The kitchen counter exploded with color. Bowls of all sizes filled with green slices of spicy hot jalapenos, black beans, bright yellow-orange shreds of cheese, grass green cilantro, homemade salsa mixed of red, green and white and sour cream the color of coconut ice cream. Chunks of grilled chicken and blackened shrimp filled out the array of ingredients. A pot of steaming tortilla soup was situated beside a casserole of cooked brown rice. And at the start of the line-up was a stack of heavy bowls.
My friend, John, an accomplished everyday cook, had invited friends to join him for Mexican Gumbo on a cold weekday evening. As proud as a chef who cooks in his own restaurant, John told us how to best enjoy the array of ingredients he had artistically arranged on the counter.
The group of enthusiastic diners was quick to learn. First, a heaping spoonful of brown rice dropped into the bottom of a bowl from the stack. Then, ladle tortilla soup over and around the rice. After that, the additions are personal preference.
As I spooned the last bits of black beans and brown rice from my bowl and wiped the drips of liquid from my chin, I was certain I would try to make a similar version of John's Mexican Gumbo in my own kitchen.
There are very tasty packaged tortilla soup mixes available in stores that can be used for this recipe. I opted to create my own soup so that I would know exactly what was in it. With several whole roasting chickens in my freezer, I often have a carcass simmering in a pot on my stove. That means I always have homemade chicken broth in my freezer. Purchased low-sodium chicken broth also works well.
Begin making the gumbo by roasting peppers. This uncomplicated process results in a sweet, deep flavor. Chicken breasts get a thorough coating of spicy seasoning before being cooked. Then, simply sauté typical soup vegetables, add the broth and let the soup simmer. It's the corn tortillas, pureed in a blender with some of the cooked soup that slightly thickens the liquid and adds traditional Mexican flavor.
This unique gumbo is a nice change from chili or a baked potato bar that is often served to a group gathering to watch a football game. The soup can be prepared a day or two before serving and heated up on the day your guests are expected. Offer your favorite toppings for the gumbo.
Your diners will appreciate the opportunity to create their own gumbo concoction. And you will feel satisfied as you watch your guests smack their lips and dab their chins with napkins. You may even feel as proud as a chef in his own restaurant.
2 red bell peppers
2 Anaheim peppers
1/4 cup sweet Hungarian paprika
2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons chili powder
1 tablespoon coarse (kosher) salt
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into cubes
3 tablespoons canola oil, divided
1 large onion, chopped
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped carrots
1 (14 1/2-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained
8 cups chicken broth
6 (5 1/2-inch) corn tortillas, cut into quarters
Salt and pepper to taste
3 to 4 cups cooked brown rice
1 (15-ounce) can black beans, drained and rinsed
Garnishes of choice: black beans, shredded cheese, chopped avocadoes, broken tortilla chips, minced jalapeno peppers, sour cream, salsa, chopped cilantro leaves, cooked kernels of corn
Slice 4 sides from washed bell peppers, as if they were boxes. Discard membrane and seeds. Cut stem end off of Anaheim peppers and cut each pepper in half lengthwise, removing membrane and seeds. Place pepper pieces, skin side up on a foil-lined baking sheet. Place under broiler. Watch closely. When skin is charred, remove from oven. Transfer peppers to a glass dish and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Allow peppers to steam in the bowl for at least 10 minutes. When peppers are cool enough to handle, use your fingers to easily peel the skins away from the flesh. Chop the roasted peppers and set aside.
Mix paprika, cumin, chili powder, coarse salt and ground coriander. Put half of the seasoning mixture in a shallow bowl and add chicken. Toss to coat well. Heat 2 tablespoons canola oil in a large (6- to 8-quart) pot. Add seasoned chicken. Cook and stir until cooked through. Use slotted spoon to transfer chicken to a platter.
Add remaining 1 tablespoon of canola oil to the drippings in the pot. Add onion, celery and carrots. Sauté over medium heat until almost tender. Add roasted peppers and tomatoes and continue cooking until all vegetables are tender. Stir in 1 tablespoon of the reserved seasoning mixture. Add all of the broth. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes.
Ladle 4 cups of the hot soup into a blender. Puree the mixture, gradually adding quartered pieces of corn tortilla. Return pureed soup to pot. Simmer to heat. Taste soup and season with salt and pepper and more of the reserved seasoning mixture if you like.
To serve as a make-your-own gumbo, set out a bowl of cooked brown rice, then the soup, the chicken, black beans and any other garnishes you choose. Guests take a bowl and fill it up. Makes 8 to 10 servings.
Tips from the cook
--Chicken breasts are easiest to cut when they are still slightly frozen.
--Grilled or sautéed shrimp is a nice addition to Mexican Gumbo.
--An immersion stick blender can do the pureeing right in the pot.
--One cup of uncooked long grain brown rice will give you 3 to 4 cups cooked.