Great Aunt Lois’s Scottish Shortbread

My first mother-in-law, Laurie Thorp’s mother was Daisy Anderson Thorp of Scots and Quaker stock. Laurie’s Great Aunt Lois (Anderson) lived in North Carolina over near Guilford or Greensboro as I recall. She had this recipe from the previous generations and taught it to us one afternoon when we were visiting with her in the mid-1970s.

Making her shortbread has become a holiday tradition at my house. There are people in the world who don’t think Christmas has come until a small box of my shortbread turns up. Mostly, people hide it from guests and little children (I can’t be held to account for their behavior…). It inspires a certain stinginess. But, it is so easy to make, it really shouldn’t be that precious.

Aunt Lois used her hands to rub the butter into the flour and sugar, letting the warmth of her hands soften the butter. Here’s her recipe:

1 stick of butter
1/4 c. sugar
1-1/4 c. all-purpose flour

She worked it with her hands until she had a pliable dough, patted it out to 3/8″ thick or so, pricked it deeply with a fork so she could break it after it had baked, and to let the steam out of the dough as it cooked (American butter is about 20% water, which has to go somewhere). She baked it for a little over 20 minutes at 325-350° F. until just barely browned. It was heavenly.

Over the years, I have volunteered at an impromptu dinner party where no one had brought dessert to make shortbread. Almost everyone has a little flour, a stick of butter, and a little sugar about. Forty minutes later: shortbread appeared much to everyone’s amazement.

My recipe is very much the same now, though I always use salted butter at home and add a healthy pinch of Kosher salt. Each late November/early December, I go through six or eight pounds of butter and send shortbread out to 18-20 households. So, I no longer work the dough by hand in these marathon baking sessions.

Scaling Up

I use a stand-mixer now, and work with a pound of butter at a time. Here are the directions.

In the bottom of the mixing bowl put:

1 c. of sugar (usually–it being Christmas and all–I use a rounded cup of sugar)

A generous pinch (1.5 T.) coarse Kosher Salt, less if you’re using a finer milled salt)

Add on top of that

4 sticks (1 lb.) of salted butter (this can be cut into pieces if its cold or just dropped in if it’s room temperature)

Cream the butter, sugar and salt. I used to use the K-paddle for this, but a dough hook, if you’ll scrape down the sides of the bowl now and then will do just fine and is much easier to clean. (You’ll need to change to the dough hook anyway, so…)

Then add:
5 c. all purpose flour
And mix at a low speed, clearing the sides of the bowl often until the dough in the bowl is a pleasant yellow color and all the butter and flour are incorporated. You can check this by stopping the machine and kneading the dough with your hands. Get into the bottom of the boll and makes sure you’ve got all the scrappy bits incorporated. Usually, at this stage, you’ll be able to knead together and lift 98% of the dough out of the bowl in one go, then go back for the little bits. The warmth of your hands will help. (It’s not like pie crust, croissants, or pastry where everything needs to be kept really cold.)
Lay out a big cross of plastic wrap and put the dough in the center of it. Shape it into a rough rectangle, maybe and inch thick, incorporating all the little scrappy bits from the blender bowl into one dough. Wrap it tightly in plastic wrap, then take a rolling pin to it gently to make it a uniform thickness and press the edges out against the restraining plastic wrap and let the dough rest at least 30 minutes at room temperature to fully hydrate.
I use a pastry cloth to roll out shortbread and all other crusts, pasta, etc. Here are three batches of shortbread (1 lb. of butter in each) that sat overnight on the counter, ready for rolling out and cutting.
When I roll this out, I lay two long wooden spoons on either side of the dough and use them as thickness guides, allowing my rolling pin to eventually rest right on them as they straddle the dough. Flour the pin frequently to keep it from sticking to the shortbread.

Then, I cut shortbread with cookie cutters, setting them as close together as possible to minimize the number of times I roll out the scraps.


I line rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper and set the cut pieces about 1/4″ apart, a pound of butter will do roughly 4 full-sized sheet pans of cut pieces.

Gather up the scraps, press them back into a cohesive ball of dough (the edges will crack, just ease them together as needed) and re-roll it to the same thickness. Cut again. Do the same until you’ve used all the dough. (There is always a little nubbin of dough that I just roll into a ball and flatten to the right thickness and tuck onto a pan. One has to test these things, right?)

Shortbread needs to be pricked, and, again it being Christmas, I gild this particularly lily by using a small strainer to sift sugar onto the surface of the cookies from a height of about six inches. Then I use a table fork to prick the tops of the cookies. Taking some care in placing the fork holes will make for a very pretty cookie.


If your house or your kitchen is particularly warm (ours is not), you might want to chill these trays before taking them to the oven.

Bake them at 325°-350° F., for roughly 20-25 minutes, rotating the pans a bit more than half way through. Start checking them for color at around 20 minutes. The moment you notice them starting to brown, remove them from the oven and let them cool in the pan for a few minutes. If you insist on touching them with your fingers when they first come out, they will dimple, so hands off until they’ve cooled. Transfer them to wire racks to fully cool before packing them up.

Now, a word of warning: Be careful how many households you train to expect these.


This year it took two full days to go through six pounds of butter for twenty friends and family. But, with the pandemic on, I won’t be turning up in person, so this is the next best thing. And if they had to choose, most of them would probably want the shortbread over a personal visit anyway…

And offer a prayer to our Scots ancestors and Great Aunt Lois.

Potato-Parsnip Latkes


This traditional Hanukkah dish is such a joy to have on the plate. Accompanied with homemade applesauce and a sour cream (or crème fraiche) and horseradish, they are a real treat: crunchy on the edges, creamy inside, and the little bit of oil that makes that texture possible is lightened by the accompaniments.

There’s a reason foods become traditional.

This year, 2017, as Alabama damn-near elected a real prince of a pedophile-racist-Christian nutcase, I shoveled snow here in Vermont with my wife, cleared the porch roof, shoveled again, and when it came time for brunch, made some latkes in celebration of narrowly averted catastrophe and a well-tended driveway.

A great deal of cooking has to do with minimizing problems and maximizing flavor. My contention is that time can help with both of these things and a little planning ahead reduces both the problems with a dish and the amount of time and concentrated attention required.

As usual, process is important. The recipe comes last and can be changed to include other root vegetables (carrots, beets, etc.), once you know the variables you’re dealing with.

Too Much Starch

What we love is often also often what we hate. We are generally looking for that point when enough (of what we want) is too much.

With potatoes, the problem is all that starch. It can make potatoes gummy and unpalatable, ruining the potato’s ability to crisp up either in the oven or the frying pan.

The solution is to remove some of that starch and this is best done by soaking the potatoes in cold salted water, then draining and drying them before cooking. This works for oven roasted potatoes, grated potato dishes, and au gratins.

If you carefully fish the potatoes out of their soaking water and let it sit, the potato starch will settle to the bottom of the bowl and you can carefully decant the water and leave it behind. This is what is dried and sold as a gluten-free thickener.

I’m not generally quite that industrious, but, because of the extra starch, potato-soaking water is a perfect addition to breads, rolls, pancakes/waffles, and sourdough. If you have a relatively immediate use for it, you could save it, park it in the fridge, or add it to your sourdough starter.

This Year’s Latkes

My latkes today included some grated parsnips along with the potatoes. I spun them up on the food processor grating blade and dumped them into a large bowl of well-salted cold water, gave them a stir and left them for an hour or so. I was doing other things.

After a nice soak, I drained them in a colander, pressed the extra water out of them and folded them into a clean kitchen towel to be wrung out as tightly as I could manage.

I let them sit for a few minutes while I minced onion, topped the onion with grated some fresh nutmeg and a generous pinch of kosher salt (of course) and freshly ground black pepper. Then I returned to the grated potato-parsnip mix and wrung it out again.

With the potato-parsnip mixture as dry as I could manage, I dumped it into a large bowl, added the minced onion with its seasonings into the bowl, added a heaping spoonful of flour, tossing the mixture lightly until it was evenly distributed.

Then I broke in eggs, mixing them in one at a time, just until the mixture seemed like it might just hold together.

Preheating two large cast-iron frying pans, I floated 1/8” of a neutral vegetable oil in each and waited for it to shimmer, but not smoke.

The latke mixture is spooned into the waiting oil and should begin bubbling immediately, but not furiously (you want them to cook through and be nicely browned, not blacken and be raw on the inside).

Press the spoonful of latke mix down a bit with the back of the spoon and tidy up the edges if they’re too frayed. Those exposed threads of potato will be the first to brown and overcook, so you can help control how much they do that by tucking them into the latke right away. Let the latkes brown on one side before turning them.

Turning Things Over In Hot Oil

When I have to flip things in an appreciable amount of oil, I always use two spatulas, one under the item I’m turning, and one on top. This allows me to gently turn items without splashing hot oil all over the stove, my clothes or me.

A controlled turn is better than flipping things when there’s oil enough to splash you. A pair of cooking chopsticks is also useful. Choose your implement, but have two. (It’s not cheating if you don’t get burnt and your stove isn’t a greasy mess when you’re done…).

Recipe: Latkes-2017

• 2 medium sized peeled Russet Potatoes with

• 4 small parsnips

Soak in a large bowl of well-salted cold water. Walk away. This will leech out the starch and keep the potatoes from oxydizing and turning grey.

Come back when you can (or have to), drain the grated roots in a colander and press the excess water/moisture/starch out of them. Wrap them up in a clean dish towel and wring the bejesus out of them. Let them sit in the towel for the second wringing.

• 1 medium onion

• Freshly grated nutmeg
• Kosher Salt
• Freshly ground black pepper
• (a pinch of cayenne, as you like..I didn’t add any this year)

Return to the grated mixture in the towel and wring it out one last time. Dump the reasonably dry and fluffy potatoes and parnips into a large bowl.

• minced Onions and seasonings, and
• A heaping spoon full of all purpose flour

Mix these together until the flour and the onion mixture are evenly distributed in the grated potatoes and parsnips.

• Eggs, one at a time, mixing them in thoroughly, just until the latke mixture is moist enough to seem like it might hold together. (I used three jumbo eggs, but your egg sizes, the moisture in your mixture, etc. will dictate how many you’ll use).

Heat up the oil and you’re off to the races.

I always put a sheet pan in a 250° F oven to receive the latkes and keep them warm without cooking them too much before I lay the first spoonful in the pan.

With two large cast-iron frying pans (13”), I cooked three medium-sized latkes per pan.

Some people cook one large latke, drain the oil on paper towels and cut pie slices to serve it. This makes turning the puppy a good deal trickier, and I prefer individual latkes because they get crunch around all the edges, and after all, isn’t that what we’re all after?

Traditionally served with applesauce or a horseradish sauce, or in our household, both.

When the temperatures are hovering around 18° outside; there’s a fire in the woodstove, and it gets dark by 4:30 in the afternoon – a week before the shortest day of the year – these were a real delight.

Best wishes and remember, regardless of which holidays you celebrate, you can always celebrate and nourish your family and friends with good food, made with care, and affection.

Never cook when you’re mad. (That’s what restaurant food is for.)







Scottish Shortbread

Great Aunt Lois’ Scottish Shortbread: A Once A Year Treat

This simple shortbread recipe came from the Anderson side of my first wife’s family, good Scots all. My father’s family, the Ainslie’s are from Bo’Ness between Edinburgh and Glasgow on the Firth of Forth, due north of Linlithgow. So, I come by my love of this stuff honestly, which for a Scot, is important (though I have been told that the Ainslie name is more likely Viking than Scots; there was a lot of marauding going on back in the day).

The recipe scales up perfectly and has only four ingredients:

• 1 stick of salted butter
• ¼ c. sugar
• 1-1/4 c. all purpose flour
• Pinch of kosher salt

When it was taught to me, the butter was cubed and these ingredients were simply worked by hand until the warmth and action of the hands turned it into a cohesive dough. It can be patted out and scored for breaking after baking, or cut with cookie cutters.

When I make batches, I cream:

• 1 lb. of room temperature salted butter
• 1 c. sugar
• a generous pinch of Kosher salt

Then add:

• 5 c. all purpose flour

I work the dough into a 1” to 1.5” thick rectangle and wrap it in plastic wrap to rest. This rest allows the moisture from the butter (which is generally 20% water) to equalize and makes the dough easier to work. Tightly wrapped, you can leave this in the fridge overnight or for a day or two, but let it come to room temperature before you try rolling it out.

I roll it to about 3/8” thickness, laying a favorite wooden spoon next to the dough as a guide, then cut the shortbread, place it on trays and chill them.

I then dust them with sugar and bake them at 325° F. for about 25 minutes until the edges of some of them are just starting to show a little color.

At this point remove them from the oven and let them finish and cool in the pan a bit before removing them to drying racks. They will still be fragile, but will toughen up as they cool.

I prefer bite sized cookie cutters and favor maple leaf, stars of different sizes, a very small Christmas tree and this year, a fleur-de-lis which I bought down on Bayou Teche in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana this fall.

Shortbread freezes well and can be kept that way for weeks, if not months. I simply make it up put it in airtight containers and leave it on an indoor, but unheated porch off the back of the house until I’m ready to ship it to friends and family.

Candied Citrus Peels

A Scottish Holiday Treat

In Scots households, when the rare bit of citrus fruit from sunny climes made it into the house, none of it was thrown away. Even the rinds of the fruit, if not rendered into marmalade, were saved and savored.

This time of year, there is nothing quite so festive as a gleaming clear glass jar filled with candied grapefruit or orange peels.

These opalescent confections are addictive and in our household have to be hidden away, otherwise, every time one thinks of a reason to go to the kitchen (and there turn out to be many when these are about) one or two of them disappear.

So, we hide them and parse them out to friends with other gifts that will not clutter up their homes for long. They know we have spent time thinking lovingly of them as we prepare them, and getting a small portion: no one gets hurt.

The finished rinds can be chopped up and added to scones, cookies, fruit cakes, or served with a small dish of vanilla gelato and a piece of shortbread (a simple dessert fit for royalty), or dipped in dark chocolate, presuming you can get to that before they disappear…

December, 2017

This year, I prepared rinds from four ruby grapefruits one day and six or eight medium-sized navel oranges. The process is what to watch here, recipes vary wildly and are all fine. Cooking is mostly about solving problems and maximizing flavor. Read through this and you’ll understand what and why. I’ll give you rough measurements at the end.

To prepare the rind, I usually make a shallow cut in the rind, scribing it into quarters and then carefully peel the rind and most of the pith from the flesh, trying to leave the juice and fruit in tact. There are those who cut off the poles of the fruit and then peel the rinds away. This makes for more uniform peel strips, but you do essentially toss the ends. It’s a judgment call. I’m Scots. I throw very little away.

Once all the fruit are peeled, then I cut the peel into ¼” strips (strips that are as wide as the peel is thick, or a little bit wider).

Citrus rinds and the white pith are bitter. So, you’ll remove a portion of that bitterness by covering the prepared peels with cold water, bringing it to boil, simmering for a few minutes, then discarding the water. Rinse and repeat.

This is done 3-5 times.

The more this is done the softer the peel will be. I usually aim for 4 times, and with the grapefruit let them dry lightly covered with a cloth for two or three days before putting them in glass.

Then you prepare a simple syrup: 1 part water to 1 part sugar by volume. Bring this to a boil in a pan large enough to accommodate the volume of peel you’ve prepared.

When the sugar in dissolved, add the peel and stir them in. You can gently stir them as they cook, but take care not to break them all into bits as they get to the end of their cooking time.

You will simmer them and reduce the syrup until either it is nearly all absorbed or the peels have a translucence to them. The pith will go from being white and opaque to being almost opalescent.

Remove the peels at that point from the remaining syrup with a spider or a wire ladle (I get mine from the Oriental groceries, they are used for deep fat frying, tempura, etc.) and drain them carefully (hot sugar burns are hotter and worse that scalding!) and spread them out on drying racks set over parchment paper and sheet pans.

Sprinkle granulated or powder sugar over them.

A finer sugar is better for this, but I don’t like the other things that are in powdered sugar, so I usually run some granulated sugar through my spice mill (a whirring little $10 coffee grinder repurposed for roasted chiles, sugar, whole roasted curry spices, etc.) and use that. It is powdery and works like a charm.

The second day of citrus, I used the dried sugar that clumped up and came off the grapefruit peels onto the parchment paper below, whirred it up in the spice grinder and reused it on the navel oranges. We’re Scots. You can sort this out yourself…

Toss the peels once they’ve cooled a bit in this fine sugar and then keep them up on the racks until they’re cool, at which point you can transfer them to dry sheet pans, cover them with a light cloth and let them dry fully for a day or two before putting them up.

They should be sparkly on the outside and soft but chewy. If they feel fragile when you pick them up, let them dry a bit longer.

They freeze well, though they don’t last that long around our house. And they’ll keep at room temperature, if the moisture content is right, for a few weeks usually. (They might eventually mold if they’re too wet. That is a real tragedy, so watch them and share them out generously, or refrigerate or freeze them. Let them come to room temperature before putting them out for guests.

Candied Citrus Peel Recipe

  • Peel and cut into strips the rinds of 4 grapefruit (+/-4 c. loosely piled)
  • Combine 3 c. of water and 3 c. of sugar in a sauce pan and bring to a boil to dissolve.
  • Add peels all at once, stir them in and turn the pan down to a gentle simmer. You want bubbles, but not a roaring boil. Cook, stirring occasionally until the peels are translucent.
  • Remove from remaining sugar solution with a wire spider (slotted spoons hold far too much sugar solution and will make a bigger mess…you should have a spider anyway. Go get one.).
  • Spread them on a metal drying rack over parchment paper in a sheet pan to cool.
  • Sprinkle them with fine sugar and move them around a bit with a wooden spoon or something while they’re still hot. Remember, they’re really, really hot!
  • As they cool toss them with a little more fine sugar until they are all separate and not sticking to each other.

Let them fully cool, then dry under a clean light cloth for a couple of days before putting them up in airtight glass jars, freezing them, or refrigerating them.

These candied rinds will develop a nice crisp outer skin encrusted with sugar while remaining soft and chewy inside. If they come out tough, you’ve over cooked them and drawn all the moisture out of the peels. They’re still useful ingredients, but, on their own, they will not be nearly as much fun in the mouth.

Memorial Day Weekend: English Muffins

Memorial Day Weekend English Muffins

May 24, 2015

EnglishMuffins5-2015Inspired by Peter Reinhart’s marvelous “Artisan Breads Every Day,” I woke up two days ago thinking about making English Muffins. You’ll need some crumpet rings (canning jar lids will do in a pinch, but they are smaller in both dimensions). You’ll also want a fairly heavy pan or griddle. Mine is well-seasoned cast iron and covers two burners.

The actual distinctions between crumpets and English Muffins are rather fuzzy. Having a wetter batter, this recipe falls somewhere closer to the crumpet line, but it does depend on yeast and is cooked on both sides – characteristics of English Muffins. (I depend on someone else for expertise in this, as in so many things…but, both are done on top of the stove, rather than in the oven.)

There is virtue in slow rising breads. And there is real depth of flavor in sourdoughs (I have a forty year old sourdough that I started on the Upper West Side in New York City in 1975).

Consider this a multi-day project with a little mixing time on Day One, and then the griddle baking on Day Two (or three, or four…).

I let the dough rise for about 18 hours, mixing it up in the early afternoon of day one and finishing them on day two. But, the temptation of letting the dough sour a little is high. I just didn’t want to wait, which translates into not planning quite far enough ahead.

DAY ONE: For 8 – 10 English Muffins

Mix wet ingredients:

2 tsp. Honey
1 T.     Vegetable Oil
1 ½ c. Luke Warm Milk (whole or 2% at up to 95° F)

Mix dry ingredients:

2-2/3 c. Bread Flour
¾ tsp.   Salt (or 1-1/4 tsp. Coarse Kosher Salt)
2 tsp.     Instant Yeast

Add wet to dry.

Mix to incorporate and then whisk for a minute or so. Scrape down the bowl. Whisk another minute (you should see strands of gluten developing in the dough as you are whisking it). Scrape down the bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let it rest overnight (or several days in a cool place or the refrigerator). It will rise, so use an adequately sized bowl.


If refrigerated, allow dough to move toward room temperature for two hours before proceeding.

Mix together:

¼ tsp. Baking Soda
3 T. Warm Water

Fold this into the risen dough gently, like you were folding in egg whites. Let it rest covered for a half hour or so, if you have the time.

[Consulting other recipes:  you can add more flour, or a mixture of flour and cornmeal to the batter now to get a wet, very tacky dough you can just barely handle with heavily dusted hands. Working quickly, you can portion it out  into 1/3 c. balls of dough and press them down into the cornmeal dusted rings to rise a bit before heating them. My dough was a little on the drier side and the last few I made this way.]

Prepare the crumpet rings by oiling the inside of each and dipping them in corn meal to coat them. Lay them on the cold or preheated griddle you plan to cook on. (Cold is fine. Slow and low heat is key to not burning the outside before the inside is done.)

You can crowd the griddle with rings and cook as many as you can fit at one time.

Brush the griddle inside each ring with oil and then dust the oiled surface with cornmeal. (I used a little bacon fat, but any neutral oil or fat will do) Next time, instead of using my fingers to distribute the cornmeal on the griddle, I’ll put some in a small sieve and tap it into place, the way one applies powdered sugar to finished baked goods.)

Spray a 1/3 cup measuring cup with oil inside and out and fill it with dough. (It may be glutenous enough to want to pull itself out of the cup, so I used a stiff off-set spatula to press and cut the excess off.)

Turn 1/3 c. of the dough/batter into each ring. (Encourage the dough out toward the edges of the ring on all sides, if it’s on the dry side and won’t spread out on its own.)

Once all the rings are filled, dust the tops with cornmeal and turn the griddle on low. (Cover any remaining batter-dough tightly.)

Now, the only tricky part of this is that you are baking these with heat from one side at a time. There is a very real chance that you will burn the bottom before the middle is done.

You’ll be able to smell the cornmeal toasting. Or burning. Try to avoid the latter by letting the griddle and muffins slowly warm up together on low.

When you smell that lovely toasted cornmeal smell, turn the griddle off for a few minutes and let the residual heat cook out some of the moisture.

I dodged my griddle off and on two or three times on each side. Cooking time was around 15 minutes per side. I then transferred the muffins to a baking sheet and put them in a 300° F oven for about another ten minutes and let them cool leaning up on their edges on a baking rack before trying one.

They should cool for a good while before you split them. The inside will predictably be a little doughy while they are still warm. Use a fork to poke all around their circumference and then split them, hoping to preserve the little nooks and crannies these are treasured for.

We had a little lemon curd lying about. We have less now. These muffins chill and freeze perfectly well. I made a double batch.


Cajun Country Gumbo: Murky Food

The first gumbo I watched being made was in the kitchen of my dear friends Todd & Jen Mouton near Bayou Teche in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana.

My second gumbo was made in the Hurst Street, New Orleans kitchen of my dear friends Hans Andersson and Whitney Stewart.

Mindful of these introductions, Gumbo is as sacred to me. My attention rests on the value and beauty of these friends whenever I begin this dish and when I serve Gumbo, our table is always full of friends. There is no need to show off. No one to impress. This is honest, beautiful – and as my friend Susan Hessey would say – murky food.

Gumby, Gumbo & The Holy Trinity

Last spring, we decided to have a gumbo making party where I taught a bunch of friends the technique I’d learned in Breaux Bridge and New Orleans. Do you feel the richness of this friend-to-friend transfer? You are about to take part in it. Thanks for that.


The word ‘gumbo’ comes from a west African word for okra, a common element in stews there.*

The filé comes from the Native American thickener: dried and powdered sassafras leaves.

The roux comes from the French.

The chiles, from the Spanish.

The dish is rich with the history of the land and cultures from which it came.

*I actually don’t use either okra (or tomatoes in my gumbo). For some folks, this automatically disqualifies it. But gumbo is more a technique than a recipe. And you’ll find that Louisianans themselves will scrap about this right to the edge of the table, and then open a beer for each other and happily dig in.

“First, You Make A Roux…”

…Most distinctive Louisiana dishes begin with this phrase.

A roux is essentially equal parts fat and flour cooked together as the base for the dish. In classic French cooking there are 3 roux designated:  light, blond and dark.

In Louisiana, I’ve heard of 17: When you couldn’t vary the ingredients of your diet, you could vary how long and how hot you cooked the roux.

I like the roux as dark as I am brave enough to get it: coffee, dark chocolate brown.

But first: The Holy Trinity: Onion, Celery, Green/Red Peppers

Playing of the sacredness of Gumbo and friendship, we have what Louisianans call ‘the holy trinity’: green peppers, celery and onion.

Before you start a roux, these need to be chopped and at hand. They are the brakes you will apply when you think the roux is about to get away from you. (A burnt roux signals the Monopoly rules: Go directly to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Give up or start again.)

The proportions of these three are negotiable, though in my gumbos there are often a scosh more onion and pepper in the mix than celery. You’ll want a nice pile of each ready before you heat the pan.

Making The Roux

For a gumbo large enough to justify the time, I usually use 3/4 – 1 c of fat and the same or a little bit more all-purpose flour. [Don’t be tempted to use whole wheat: the germ will burn.]

I heat the oil in a heavy, enameled cast iron pot and then whisk the flour in all at once when the oil is hot.

There are brave chefs out there who get a skillet smoking hot, add the oil and then the flour and whisk like crazy.

The advantage of this boldness is it’s really fast. The danger is you’ll burn the roux and have to throw it out. I consider this technique interesting and exciting, and for a practiced hand. If you are making gumbo three or four times a year as the seasons and ingredients change, what’s the rush? Easy does it.

Once the oil and flour are combined, then the stirring begins. Set the whisk aside and choose a heat-proof spatula or a wooden spoon or spatula. While the surface of the roux looks fine, the bottom of the roux can burn if you take a phone call, get distracted, or are dicing up ‘the holy trinity’ (a subversive phrase, I suppose), so pay attention.

The roux will begin soupy. It will often then get lumpy as it darkens and the glutens are cooked up, then it may relax again into a darker soup as it progresses toward the point where I chicken out and add vegetables to slow it down.

Here’s a progression of photos of our roux in progress:

Onions First!

From books of the wonderful New Orleans chef John Besh, I learned to selectively add just the onions when the roux is frighteningly dark and close to burning. This allows the carmelization of the roux to progress a little further. Once the moisture from the celery and peppers gets in the roux, it’s darkening days are over.

Now, if you like a dark roux like this, you may have broken down all the gluten in the original flour. If the gumbo doesn’t thicken up the way you’d like at the other end of cooking, you can either add some beurre manié (equal parts butter and flour blended at room temperature) to thicken it at the last minute, or make a second lighter roux just for thickening.

For me, getting the flavor in that dark roux at the beginning sets the dish. There have been times when I’ve added the onions to a roux and let them begin to sweat that the whole mixture looks like a brownie mix of melted dark chocolate. This is a thrilling thing to see in a pan on your own stove. Take it from me.

Peppers, Celery, Garlic, Cayenne/Seasonings and then a Flavorful Stock

When you’ve judged either that 1) you’re weary of the stirring, 2) you’ve run out of time for this part of the dish, or my favorite 3) you’re in danger of burning the roux even with the onions in it – add the diced celery, peppers, garlic, cayenne pepper and some salt and pepper.

Many ‘cajun’ spice mixes consist of salt, cayenne, onion and garlic powder in various proportions. If I grab one of these, I get it without the salt. The rule of thumb advanced by some manufacturers for their product is ‘when it’s salty enough the spice is just right.’

Maybe for someone.

I prefer to control the salt and spice separately.

That said, I do like having a little “Slap Ya Mama” in the cupboard. It always gives me occasion to say, “It’s so good it’ll make you wanna slap ya mama, and you KNOW you’re not supposed to do that!”

Available at:

I am often using a few of my favorite dried Mexican chilés in my gumbo. Know who you’re cooking for and follow your nose.

The Stock

The roux and the stock are critical to the distinctive flavor of a gumbo.

When I make seafood gumbo, I make a roasted shrimp shells & fish racks, bay leaf, celery, carrot infused stock.

When I make smoked sausage and smoked turkey gumbo, I’ll use the bones and shards of my home-smoked Thanksgiving turkey and make a stock with onions, celery, bay leaves, parsley, carrot and parsnip trimmings. You get the idea. Same with duck.

The marvelous thing about gumbo is that what actually goes into the gumbo depends on what’s available and what you want.

I’ve made vegan gumbo with vegetarian sausage, fried tofu and tempeh. It’s vegan food that is off the chain. The diet may be restrictive, but that shouldn’t stop any cook from making remarkable food.

When making stock, take care to begin with the ingredients in cold water and only add cold water to replenish the stock as it evaporates, as needed. Skim it regularly and try to keep it from boiling: a simmer is what you want. Boiling stocks cause them to be really cloudy. For gumbo they don’t need to be clarified, but a nice stock is a nice stock. You might use some of it for something else….

Oh, and a beer or some portion of one usually also winds up in the gumbo. A little red wine in a dark roux is also not a bad thing, but I lean toward an amber beer or a lager.

Strategies for Different Gumbos

With a seafood gumbo, like the one we were making in these photos, you have to make a flavorful seafood stock. The seafood itself goes in minutes before it is served to keep it from overcooking and becoming tough and lifeless: shrimp, oysters, portioned fish fillets (deboned)…any seafood will do, including crab, lobster, etc. There is no way to get the flavor into the pot early without a nice stock.

With sausage or meat gumbo, you can brown the sausage and the meats to get a flavorful fat with which to make the roux. Once browned, remove the meat from the pan, take a sight measurement of the fat there and add what you need to bring it up to the amount you want, add the flour and proceed with your roux.

I always make or adjust a store-bought stock. I’m nourishing my friends and family. That’s sacred to me. I only cut a corner when I don’t have time. If I have time, I spend it on my friends and family.

Simmering and Serving The Gumbo

Some simmering is in order once all the vegetables have been added and sweat out, and the roux has been thinned with stock, a little beer, etc. At this point, it can be consigned to a medium over, covered. (There are those who darken the roux in the oven, too, but I prefer being with it. If I’m too busy for that, I’m probably too busy to make gumbo.)

The fully cooked meats and sausage,  or the uncooked seafood and shellfish are added in the last few minutes of cooking and just heated or cooked through.

Gumbo is served over rice.

There are those who put a scoop of chunky cold potato salad with dill pickles in it right in the middle of a serving. I don’t, but I understand the urge.

I always put some filé powder in the gumbo just before serving and have some on the table for people to add to thicken up and flavor their own servings as they like.

A nice, crusty French-style or sourdough bread is nice to have at the table to mop up the last little bits of the gumbo in the bottom of the bowls.

And if your guests make the mistake of serving themselves gumbo by fishing out all the meaty parts and leaving the broth, take over the serving:  this is a poor people’s dish, more like a soup with a few ingredients in it.

It’s not a beef stew and shouldn’t be treated as such.

It’s more civilized: a dish of at least four cultures coming to a table of friends near you.




October garden survivors: Leeks meet Allan Benton’s Bacon

Potato & Leek Soup
October 30, 2012
Brattleboro, Vermont

With a stand of leeks in our little organic garden patch out back, my wife Barb and I decided that we should make some Potato & Leek soup for a combination Hallowe’en potluck/Celtic music class gathering she was cooking up.

The soup essentially includes the two star ingredients, potatoes and leeks, a little bacon, and some stock, salt and pepper to taste. Simple.

But, for the leeks: only the white and very palest of the pale green parts are favored, and there’s a lot more leek above those highly prized bits that seemed like it was destined to go directly to the compost pile.

My Scottish nature bridled at that.

Augmenting the Stock

So, to augment the chicken stock I was going to use, I washed and cut the best of the leek greens into a pot and diced up a diced carrot, a couple ribs of celery, adding a bay leaf and some garlic. I sweat these for a few minutes in a little olive oil, then deglazed the pan with a little dry Vermouth and added the stock.

A guy could skip this step, but it only takes a few minutes to set up and makes a huge difference in the finished soup.

Simmer below a boil, at least until the carrots and celery are tender, longer if you get a head start.

The Bacon

It is here that the vegetarians squirm and omnivores begin to drool: Bacon.

Even ordinary bacon is a powerful flavor enhancer. But, not by chance, I had some of Allan Benton’s Hickory Smoked Country Bacon on hand.

Allan Benton’s small smokehouse in Madisonville TN, his slow cure, and personal care have catapulted his bacon and dry-cured country hams into the culinary stratosphere.

Benton’s cured pork products have become the darlings of the current generation of fine chefs from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine. His country ham has been compared to Prosciutto and Serrano ham from Europe, products he didn’t know about until his hams caught on.

“What I’m doing, any hillbilly can do in their backyard,” Benton says. “It just takes a tiny bit of knowledge, a little bit of salt and sugar – and a lot of time.”

You can – and I recommend you do – purchase four, roughly one pound packages of this bacon for $24 plush S/H at (According to their website, the wait time can be as long as three weeks, but my order arrived more quickly.)


I used roughly a quarter pound of bacon, nearly four pounds of potatoes, six leeks from the garden (of varying diameters), two cups of amended chicken stock and a splash of milk, though I would have preferred cream.

Cutting and Building the Soup

With the warm stock ready on the back of the stove (stock vegetables softened and strained out), I cut the bacon into a 1/4” dice, the potatoes into a similar dice (if one added carrots, they would be diced similarly: I did not), the whites of the leeks were halved lengthwise and then cut into 1/2” pieces. And we’re ready to go.

Render the bacon over low heat until it’s released most of its fat, but not gotten crispy.

Add chopped leeks, stir for a minute or two to warm.

Add diced potatoes. Add some salt and fresh ground pepper.

Stir and turn the mixture over as it warms through and begins to soften.

Adding the Stock

Add the warmed stock 1/2 c. at a time, like you were making risotto, stirring it in and allowing it to warm through before adding more.

Once all the stock is added, turn the heat to the lowest setting and let it cook until the potatoes are softened.

At that point, you may add milk or cream, but do not boil the soup after adding dairy.

Correcting the Seasonings

As the soup simmers, you can check the salt and pepper balance. Additional seasonings might include a little thyme, another bay leaf, a dash of cayenne or other chile pepper.

You will find that the smokiness of Allan Benton’s bacon carries this dish far above any other Potato Leek Soup you’ve ever had. This is why Benton’s products are so prized. A small amount of Benton’s hickory cured bacon provides more flavor than a large amount of the bland supermarket bacon we were raised on (and loved).

My eyes (well, nose and tastebuds) have been opened.

And I still have three pounds of Benton’s bacon in the freezer and a quarter pound defrosted in the fridge.

This is how rural, poor people get to feel rich. It has ever been thus.


Kitchen Hygiene & Food Safety Temperatures

Kitchen Hygiene

You should learn and practice good kitchen hygiene:  separate cutting boards for meat and vegetables, cleaning cutting boards which have touched raw meats with boiling water or a weak bleach and water solution, and taking care to clean your knives and hands after working with raw meat and before turning right to the salad. E. coli or Salmonella can be unpleasant in the young and healthy, and deadly with the elderly, the very young, and people with compromised immune systems. You should establish habits in the kitchen that will minimize accidental contamination and prevent the movement of bacteria from meats and eggs to vegetables.

Food Safety Temperatures and Times

Years ago, a doctor friend told me that there was basically no such thing as what we commonly call the ‘stomach’ flu:  it’s food poisoning.

To prevent this, many cookbooks and cooking authorities encourage the overcooking of food: sacrificing texture and flavor to err on the side of safety. If you take care with your food and your kitchen safety habits are in place, overcooking food in this way is unnecessary.

The old rule of thumb is that cooking food until the core temperature is 167 °F / 75 °C (or above) will ensure that harmful bacteria are destroyed.

But, the temperature at which harmful bacteria are destroyed can be lower, provided the core temperature is maintained for a specified period of time. Read the rest of this entry »

A Smoking Thanksgiving Feast

Smoked Turkey.Duck.Kielbasa

Smoking Ducks, Turkey & Fresh Kielbasa

Thanksgiving this year was quite temperate here in southern Vermont. I took advantage of the milder than usual temperatures to fire up the smoker and prepare meats for our Thanksgiving table, as well as for a gumbo we were planning for later in the fall.

Smoking takes much of a day, so if I’m going to spend six or seven hours tending a small fire every twenty minutes or so, I’ve taken to filling the smoker with meats. I also tend to keep a guitar and a good book close by.

In the time it would take to smoke just 18 lb. turkey, I prepared two ducks and a couple pounds of fresh kielbasa, knowing I’d freeze most of what came off the smoker for future meals. Read the rest of this entry »

Pistachio & Wasabi Encrusted Tuna

June 13, 2010:  A dinner for two

Seared Pistachio & Wasabi Encrusted Tuna

Garlic Scapes, Snow Peas and Baby Spinach

Pan fried Ziti with Feta and Kalamata Olives

This meal began as I was making room in our freezer for nearly twenty pounds of fresh pick-you-own strawberries. Something had to go.

Pulling out a couple of flash frozen tuna steaks, eyeing the bowl of pistachios on the counter, and knowing that, if we’re going to get garlic out of the garden, we’ll have to keep it from going to seed, and that we had snow peas ready for picking…these thing all conspired to determine the menu. With the pan fried ziti (a planned leftover from the fridge), the easiest and final piece of the puzzle fell into place. Read the rest of this entry »