Learn to cook Louisiana backyard soup with dumplings: At the table

March 18, 2024

“If you can make gumbo, you can make this,” Gabriel Senette said of his backyard soup.

Senette started cooking when he was a teenager, so gumbo might be easier for him than the rest of us, but his backyard soup is even easier. Inspired by Vietnamese pho, it is flavored with herbs, chili crisp and what Senette calls the Asian Trinity — garlic, ginger and onions. The addition of premade dumplings and a side serving of spicy sweet cabbage salad makes for a full, 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 put together in less than an hour, is a go-to family meal after a full day of work.

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Backyard Dumpling Soup served atop a placemat handcrafted by Senette’s daughter.

“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 for reestablishing that family dynamic outside of what I do for a living,” he said.

He enjoys turning on some music and going outside with his daughter, where she helps him pick the herbs.

“She knows where they are, and we identify them. It’s a game we play relative to food and flavor,” he said, recalling how his grandmother Ruby Adams would do the same with him — walk the backyard snipping herbs like green onion tops, basil, parsley and thyme.

Senette says that collecting herbs with his daughter is the only way the next generation will know his grandmother the way he did.

“My relationship with my grandma and food are intertwined. Though she’s been gone 16 years,” he said. “I still hear her voice when I read her handwritten cookbooks.”

His grandmother’s looping script detailed the secrets of their family favorites like carrot souffle, Christmas Eve oyster dip and shrimp creole. These are older recipes complete with unedited dangers like crawfish fat and directions for frying frog legs which read, “Heat cooking oil hot enough to ignite a kitchen match.” (Instead of setting your kitchen on fire, drop a kernel of popcorn in the oil instead. When it pops, it’s ready for the frog legs.)

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Gabriel Senette sautés onions for his Backyard Dumpling Soup.

In addition to what he learned from his grandmother, his culinary curiosity was piqued at an early age by cooking shows like “Yan Can Cook!” and “The Galloping Gourmet.” Chef Martin Yan introduced him to Cantonese cooking and English gourmet Graham Kerr, with his ever-present glass of wine 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. Having loved his mousse experience, he asked his mom to make it at home.

With one look at the recipe, her response was, “No, that’s too hard.”

“I wanted mousse. So, I figured it out,” he said.

Soon, he was cooking meals for himself — mostly out of necessity.

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A cockroach tire de bott serves as a spoon rest in the Senette kitchen.

“I’d get home from football practice at night, really hungry,” he said. “The rest of the family had already eaten, so I’d cook — usually a big bowl of pasta with garlic butter.”

His interest in cooking eventually led him to a position as the kitchen manager at Hub City Diner in Lafayette and to spend several years working at various Brennan family restaurants in New Orleans. At home in his kitchen, his diner-meets-fine-dining skills were evident in his ability to cut a fine julienne and serve a quick family favorite meal on kid-crafted placemats.

He had creative advice as well — ideas for using the remains of a jar of Sichuan chili crisp you might buy to make his backyard soup recipe. The soup calls for a tablespoon, so there will be a good bit left to experiment with — he recommends adding it to your scrambled eggs or shrimp fettuccine. If you’re feeling adventurous and looking for a truly umami-rrific experience, drizzle it over ice cream or add it to fig preserves.

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Gabriel Senette hand mixes cabbage salad.

With the soup finishing in the pot, he expounded on his understanding of this Japanese concept of umami, invoking ideas his grandmother had imparted to him.

“It’s a philosophy, the idea that without a little bit of bitterness you can’t appreciate the sweetness,” he said. “Like when grandma would say, ‘If you’re cooking something sweet, put a pinch of salt in it, and if you’re cooking something salty, put a pinch of sugar in it’ — same idea, the juxtaposition of those ideas makes the final product more than the sum of its parts — that’s umami!”

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Backyard Dumpling Soup set atop a placemat handcrafted by Senette’s daughter.

Backyard Soup with Dumplings

Makes 6-8 servings

Recipe by Gabriel Senette

2 quarts water

1/4 cup fine herbs (any combination of nonwoody herbs growing in your backyard like mint, basil, thyme, parsley, cilantro or onion tops), finely chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 cup chopped white or yellow onion

1 tablespoon minced ginger or ginger paste

1 tablespoon minced garlic or garlic paste

1 teaspoon Better than Bouillon beef base or 1 beef bouillon cube

1 teaspoon Better than Bouillon chicken base or 1 chicken bouillon cube

1 teaspoon Better than Bouillon vegetable base or 1 vegetable bouillon cube

1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon Sichuan chili crisp or to taste

1 3-pound package frozen fully cooked small Asian-style dumplings

1/2 cup chopped green onion tops for finishing

1. Add two quarts of water to a 3-quart pot, cover, and bring to a simmer over medium heat.

2. Collect fine herbs from your garden if you haven’t already procured them from a friend’s garden, a farmers’ market or your favorite grocery store.

3. Add chopped fine herbs to the simmering water and let simmer on low, covered.

4. Heat olive oil in a 6-quart pot over medium to high heat.

5. Fry onions, ginger and garlic until thoroughly caramelized. Remove from heat.

6. To the pot of simmering herbs, stir in the beef, chicken and vegetable bases. Add chili crisp. Mix thoroughly and continue to simmer for 1-2 minutes.

7. Reheat the pot of 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 dumplings (4 per serving, about two big 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 cabbage salad and a glass of demi-sec Columbia Valley Washington riesling.

10. If dumplings run out before soup is fully consumed, add more frozen dumplings, and reheat for 5 minutes.

11. When storing as leftovers, remove the dumplings from the soup with a slotted spoon and store separately.

Cabbage Salad

Serves 6-8

Recipe by Gabriel Senette

8-ounce bag sliced tri-colored cabbage

1 green apple, cored and sliced into long, thin strips/julienne

1/2 onion, sliced into thin strips

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1/2 teaspoon horseradish, or to taste

1 teaspoon 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, hand mix all the above ingredients.

2. Taste and adjust seasonings accordingly.

3. Let rest for as long as you like so that the flavors meld.

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