Beast

Beast of the East 2016 has ended, and the ringing in my ears is starting to subside. My voice is gradually returning, and I’m hopeful that the pain in my neck will go away after a few more days spent sleeping in my own bed.

I love Beast. It’s a fantastic opportunity for house league teams to experience some exciting and hard hitting competition. It’s a chance for new skaters to really feel the heartbeat of the sport as they get to watch (and play against) some of their heroes. It’s a chance for a league to pack up 15 or 20 (or more) of its skaters and go away on an adventure.

As a coach, Beast provides me with a vehicle to challenge my skaters and to see who rises to that challenge. As an announcer, I’m given the chance to call fast paced, hard hitting games, played by teams I may not be familiar with, in an incredibly exciting environment, with even more incredibly talented co-announcers.  I get to work with derby announcing legends, prolific derby writers, style icons, and all around great people.

Most importantly, Beast give me an opportunity to connect with some of my league mates. Quiet moments to talk, open up, and share our feelings with one another don’t often happen in the hectic world of derby. Some weeks it feels like we’re lucky to say hi to one another between the whistles, after games, side by side in toilet stalls, or crowded around free food. Tournaments offer down time, in between time,, all sorts of time to make eye contact, to ask how someone is doing, and to really hear the answer. I find out more about my friends in these in between moments than I ever would at a practice or a game.

Moments spent in shared terror when the 2 star (?) hotel you’re staying in becomes an impromptu fight club, or in laughter when a quiet pub becomes a bumpin’ dance hall for 18 year olds (and a few 38 year olds, but whatever), or in reflection during emotionally vulnerable moments on a park bench in the shade.  Learning that someone can’t cook, or just left a relationship, or is afraid of the dark is not stuff that normally comes up at practice.

I used to laugh at the thought of not knowing the intimate details of my teammates lives, but as our league grows, and since I retired from playing, it’s not so preposterous to think that I may not know someone’s real name, even if I can recognize them from 40 feet away, half obscured, just by the way they move their skates.  It doesn’t make the friendships less real.

But when we find the time to look one another in the eye, to open up and share something, maybe those moments matter more than a win or a loss. There will be other games, but there may not be other moments.

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Patience is rewarded with gumbo

I was reading an article about gumbo the other week and I had a craving for gumbo. Already armed with a reliable recipe, I got as far as buying chorizo and celery, but because gumbo takes some serious time to make, it all sat in my fridge for a week until yesterday when I cleared my schedule and gathered up some willpower to stand in front of the stove for an extended period of time.

Because it is an effort to cook from scratch (or as close to it as our busy schedules allow). Some things in the kitchen are worth the effort. Other things, well, that’s why store bought short cuts exist.

For me, there is nothing store bought that can replace the smell and taste of a roast turkey dinner, homemade mac and cheese, or cookies fresh from the oven. Other things….well, if chicken stock from a cube or a tetra pack means that I can make gumbo on a whim, then I’m going to take the shortcut.

My gumbo recipe *could* be made better with homemade chicken stock, or even better with a smoked turkey stock and meat picked off the bones. But honestly, I’d rather spend the time cleaning my house and inviting friends over to share this big pot of gumbo made with bouillon than buying and roasting a bird and making stock from its carcass just to make gumbo and then have to eat it alone because my house is still a disaster unfit for guests.

Even with the short cuts, gumbo takes time. The prep work takes time, making a roux takes time, and then you still have to let it simmer for at least an hour. The more time you give to your gumbo, the better it will taste.

My recipe comes from a Canadian Living magazine from the mid-90’s.  My mom found it, saved it, and would make it for special occasions. When I got my first apartment, I remember handwriting the recipe and taking it back home with me. I still have it, folded up in the recipe box, though I don’t need it any more, as it’s been etched in my memory from repeated execution and multiple transcribing to share it with my friends.  Outside of making it exactly as per the recipe, I’ve also made a gluten free version with browned butter and cornstarch and a vegan version seasoned with smoked paprika, cumin, and chipotle peppers in adobo (fyi: neither are as good as the original).

The recipe is special to me because my mom taught me how to make a roux. She taught me to be patient with it, to keep stirring, and to let it brown but never burn. “It should be the colour of peanut butter” she would remind me, when I hollered at her from the kitchen to the living room, asking if it was done yet.

I’ll admit that my gumbo doesn’t look like much. It’s murky and brown. It’s not really an #instagram worthy dinner. It doesn’t wow people with it’s appearance, but leave the pot on the table surrounded by friends and you’ll wish you had made a double batch.

Let’s go through the recipe together.

Ingredients:

½ c flour

½ c oil (vegetable oil or olive oil)

1 large onion, finely diced

3 stalks celery, finely diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 tbsp thyme

1 red or green pepper, diced

4 andouille or smoked chorizo sausage, sliced

2 boneless skinless chicken breasts, cubed

6 cups veg stock or chicken stock, warm

2 bay leaves

That’s the recipe, to the best of my recollection. Right off the start, I tend to double up the veggies and the flour and oil, and I use at least 8 cups of stock instead of only 6.

Don't forget the garlic!
Don’t forget the garlic!

Why? Well, how big are the chicken breasts? What about adding shrimp? Were the sausages on sale or too lovely to pass up and now you have 6 instead of 4? How much or how little you add affects whether this is a soup or a stew. It’ll be delicious no matter what. Trust me.

Directions:

  1. Get out a big heavy bottomed…pot. Call it Bust’er in my honour. If you have a fancy enamel ‘french oven’ or a dutch oven, feel free to use it here.
  2. Get your prep work done. Chop the onions and celery and peppers. Chop up your sausage. Warm your stock (head nod to my microwave on this one).
  3. Make the roux. Heat the oil in a large, thick-bottomed pot, such as a Dutch oven, on medium high heat, for a minute or two. Whisk in the flour and lower the heat to medium. Stir constantly, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pan as you stir.  Let the roux cook until it is the color of peanut butter, about 20-30 minutes total time.  It should look and feel like warm peanut butter.  Add more oil if it’s too thick and lumpy, or just smoosh out the lumps if you’re like me and didn’t have quite enough oil on hand to turn it into a silky paste.

    Darker...darker....darker....
    I know I said to whisk, but last night I reached for the big wooden spoon instead, and I wasn’t about to dirty another dish.
  4. Add the onion and celery, and cook for 3 or 4 min, stirring constantly.  Add the garlic and thyme and cook for another few minutes.

    The roux will keep cooking as the veggies soften.
    The roux will keep cooking as the veggies soften.
  5. Slowly add the warm stock to the pot, stirring constantly. Don’t add cold stock because it can cause the roux to separate.
  6. Bring everything to a boil.  Add the sausage and bay leaves.
  7. Skim off the foam that inevitably forms.
  8. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes.
  9. Add diced chicken and peppers. Cook for at least 15 minutes longer.
  10. Turn the heat off. Put the lid on the pot and walk away. You’ll likely have some oil separate out and float to the surface. Skim it away if you want, or if you’re of the ‘fat is flavour’ camp, get ready to stir it back in when you reheat the gumbo to serve it for dinner tomorrow night.

Serve over rice while you re-read Pableaux Johnson’s ode to gumbo.  http://www.seriouseats.com/2016/03/how-i-cook-gumbo-south-louisiana-cajun-country.html

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