoes, there are some varieties that are green when ripe. These are not common in the stores or gardens I frequent but don’t be surprised if you run across one somewhere.

I feel fortunate to have so many healthy, tasty tomatoes at my disposal. I just learned that some of my crop will be used in pozole next door tonight. And I now have serrano peppers awaiting me on my porch. It seems like its time to retrieve them and get back in the kitchen so I can finish some salsa before there’s frost on the pumpkin tonight.