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Lock Down Menu Planning and Gumbo

I was interviewed by a college radio station recently about cooking during shelter in place. I sort of live shelter in place sometimes on a remote part of Lake Superior so I know this routine well and you could almost say business as usual in some ways.

I look at lock down cooking from a view of abundance, not scarcity. I have long stockpiled Trader Joe condiments and fancy pastas for everyday cooking. Our restaurants are good basic fare in the north woods so if I want something upscale, I have to cook it myself.

It's a great time to learn a new cooking or a baking skill like sourdough baking and master it. Lots of time to research and practice till perfect. Here are some handy tips I have learned along the way about cooking at home all the time.

- Know what's in all of your cupboards and freezer. Take a written inventory.

- Label and date ALL foods in the freezer and fridge. Marking the expiration dates on dry goods with a black marker is also a good cue. Use the FIFO method- first in first out.

- Place all the ingredients that need to be eaten next or soon in a designated spot. I sometimes keep a small plastic box or basket in the fridge with bits of leftovers to be used up so they won't get lost in the shuffle.

-Have a few theme nights complete with music, décor, movies, etc.- think of menus with Italian or Indian dishes that can easily come together and make a ethnic quick bread to accompany- like Naan or breadsticks. Play Italian music or watch a film from the country like the 100 foot journey after an Indian dinner.

-Make the long version of a dish instead of a shortcut. Making your own pasta is time consuming, but the benefits of the taste are worth the trouble. This can also be a teaching moment for young chefs.

I am sure everyone knows the benefits of a well stocked larder by now. The items I use all the time like coconut milk, tomato paste and canned tomatoes I buy by the case from my warehouse club. My second stop is always Aldi's for cans, produce and frozen. I am a big believer in private label now that they are NBE (name brand equivalent) a term I learned a few years ago. I do promote local small specialty shops and buy on a regular basis and I hit the farmer's markets in season when possible as well.

I won't go into what one could have in their pantry and freezer, however I would advise taking the time to inventory exactly what you have so none of your precious foods go to waste because they get lost in the back of the freezer.

Taking a physical inventory was a practice we used at the restaurant monthly. We took stock of what we had on hand and vowed to turn the inventory before the end of the month.

So after a list of all the food in the freezer and fridge is written down, you will be able to start the creative process of menu planning.

Start with the things that are low hanging fruit- spaghetti sauce already made that just needs pasta and a salad to complete a meal. My advice is not to plan heavy cooking days every day or you will feel the dreaded kitchen fatigue that most home cooks feel at one time or another. You will want to have a plan in place for those "ain't no way I'm cooking tonight" days.

Soups and Gumbos are also good lunch items served with bread and a salad could stand in for dinner if needed. When the weather warms we will be grilling outside more so having some ingredients for quick side dishes like a rice salad or baked beans will come in handy on those nice days.

I like to write a menu for a week at a time. In lock down times we don't have to worry about eating out days or parties for the moment. that makes for a pretty steady intake of meals made on site. Have some ingredients on hand to make home made pizza and tacos, those are always better made from scratch and the whole family can get in on the preparation. Even the small kids can help by mixing, measuring and setting the table. This is special time to learn some new cooking for life skills and table etiquette for everyone in the house.

Comfort foods are essential

Of course my favorite comfort food is Gumbo. Since I am plant based mostly now, I sub mock duck for duck and use vegan sausage for the Andouille, but I still make a flavorful base and chock it full of vegetables.

"It's been said that the only true gumbo is the one your mama cooked growing up, which also explains why people hold very strong opinions. First time I had gumbo at a restaurant with tomatoes in it, I just about sent it back. But gumbo, like almost all Cajun/Creole cooking is a history of poverty and struggle, and making the best of what you have. So incorporating similar ingredients reflecting the poverty and struggle of other cultures sounds like a great idea. Indian gumbo? Vietnamese gumbo? Collard greens? All sound amazing."- quote from a reader of a recent New York Times article about Gumbo

The gumbo scene is changing in Louisiana. There are die hard cooks that will only make the traditional recipes, but chefs are experimenting with new ingredients to offer finicky foodie patrons in the crescent city.

My current recipe for Gumbo is reminiscent of my mama's as it does not have a roux. This Gumbo can be made with a roux, I eat it for lunch most days so I make mine sans roux.

For a printable of the recipe, click here

Chicken and Shrimp Gumbo

Serves: 8

This is the state soup that cooks with Jazz! It's said that there are as many recipes as there are cooks in Louisiana for Gumbo. Made with everything except red meat, there are countless variations, depending on the season. It freezes beautifully and keeps for up to 3 months in the freezer.

Yield: 1/2 gallon


1 cup fresh yellow onion, chopped

3 ribs celery, chopped

1 large green pepper, chopped

2 tablespoons fresh garlic, minced

1/2 gallon chicken stock low sodium

1 tablespoon Italian seasoning

1 tablespoon Cajun seasoning

2 teaspoons kitchen bouquet sauce (found in the condiment section)

1 pound boneless chicken, diced (bone in pieces are ok too, just double amount)

2 tablespoons Lea and Perrin Worcestershire sauce

1 pound frozen sliced okra thawed and drained

1 tablespoon white vinegar

1 pound frozen medium shrimp raw, peeled and tail off

4 cups cooked brown rice

file powder (optional)


salt and pepper to taste

1 bunch fresh parsley chopped

1 bunch green onions chopped


1. In a Dutch oven, spray with non stick cooking spray and add vegetables and seasonings. Cook until soft. Slowly add chicken stock. Simmer, stirring occasionally. In a large skillet over medium heat, spray with nonstick spray and cook chicken breast. (you can also roast the chicken breast in the oven or buy a chicken cooked at the grocery store. 2. In the same skillet you cooked the chicken in, cook okra in a skillet to remove slime which is just sugar. Cook until okra starts to break down about 10-15 minutes. Add vinegar to okra and continue cooking a few more minutes. Add cooked Okra to gumbo and cook one hour over low heat. Before serving, stir in chopped parsley and chopped green onions. 3. Serve gumbo over a little bit of hot rice (no more than a half cup)  placed in bowl with a dash of File powder and a splash of Tabasco. 4. Yields one half gallon and can be increased easily . 5. Chef’s note- Rice is always served separate in the bowl first, do not add rice to the soup as it will expand when cooled.


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