Baked, stewed, and tattooed an autobiography
The onions hit the hot oil, dancing and sizzling in protest, defiant to the end. Releasing their pungent aroma in a final act of defiance, as if the tears caused by dicing them wasn’t punishment enough. The oil shimmers in the cast iron pot, the faint smell of onions continue to permeate the air as I dice the other vegetables, carefully washing and trimming each one.
The “Holy Trinity” of Southern and Cajun cooking, onions, peppers, and celery, must be carefully sliced and diced. I inspect each one as I work my way through them. The onions have to be firm, pungent, and sweet. The peppers should be crisp and vibrant. The celery trimmed just right, the tops set aside for drink garnishes and the extra strings removed. The vegetables are placed into individual bowls waiting to kiss the hot oil. I turn my attention to the meat; center cut Bacon, Andouille sausage, Chorizo sausage, and fresh Gulf Shrimp. I set the Dutch oven onto the stove and set the temp to low, as it heats I begin to prepare the meats. My knife glides quickly through the bacon, reducing the strips to small cubes quickly. I pull the skin off the sausages and dice them into small cubes. Bacon is first into the Dutch oven; I cook the bacon down to render the fat and help create the base for my roux. Both types of sausage are added and quickly browned. I don’t want them to cook all the way; they need to absorb some of the flavors from the veggies and add flavor to the base. I pull the meats out of the Dutch oven, reduce the heat and add a stick of butter. I need to add the flour slowly to create the roux. The French use just butter and flour and call it “roux.” I use the bacon grease and fats from the sausage and add my flour slowly, stirring and letting my roux develop a dark reddish brown color. The roux is the base and soul of my jambalaya. Every batch starts the same way; the knives sharpened, vegetables washed and prepped, the meats carefully selected, and the cast iron warmed and ready to go.
I do not recall when my love affair with cooking began. The cooking process has always enthralled me; the rituals, the smells, and heat. When guests are over invariably where do they all end up? In the kitchen. Why? The kitchen is the heart and soul of a home. A majority of my memories from my childhood are centered around the sights and smells of the kitchens where I grew up. My fondest memories of visiting my grandmother's house are the way it smelled on Sunday afternoons; roasted vegetables, pot roast, coffee, and cookies. If I were sick, my mother would make me tomato soup and grilled cheese. The smell of the soup cooking always made me feel a little better.
I had the flu once right after getting married and was home on the couch watching tv. A show called “Yan Can Cook” was on, and I was captivated. Maybe it was the fever, But I felt connected with this older Asian gentleman because of the passion he exhibited for cooking. I had already mastered the 5 “mother sauces” of classic French cuisine and was half-heartedly teaching myself different techniques. Something in the way Martin Yan presented his show fired me up and drove me to experiment even more in the kitchen. My wife, for the most part, benefited from my experiments. Not every meal was a success, but I learned something from every dish I prepared. Did you know that when you drop hot peppers like Habaneros into a hot pan, the fumes will make your throat close up and your eyes water? I do now.
Despite the occasional lesson learned the hard way, I enjoy being in the kitchen. The kitchen is the center of my home, not just a gathering place for family and friends but my sanctuary. I’ve experienced a lot of firsts in the kitchen; my first kiss, my first glass of wine, I even sketched my first tattoo while sitting in a kitchen. The kitchen is where I told my parents I wasn’t going to college and that I had joined the Navy. It was in the kitchen that my wife and I informed our parents that we were expecting our first child. For me, the kitchen is my refuge, a blank canvas, and my escape room.
If I’m upset about something, I cook. Rough day at work, I’ll bake something; feeling stressed, I’ll make soup; brain on overdrive (I call this monkeychatter), I’ll prepare a lasagna. Having a great day and want to share it with my family, I get in there and cook something. Have a big special event coming up? Perhaps a holiday or birthday party? I break out the big guns and fire up my custom-built 60-gallon smoker I call “Stoker.” The bigger the gathering, the more fun I have cooking.
My kitchen is a gathering place for family and friends. My daughters have friends that come over so that I can cook for them. It isn't uncommon to have 3 or 4 extra kids in my house on any given weekend. They come over to hang out and chat while I cook. Sometimes they show up with random food items and try to stump me. It has become their version of the tv show “Chopped” where the contestants have a basket containing random food items to cook. These kids are all convinced that I can make a meal out of anything.
Some of these kids come from broken homes. I’m glad they feel safe in my kitchen and want to hang out and sample my cooking. What none of them realize is that by being in my kitchen I’m able to keep tabs on them. I want them to feel that they have a safe place to go whenever they need it. I’m happy to cook for them; even it’s just a grilled cheese sandwich. My kitchen isn't just for cooking; it’s a gathering place, a confessional, and so much more. I love listening to the kids while I cook; preparing a meal while they fill me in on whats going on in their lives. I stay connected with them and provide advice where appropriate and cheer them up as needed.
I’m happiest in my kitchen, surrounded by family and friends, the smell of something baking in the oven. On evenings when the kids aren’t home I’ll make a batch of Sangria and prepare a few small appetizers to enjoy while playing a game of cards with the wife. A beautiful romantic evening cooked up right there in the kitchen. How can you go wrong with sharing a great meal and enjoying excellent company in the heart of your home?