ASPEN - For a home cook with modest experience, the most terrifying word in the sort-of-English language is "roux." Listen to more seasoned chefs talk about roux, and you'll hear a tone both reverent and ominous: how essential the roux is to the final dish, how you can't stop stirring it, not even for five seconds, how easy it is to screw up.
With Mardi Gras approaching, and with the shadow of the great Louisiana chef/Aspen Times reporter Andre Salvail lingering over me, I got inspired to make a chicken-sausage gumbo. That meant my first attempt at a roux. Consulting a slew of recipes, I discovered that the roux was, in fact, just two ingredients, and the most basic ingredients imaginable: vegetable oil and flour.
As I fretted, knowing it couldn't be as simple as that, Andre told me about a product from the Louisiana Fish Fry company - an instant roux, easy as can be, tastes as good as from scratch, available at Clark's, top shelf of the rice section. Relieved, I bought a bag (Cajun gumbo recipe, $2.57).
Shortcuts always have consequences. At home, my wife scanned the ingredients on the bag and nixed it on the grounds of monosodium glutamate. I got out the oil and flour and went back to the online roux recipe. Turns out there is a third ingredient: stirring. Constant, till-your-arm-dies stirring. Here's the note from the recipe: "Never stop stirring for any longer than about 5-10 seconds or it will scorch and be fit for nothing more than the garbage can." Is it any wonder I was terrified? (My note regarding the above note: Such a note should come before the directions, not after! I was halfway through my stirring before I read the warning.)
With the aid of my daughter's arm, my roux never sat still for more than 10 seconds. The reward for our diligence was watching the roux do exactly as described, turning from white to tan to peanut buttery to deep brown. I allowed myself to improvise the rest of the way - some ingredients from Andre's recipe, some techniques from the online recipe - and found myself with a large pot of something that looked and smelled a lot like gumbo (though a bit thinner than I would have hoped).
And spooned over white rice, with French bread on the side, it tasted like gumbo. This is to say, it didn't just taste good; it tasted distinctly gumbo-ish - rich, dark. Muddy, as Andre would call it. The next day, Andre would give it a thumbs-up - to leftovers, no less.
Late afternoon, as the gumbo was on the stove thickening, the phone rang: the Wheeler Opera House, going over some detail on my tickets for that night's show. Yikes! I had gotten so immersed in my roux sweats, my preparations for a proper Mardi Gras feast and, yes, the thrill of a Nuggets-Celtics game that went to triple overtime that I had forgotten the day's final element, a concert by a New Orleans icon, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.