The weekend before last honored his years of aviation training and a shiny new addition to his uniform: gold wings It’s an accomplishment that many who start on the same path aren’t fortunate enough to attain. I am tremendously proud of him, and excited (also nervous) for what’s to come in his career.

Naturally, his parents flew in for a several-day visit. Afternoon walks along the water, AA baseball, flight sims and a tour of his latest aircraft, the deservedly ebullient winging party and a drive into no man’s land for wine tastings kept us busy. Fried pub bites and tap beer, dynamite pizza and sushi, spicy Thai and gumbo, fresh Gulf oysters and Texas-sized peel-and-eat shrimp kept us sated. And then some.

But it’s the pot of shrimp and tilapia gumbo that was most memorable. Instead of our tiny, rented kitchen of chaos, we opted for a butane burner and borrowed cookware, waves crashing up to our patch of sand.

Visibility impossible but for a flashlight and the truck bed dome light. Shrimp peeling hands washed in the ocean, sand walls built around the burner to prevent the struggling, wind-whipped blue flames from going out. Steaming bowls well-earned and quickly finished within windless confines, the high beams shining out onto grey-blue crests and white caps for our viewing pleasure.

To our delight, the end result of our ad-libbing and fumbling was impeccable complexity and undeniable character. This gumbo was an inexplicable success — seriously superior to every other gumbo, anywhere, anytime.

In part our astonishment at how well this turned out was due to the lack of guidelines. We’ve made similar gumbos before, so had some idea in our minds, but in the end it was our initial planning and packing of ingredients, his steel-trap mind and all of our persistence and encouraging words that helped create such an unforgettable dish.

Below is my reconstruction of the recipe. Devour it on the beach, at the table or anywhere you fancy.

Shrimp and Tilapia Gumbo [serves 4]

Printable recipe

Usually I opt for a dark roux, but in this case the wind and the fact that it was nearing 2100 forced us on with one that was golden brown. For a darker roux in your gumbo, simply cook the oil and flour mixture longer. Just remember to whisk constantly and keep both eyes on it for signs of burning. Burned roux is not good.

1/3 lb fresh okra, pointy ends trimmed

2 T canola or vegetable oil

2 T flour (Wondra is nice for this)

1/2 red and 1/2 yellow bell peppers, cut into 3/4″ pieces

1 medium onion, coarsely chopped

1 celery rib, cut into 1/2″ pieces

2 garlic cloves, very finely chopped

2 sprigs oregano, or 1/4 t dried oregano

salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

1/4 t cayenne pepper

4 c chicken stock or low-sodium chicken broth

3/4 lb medium shrimp, peeled and deveined

3/4 lb fresh tilapia fillets, rinsed and patted dry

2 small scallions, thinly sliced, reserving 2 T for garnish

1 T flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

2 to 3 c cooked brown or Carolina rice, depending on the amount you prefer

Place okra in a shallow glass bowl or dish, and sprinkle over the red wine vinegar. Cover with plastic and let sit 1 hour. (This reduces the ‘slime.’) Once the hour has passed, rinse in cold water, drain and slice thinly on the diagonal to expose as much of the interior as possible. Set aside.

In a large stainless-steel pot, heat the oil over moderate heat. Whisk in the flour and cook, whisking, until the roux turns a pale golden brown, 20 minutes. (Really keep on eye on this; it can burn quickly.) Reduce the heat just a touch. Stir in the red and yellow bell pepper, onion, celery and garlic, and scrape the bottom of the pot with your spoon. Cook until vegetables are starting to soften, about 7 minutes. Add the oregano, salt, black pepper and cayenne. Cover and cook 5 minutes.

Gradually add the broth, stirring constantly; bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer 15 minutes. Add the shrimp, tilapia fillets, reserved sliced okra and scallion to the saucepan. Season lightly with salt, and then simmer, stirring, until both shrimp and tilapia are opaque and cooked through, about 3 to 5 minutes longer, depending on the size of your shrimp and thickness of tilapia. Discard the oregano sprigs, if using, then stir in the parsley.

Portion the brown rice into four bowls and ladle the gumbo around the rice. Garnish with remaining scallion and serve immediately.

A squirrelbread (+ Dan) original

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