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Archive for Wednesday, April 24, 1996

GETTING HIS GUMBO FIX

April 24, 1996

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Writer David Ohle savors the tastes of his native Louisiana.

This far from bayou country, David Ohle's creole cuisine becomes a labor of love.

The flavors and the fresh shellfish that define Ohle's gumbo take some doing to assemble, but for a Louisiana native, the rewards justify the effort.

``Growing up in New Orleans, we had gumbo every Friday,'' he said, explaining how he came to incorporate creole technique into his own culinary repertoire.

``I relearned it later sort of out of desperation when I moved to Lawrence and there wasn't any gumbo available,'' he said.

That was nearly 30 years ago. Since then, Ohle has established himself not only as a fine creole cook but also as a writer whose credits include publication in Esquire, Harpers and Paris Review, and coeditorship of the oral history ``Cows Are Freaky When They Look at You.''

Of late, he's written ``The Flum,'' a sequel to his novel ``Motorman,'' which was published in 1972 by Alfred Knopf. ``The Flum'' is excerpted in the current issue of the literary magazine Conjunctions.

He's also staff writer for Reeder & Co., a Lawrence public relations firm.

As Ohle interprets it, seafood gumbo is a blend of specific flavors that are anything but mainstream in this part of the world. Two of the essential ingredients in any gumbo, okra and file powder, the latter being ground sassafras leaves, are not so elusive.

Rather, the primary challenge in making an authentic gumbo in Kansas is finding creole's traditional blue crab, live or frozen, and shrimp that still have their heads. Asian markets have been Ohle's salvation.

While using another variety of crab will compromise the flavor only slightly, shrimp heads are nearly indispensable.

``To make it taste right, you have to have shrimp heads to make the stock,'' he said, explaining that the fat and the richest flavor in a shrimp is in the head. ``The only place to get shrimp with heads on around here is at Asian markets.''

There's always a fall back, however. ``If you can't get shrimp with heads on them you can use the shells to make a passable stock,'' Ohle said. The last-ditch solution is to use bottled clam juice.

The trick to making any gumbo, even if you opt for a different meat base, such as ham or chicken, is the roux. In this case, Ohle strives for an even chocolate brown.

If the heat gets away from him and the flour starts to smoke, Ohle has no qualms about tossing that roux and starting over.

``Without it, you can't make gumbo, so it's critical,'' Ohle said.

Gumbo serves nicely over rice with a green salad on the side. However, to complete the creole menu for a recent dinner, Ohle added an appetizer course of stuffed mirlitons, or chayote squash. This mild, nutty squash is sometimes found in grocery stores but often is available in Asian markets.

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