March 3, 2022
Once a year I make gumbo. I really should make it more often because I love it, but it is a lot of work. For that reason it seems I only make it on Mardi Gras. Living in new England, not many people celebrate Mardi Gras, but having grown up in St. Louis it was a tradition. If that wasn’t enough, my mother went to college in New Orleans, so yeah, we celebrate.
I read a lot about gumbo before settling on my recipe. My favorite gumbo reading is an essay by Cynthia LeJeune Nobles in New Orleans Cuisine, edited by Susan Tucker. I actually bought the book in New Orleans, and beyond gumbo there is great reading on red beans and rice, turtle soup, and the Sazerac cocktail. Gumbo is, at its essence, a stew thickened by a roux. The word gumbo is derived from the Bantu language word for okra. There are thousands of different gumbo recipes and many have okra, but mine does not. There are two styles of gumbo, Cajun and Creole. Creole gumbo uses tomatoes while Cajun does not. I prefer Cajun.
Sausage is included in gumbo thanks to German settlers who
established a colony 25 miles up river from New Orleans in 1721
Gumbo starts with a roux. I make mine with flour and oil. By using oil instead of butter, the roux can get darker with a more intense flavor. It’s easy to burn a roux so keep a close eye on it and stir frequently. You want it fairly dark, almost as dark as chocolate. To that you add celery, onion, and green pepper, frequently called the “holy trinity.” I also add a few cloves of minced garlic. Although there is healthy debate out there as to whether or not garlic belongs in gumbo, I have settled on yes.
In a separate pan, I brown chicken thigh and andouille sausage. This is not traditional, but by browning you give even more flavor to the dish. It can be skipped and the chicken and sausage can be added cold if you prefer a more traditional approach. I also deglaze the pan with a little of the chicken stock. I add the browned meat, stock, and pan juices to the pot, along with the rest of the chicken stock and simmer for two hours. The chicken will fall apart in this recipe. If you want chunks of chicken, add whole thighs and remove them after an hour.
At this stage, I chill the gumbo overnight. This makes a big difference. Like many soups and stews, giving a days rest enhances the flavors. When I am ready to eat, I reheat covered over low heat. If you removed the chicken, add it back in now. Once it has gotten piping hot, I add the shrimp. They cook quickly in the hot gumbo. Last add the filé powder. If you aren’t familiar with filé powder it is made from dried sassafras leaves and provides flavor and thickness to gumbo. Okra does a similar thing, which is why so many gumbos use okra.
To serve, fill a bowl with gumbo and top with a scoop of white rice. Sprinkle with green onion and parsley. And of course, have a bottle of Tabasco Sauce on hand to add heat and acidity. If it’s Mardi Gras, make sure to wash down your gumbo with a Hurricane. Even if it isn’t Mardi Gras, you should probably do that. Laissez les bon temps rouler!