“If you can make gumbo, you can make this,” Gabriel Senette said of his backyard soup.
Senette started cooking as a teenager, so gumbo may come easier to him than the rest of us, but his backyard soup is even easier. Inspired by Vietnamese pho, it’s flavored with herbs, fresh chilies and what Senette calls the Asian Trinity – garlic, ginger and onion. Adding pre-made dumplings and a side serving of sweet and spicy coleslaw makes for a complete and satisfying meal.
Senette, a certified sommelier as well as a food and beverage consultant, works as the wine manager at Total Wine in Lafayette. This hearty soup, which can be prepared in less than an hour, is a favorite family meal after a full day’s work.
“Both my wife and I work full time. I come home from work and I want to cook — for catharsis, for my mental health and to restore that family dynamic outside of what I do for a living,” he said.
He likes to turn on some music and go outside with his daughter, where she helps him pick herbs.
“She knows where they are and we identify them. It’s a game we play about food and taste,” he said, recalling how his grandmother Ruby Adams would do the same with him — walk in backyard cutting herbs like green onion tops. basil, parsley and thyme.
Senette says picking herbs with his daughter is the only way the next generation will know his grandmother the way he did.
“My relationship with my grandmother and food are intertwined. Even though she’s been gone for 16 years,” he said. “I still hear her voice when I read her handwritten cookbooks.”
His grandmother’s curvy script detailed the secrets of their family favorites like carrot souffle, Christmas Eve oysters and shrimp creole. These are older recipes complete with unaddressed hazards like lobster fat and instructions for frying frog legs that read, “Heat cooking oil hot enough to light a match.” (Instead of setting the kitchen on fire, pop a popcorn kernel in the oil. When it pops, it’s ready for the frog’s legs.)
In addition to what he learned from his grandmother, his culinary curiosity was sparked at an early age by cooking shows like “Yan Can Cook!” and “Galloping Gurmet.” Chef Martin Yan introduced her to Cantonese cooking, and English gourmet Graham Kerr, his ever-present wine glass in hand, would take Senette on a culinary world tour every weekend.
His parents encouraged this interest in international cuisines, introducing him as a teenager to exotic foods like sushi and chocolate mousse, which, at the time, were not widely available in Franklin, where Senette grew up. After enjoying his mousse experience, he asked his mom to make it at home.
With one look at the recipe, her response was, “No, it’s too hard.”
“I wanted mousse. So, I understood,” he said.
Soon, he was cooking for himself – mostly out of necessity.
“I used to come home from football practice at night, very hungry,” he said. “The rest of the family had already eaten, so I cooked – usually a big bowl of pasta with garlic butter.”
His interest in cooking eventually led him to a position as kitchen manager at Hub City Diner in Lafayette and to spending several years working at various Brennan family restaurants in New Orleans. In his own home, in his kitchen, his fine dining skills were evident in his ability to cut a good julienne and serve a quick family favorite on carpets made from children.
He also had creative tips—ideas for using the leftovers from a jar of Sichuan chili you can buy to make his backyard soup recipe. The soup calls for a tablespoon, so there will be some left over to experiment with – he recommends adding it to your scrambled eggs or shrimp fettuccine. If you’re feeling adventurous and looking for a truly wonderful experience, pour it over ice cream or add it to fig preserves.
With the soup in the pot finished, he explained his understanding of this Japanese concept of umami, calling on the ideas his grandmother had given him.
“It’s a philosophy, the idea that without a little bitterness you can’t appreciate the sweetness,” he said. “Like grandma used to say, ‘If you’re cooking something sweet, put a little salt in it. and if you’re cooking something salty, put a pinch of sugar in it’ – the same idea, the juxtaposition of these ideas makes the final product more than the sum of its parts – that’s umami!”
Backyard Noodle Soup
Makes 6-8 servings
Recipe by Gabriel Senette
2 liters of water
1/4 cup fine herbs (any combination of non-woody herbs growing in your backyard such as mint, basil, thyme, parsley, cilantro, or chives), finely chopped
1 spoon of olive oil
1 cup chopped white or yellow onion
1 tablespoon of grated ginger or ginger paste
1 tablespoon minced garlic or garlic paste
1 teaspoon better than beef bouillon base or 1 beef bouillon cube
1 teaspoon better than chicken bouillon base or 1 chicken bouillon cube
1 teaspoon better than vegetable Bouillon base or 1 vegetable bouillon cube
1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon fresh Sichuan chili, or to taste
1 3-pound package frozen fully cooked Asian-style mini noodles
1/2 cup chopped green onion tops for finishing
1. Add two liters of water to a 3 liter pot, cover and bring to a boil over medium heat.
2. Gather great herbs from your garden if you haven’t already bought them from a friend’s garden, farmers market, or favorite grocery store.
3. Add finely chopped herbs to the boiling water and let them simmer on a low temperature, covered.
4. Heat the olive oil in a 6-quart saucepan over medium-high heat.
5. Fry the onions, ginger and garlic until they are completely caramelized. Remove from heat.
6. In the pot of simmering herbs, mix the beef, chicken and vegetable base. Add fresh chilies. Mix well and continue to boil for 1-2 minutes.
7. Reheat the pot with the caramelized onions over medium heat, then pour the simmering herb mixture through a fine mesh strainer into the pot. Mix thoroughly.
8. Add 24-32 patties (4 per serving, about two large handfuls) to the pot, cover and heat on low for at least 5 minutes.
9. Serve hot with a sprinkling of fresh green onions on top. Pairs well with an Asian-style coleslaw and a half-sec glass of Columbia Valley Washington Riesling.
10. If the noodles run out before the soup is completely consumed, add more frozen noodles and reheat for 5 minutes.
11. When saving as leftovers, remove the dumplings from the soup with a slotted spoon and store separately.
Recipe by Gabriel Senette
Tricolor Cabbage 8 oz bag
1 green apple, cored and cut into long, thin strips/julienne
1/2 onion, cut into thin strips
2 tablespoons of chopped parsley
1/2 teaspoon horseradish, or to taste
1 teaspoon of rice vinegar
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Juice from half a lime
1/4 teaspoon celery salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon Chinese five spice
1/4 teaspoon Tajin chili-lime seasoning blend, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon Slap Ya Mama or your favorite Cajun/Creole seasoning, or to taste
1. In a large bowl, mix all the above ingredients by hand.
2. Taste and adjust seasoning accordingly.
3. Let it rest for as long as you like so that the flavors come together.