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Winemaker's Journal — It's gumbo time!

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gumbo and etouffee

I've been cooking for my annual Mardi Gras party Saturday. The gumbo gathering has been going on at my place each winter for about 30 years now. I don't even remember how it started, but the dreary months of late winter is always a good time for a party no matter the reason.

Gumbo preparation is a festive event in itself. My kitchen has been filled with the rich aromas of simmering chicken and turkey stock all week. My counters were heaped with mounds of chopped bell peppers, celery and onions last night. Cajuns call the mix of vegetables the Trinity, reminding us that Mardi Gras — French for Fat Tuesday —is a religious tradition even if it is represented by a night of drinking, lechery and devilish behavior. The next day is Ash Wednesday, when all good Christians promise to fast and repent for the next 40 days until Easter. Since my party is on Saturday, there will be plenty of time to recover and think this all through before heading to the church.

Roux is the essential part of any proper gumbo. It's a mixture of slow simmered oil and flour stirred until it turns chocolate brown. Some say the correct color is coffee ground brown. Some place a old penny on the counter and whisk until the paste and the penny match. Renown New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme turns the heat up high and gets to the proper color fast, then throws in the chopped Trinity ingredients to stop the roux from burning. He calls his mixture Cajun napalm and one splattered drop on your hand will tell you why. Don't cook this dish naked.

After the vegetables are sauteed in the roux, they can be stirred into the stock. Season the soup with lots of thyme, salt and pepper. Heat can be added with cayenne, crushed chiles, Tabasco or spiced sausages. Andouille sausage is what the Cajuns use, but any smoked sausage works. They're already cooked so you don't have to add them until the final hour.

I tried out one out of a package of Louisiana habanero sausages last night. Man, that was hot. I'll cut up a few but also add some milder sausages. Last minute additions Saturday will also include a pound or more of large shrimp and the shredded chicken I removed from the bones when I made the stock. Also okra as a vegetable thickener. Some people use filé (sassafras root) instead.

There's a million gumbo recipes to be found on the internet. Usually, they call for chicken and sausage or seafood. I combine the two. Some people use squirrel. Some go meatless with lots of greens. When it comes to gumbo, pretty much anything goes.

Another dish I like to make for this event is blackened fish. I have a big propane burner set up on the front porch and a 16-inch cast iron skillet that will do the trick. I'll melt a half pound of butter tonight, dip the firm white fish fillets (snapper, cod, talapia all work well) in the butter and season with lots of Cajun seasoning (paprika, salt, white pepper, cayenne, thyme, onion and garlic powder). I'll store the fish on cookie sheets in the refrigerator to solidify the butter until it's  time to cook. I get that skillet red hot and throw the fish in, cooking them just a minute on each side.

There's always lots of other good things to eat at this party. Guests bring appetizers, salads and decadent chocolate desserts. Mike and Nancy have perfected the traditional King Cake recipe.

Beer is perfect with all this spicy food, but I always bring up lots of my wine from the cellar for guests to try. The crowd of 15 or so usually includes a couple other wine and beer makers, so there's lots of things to drink.

It's an evening of loud Cajun music, beads and feathers, spicy food and spicy behavior with great friends. Laissez les bon temps roulez! Let the good times roll!