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I love Christmas sweets: the fudge, cookies, and chocolate covered salty things that come out during the holidays. Eventually, though, I start to want something savory and hearty; something that will stick to your bones through the chilly (and in New England downright cold) dark evenings of winter. In my family this means gumbo.

My dad grew up in southwest Louisiana, Abbeville to be precise. Home of Steen’s syrup, and numerous outstanding eateries which serve up plates of seafood fresh from the Gulf. In Abbeville there’s always a pot of gumbo on the stove around Christmas time and the first thing relatives say when you walk in the door is, “you want some gumbo, sha?” At my Grandparent’s house they’ll also offer you a bowl of potato salad, which goes surprisingly well with gumbo; the potatoes cut nicely through the spice.

The Louisiana I know doesn’t put tomatoes in gumbo. My dad claims that west of Morgan City you don’t see tomatoes in gumbo. Sure enough, Paul Prudhomme, from Opelousas, cooks gumbo just like my people in Abbeville. Still, Talk About Good, the Junior League cookbook of Lafayette, has several recipes for gumbo with tomatoes in it. My theory is that tomatoes in a gumbo is more Creole than Cajun, and there is a definite difference. With Creole cuisine there is a noticeable Spanish, Caribbean influence; in Creole recipes you see more bay leaves, herbs, and tomatoes. New Orleans cuisine tends more toward Creole. Cajun cooking, on the other hand, is country cooking using very simple ingredients: stewed meats (or seafood); a short list of vegetables including the “trinity” of onion, bell pepper and celery; seasoned with salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper. Surprising to some, gumbo in southwest Louisiana doesn’t always have okra in it. An okra gumbo is made differently; without a roux. That’s a post for another time. What we call gumbo others might call stew with more water. Whatever you call it, I promise you’ll call it good.

This is the gumbo that I make most: chicken and sausage. The sausage doesn’t have to be andouille; but it should be smoked. My husband says this is his favorite meal. He could eat it every night, I think. Cook it a day ahead so that the flavors can really mingle. The key to cooking this is the roux. If you can master a dark enough roux (and it does take practice) your gumbo will most assuredly be delicious.

Chicken & Andouille Gumbo

For a chicken and sausage gumbo: buy a broiler and cut it up. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and a little red pepper. Brown chicken and set aside.

In a separate heavy bottomed pot make a dark roux:
1 c. canola (or other high heat oil)
1 c. all-purpose flour

Over medium-high heat pour oil and flour into the pot and stir to combine. I find a wooden spatula works best. Cooking at this temperature means that you need to constantly stir the roux. I mean don’t stop for one minute, especially as the roux starts to darken. If you need to stop and go do something take it off the heat entirely, but I don’t recommend that. It’s important to know when a roux is burned. A roux is burned when it starts smoking a lot and gets black specks in it. Plus, it really smells burned. You can cook a really dark roux that some people might think is burned, but if it doesn’t smell burned then, well, it’s not. It can burn in an instant though. If you suspect you’ve burned it just throw that batch away and start over (it’s just flour and oil after all). Alton Brown says you can cook a roux in the oven, just mix together the oil and flour in a dutch oven and stick it in the oven for an hour and a half. I’ve never done this but it would be worth a try! By the way, be very careful not to splatter as you stir; it’s sometimes called Cajun napalm for good reason. Stir gently.

When the roux is the color of dark chocolate and thick enough to leave a fleeting trail behind the spatula, pull it off the heat.
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Stir in about 1-2 chopped onions, 1 chopped bell pepper and 3-4 stalks chopped celery. (It’s all “about” because you do it to taste and how you prefer it to turn out). Return the roux and chopped vegetables to medium heat and cook until the vegetables are soft and begin to release their moisture (the roux will darken a bit more at this point but not much). Enjoy the wonderful smell, stirring occasionally, until the onions begin to look transparent, about ten minutes or so.

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Add about 8 cups of chicken stock or water. Add salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper to taste.  Then bring the stock to a furious boil to set the seasonings.

Lower the heat to simmer and add the chicken pieces (I add the neck and the back to in order to maximize the flavor). Skim foam from surface and let chicken simmer until it is falling off the bone. I always pick out most of the bones if I’m feeding the gumbo to company who might be finicky about bones, but for family I just pick out the more offensive pieces, such as the back, neck, and skin. Regardless, keep them in there as long as possible because they add a ton of flavor. The gumbo will simmer for something like an hour. About 30 minutes before you will eat add the sausage. If you love the smoky flavor add the sausage earlier but be careful not to overcook it; it’ll get tough.

Spoon gumbo over rice and serve with a green salad or potato salad and some white French bread if you wish.

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Now these really are a great Christmas cookie. This is a time-tested recipe handed down to me by my grandmother. I don’t know who Mumsey was, but I’ve enjoyed these cookies all my life. They are really a kind of classic Southern teacake, with some citrus zest added. They are thin, rich, and not overly sweet. I almost always bake these cookies and give them as gifts to neighbors, teachers, etc. You can give someone you really like a frozen roll of the dough, along with instructions for baking, and then they can just slice and bake. It’s a great gift, especially for a friend who is hosting family for the holidays.

One word of advice: This recipe makes a LOT. I mean, in my grandmother’s notes (included below) she actually says, “This recipe makes at least 20 dozen.” That’s a lot of cookies, people. I have a classic Kitchen Aide mixer and can’t make this full recipe because it’s just too much. In years past I’ve cut the recipe in half and it works fine. This year I decided to be brave and try the whole thing. I ended up having to do everything by hand. That’s right. not using a wooden spoon, using my hands. It was a lot of fun actually. I just mixed everything in a shallow bowl and got my (clean) hands into the sugar, butter, eggs, flour, etc. I’d never gotten quite that intimate with my ingredients, but I definitely recommend it if you’re ever feeling daring.

As I said, this recipe came to me from my grandmother. The notes are in italics are hers. I recommend slicing the cookies very thin. I’ve included a picture. The cookies just aren’t as good if you slice even 1/4 of an inch thick. I made the rolls a bit larger than she recommended; it’s up to you. You’ll get less cookies this way, but well, maybe you don’t need 20 dozen cookies.

Mumsey’s Cookies
Wonderful recipe to keep frozen to make when needed. Not very sweet with a touch of citrus.

3 c. butter softened [my grandmother calls for 3 1/2 c. margarine, softened, but I don’t use margarine. I find 3 c. is plenty]
5 c. sugar
zest of 2 oranges
zest of 2 lemons
1 tsp. vanilla
3 eggs
7 c. all-purpose flour

Cream butter, sugar, zest, and vanilla until fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time. Add flour 1 cup at a time, mixing well after each addition. Form into rolls, 1 1/2 in. in diameter and refrigerate overnight or at least 1 hour. Slice thin and bake on an ungreased cookie sheet in a 350 degree oven for 6-8 minutes. Cookie edges should be browned.

Note: Dough can be frozen for several months. Makes at least 20 dozen cookies.

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I’ve been obsessed with chocolate chip cookies lately. I’ve made three or four batches, sharing them with friends and co-workers but eating most myself. Ever since Thanksgiving I’ve been thinking a lot about mixing sweet and spicy. I love this combination, and was inspired by chili-seasoned chocolate I bought from Trader Joe’s. Chocolate chip cookies are such a basic, run-of-the-mill cookie; crying out to be spiced up in some way.

These cookies aren’t spicy, but they have a subtle smoky spiciness, thanks to chipotle chili powder,  that really compliments the dark chocolate chips. If any of you are doing holiday baking, these might just be a good recipe to add to your mix. I don’t think they are spicy enough to put anyone off. I’d like to experiment with just how much chili powder I can add before it gets too spicy. I think 1/2 tsp. is enough to taste the chili, but not too much. If you are wary and wussy, you can add 1/4 tsp.

Smoky Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 1/2 c. all purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. cocoa powder
1-2 tsp. chipotle chili powder
1/2 c (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. packed light brown sugar
1 lg. egg
1/4 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 c. 60% dark chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Prepare 2 cookie sheets (grease or line with parchment paper or silicone mat)
Whisk flour, baking soda, cocoa powder and chili powder together. In the bowl of a mixer cream butter and sugars until well blended. Add egg, salt, and vanilla and beat until well combined. Stir in flour mixture until well blended, being careful not to over mix. Stir in chocolate chips.
Drop dough by heaping teaspoonfuls approximately 2 in. apart on cookie sheets. Cook until brown around edges, about 10 minutes. Let them rest briefly on the cookie sheet then transfer to a rack to cool.

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Cakes cooling in front of the air register at Mark's One Stop in Calhoun City, MS

I don’t know what it is about gas stations in Mississippi. They are often some of the most interesting places in a small town. For an expatriate like myself I can always count on a convenience store as a place to overhear dialects that some people in New England might not understand, and stock up on some of my favorite regional foods:

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I know of convenience stores that serve up plate lunches (a meat and three sides for $5), Indian food, barbecue (sandwiches, brisket, chicken, you name it at B’s BBQ in Oxford), chicken-on-a-stick (Chevron, again in Oxford. If you are eating this you’ve likely been drinking all night.), or maybe even a red velvet cake, or chocolate pie, or a pound cake. There must be something to this; does it have something to do with gas stations replacing the general store? Or local business owners wanting to put their Southern touch on something so generic? There’s probably a more obvious business reason, something to do with overhead. Whatever the reason, convenience stores in the South are unique.

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The bakers at Mark's One Stop in Calhoun City

Perhaps my favorite of all is Mark’s One Stop in Calhoun City. A few years ago John T. Edge did a piece in the Oxford American on this place, but I knew about it before that, when I used to make the drive from Meridian to Oxford all the time. I stopped at this Texaco station once to fill up my tank and get a coke. While perusing the candy aisles I became aware that there was a sweet smell in the air, the smell of holiday baking, of birthdays. I looked around the corner and saw some women in a side room baking cakes. In the front of the store, right next to the pizza slices and fried burritos, was a display case full of cakes, sold whole or by the slice. I bought a piece of German chocolate cake for my roommate. After that I’d get a piece of cake every now and then, but this time we needed a whole cake. We were driving through Calhoun City to get to Oxford, home of the Ole Miss Rebels, and tailgating central. The ladies behind the counter were, of course, very  nice, and recommended the mandarin cake. It was a deliciously moist cake with pieces of mandarin orange and pineapple. The icing was a not-to-sweet buttercream (I think) which complemented the sweetness in the cake perfectly. Unfortunately I didn’t get the names of the ladies I met, but here they are showing off their workplace.

On our way to Oxford we stopped and got some boiled peanuts; I didn’t even really want them, I just had todsc02726 stop because, well, that’s just not something you ever see up here in New England. They were good, but really salty. Or am I just becoming accustomed to Northern food? Anyway, it was fun getting them hot from the kettle. Once we got to Oxford I had a chance to catch up with some old friends and see some local art, which was fun. My parents are huge Ole Miss fans and we got to sit through a 59-0 shut out, which was fabulous, since we were on the winning side.

I don’t think people from other parts of the country quite dsc027451understand the whole “tailgating” phenomenon as it takes place down South. People go all out for just a few hours of visiting with people. Overnight, tents go up all over the Grove on the Univ. of Mississippi (Ole Miss) campus, and with them come candelabras, vases full of flowers, flat screen televisions with satellite dishes, casseroles, bread, shrimp, jambalaya, you name it. Oh, and don’t forget the booze. Lots of that. My dad brought some scrumptious jambalaya (shrimp and andouille), and a friend made some “backyard ribs.” Apparently he’s a professional barbecue cook; he competes in professional competitions, like the one at Memphis in May. These ribs were outstanding. He’d taken them off the smoker at 1:00 in the morning; I don’t know how long they’d cooked, but it’s fair to say they were on for at least 12 hours. Probably more. He kept saying, “oh, it’s just backyard.” Whatever, all I know is backyard and this is some good backyard. It was a cold day, even for us New Englanders (we didn’t bring our winter coats!), but fun was had by all.

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We had such a good time, my homesickness may have only gotten worse after the visit. Driving all over Mississippi in your dad’s four-door Ford F150 will do that to you, I guess. I got to see old friends and family, go to a ho-down, listen to some damn good Cajun music, see some Mississippi art, and eat a lot of good food. What more can a girl ask for? Maybe fried pickles Katy? There’s always next time.