Painting of ingredients for improvised gumbo -- Davis pepper spray incident in background.

Mumbo Jumbo Gumbo. 12″ x 12″ gouache and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick

Yesterday in the farm box from Riverdog Farm I got four green peppers. Green peppers are not my favorite peppers by a long shot — I love red, yellow, orange and even purple peppers, but green ones? I think someone made a mistake….

The only way I can think of to get excited about green peppers is to cook Cajun food. In Cajun country, they call green peppers, onions and celery the holy trinity (capitalizing it would be blasphemous) and put them in everything except dessert. Mom expressed a wish to have a little more room in the freezer before Thanksgiving so we decided to have a look at what was in there. Don’t you hate it when you read that someone has whipping cream and brandy lying around? Not around here: I found the shrimp shells that I had been saving for stock, along with one small piece of cooked fish for future bouillabaise. The only other meat in there was sausage. O.K. We’d have sausage gumbo.

First up I roasted the last three small tomatoes sitting on the counter. The farm had a frost this week so there will not be anymore fresh tomatoes unless my Sun Golds ripen on the vine before it rains or freezes here. Tomatoes were late this year and have compensated by lasting into mid-November. Goodbye fresh tomatoes. See you next June or July.

As the tomatoes roasted in the oven where I was baking Krista and Jess’ gingerbread baked oatmeal, I diced

2 green peppers

2 small onions

2 stalks of celery and

1 bulb of fennel (just because I had it)

Before I sauteed the vegetables I chopped

fennel stalks and leaves

and put them in a big pot of water with

shrimp shells and leftover fish fillet.

Then I sauteed the vegetables in olive oil. When they began to brown I added most of

1 small can tomato paste (also a refugee from the freezer) and

1 pint frozen chicken stock.

I strained the shrimp and fennel stock into the vegetables, tomatoes and chicken stock and considered Cajun seasoning. While I thought about it I added

1 Tbsp hot paprika

dried thyme (I stripped several branches)

a few grinds of black pepper,

Then I set to making a roux:

I cut 3 sausages into coins and browned them in the former stock pot, before adding them to the gumbo. To the sausage drippings, I added

1/2 cup flour

3-4  Tbsp olive oil

I patiently cooked the roux to the color of peanut butter, adding some water, liquid from the gumbo, or chicken stock when it stuck, scraping the pan as best I could. I probably added another 3 Tbsp of chicken stock all told.I added the roasted tomatoes to the gumbo and squeezed the juice from half a lemon. I let the roux cook in the gumbo for a few minutes while I started rice — white rice because it was almost lunch time. My picky brother Bryan came through the kitchen about then and said, “Do I smell lasagna?” I said, “Gumbo, but it has a lot of the same ingredients as lasagna” (sausage, onion, tomato).

When the rice was done I got Bryan a tiny bowl of gumbo to try.

He said, “It tastes kind of like beef stew.”

Huh. Well, it has onions, celery and a touch of tomato paste, I guess. Anyway, he ate it and we ate it and it is good.

This gumbo is a fine example of how I cook most of the time, inspired by an ingredient I don’t like much to create a dish from a cuisine I do like. Green peppers compel me to cook Cajun food. What was in the freezer (shrimp shells, chicken stock, leftover cooked fish, tomato paste  and sausage), in the refrigerator (fennel and celery) and on the counter (tomatoes and onions, half a lemon) provided the other ingredients. Karen of Carolina Locavore recently referred to this as “vegetable triage.” I didn’t use a recipe except to check the oil and flour ratio for the roux (which I then did not follow: it said 1:1 for flour and oil). I let my memory guide me in terms of what goes into gumbo: many fancy cooks make gumbo, but the people I worked with at Berkeley Rec would make gumbo with turkey backs and neck bones if that is what they had — a lot of gumbo comes about because you are using this and that. You can’t go wrong with a fish or chicken stock, a good dark roux and the holy trinity.

Food notes: If I had had a can of clams in the pantry that would have gone into the gumbo. If I had had shrimp in the freezer, or chicken, it would have made it into the pot, too. I drew the line at cooked bacon — Mom said I would have to taste it and I decided to pass. I didn’t add bay leaf or Tabasco (but I could have if I weren’t too lazy to go pick a bay leaf from the backyard). Gumbo gets hotter as it sits, so I kept the spicing moderate — if you like it hotter, go for it, use andouille sausage, or pass the Tabasco at the table.

Political Note: Like many other people I watched the videos of Officer Pike using pepper spray on demonstrators at U.C. Davis. The spray was a fierce orange-red, fired at point-blank range on nonviolent people. I was shocked to see this. I commend officers who did not engage in or condone such behavior and the protesters who remained nonviolent. Save the peppers for Tabasco, which should only be eaten voluntarily, not sprayed down people’s throats as they participate in peaceful assembly.

Photo note: If any of you artistic types out there know how to square up a photo of a painting, I’d surely appreciate some tips.