The Big Reveal

I don’t know why I’m making such a big deal out of this.  It’s really just me prepping for dinner. 

So, in case you were wondering what I was up to with onion, celery, bell pepper, garlic and okra, I’ll tell you. 

It’s Gumbo, baby!

There’s no greater joy than making and eating a great gumbo.  It’s also a little scary, but that just makes it more thrilling!  Making a proper roux has been difficult and sometimes disastrous for me in the past, as I’ve mentioned at least once before in previous posts, but this time I took the training wheels off!

One thing that I love about gumbo is that it’s never made the same way twice.  I should clarify.  I don’t believe it should (or could) be made exactly, the same way twice.  As one of my favorite local DJs says, on his “New Orleans Big Beat” radio program, “You never know what you’ll find in the gumbo.  It might be jazz, funk, rock and roll, blues, or soul…it all goes into the gumbo!”

Gumbo is a soup/stew.  The one thing that is essential in a gumbo is a roux and, if you are familiar with roux, you might be thinking of the butter, flour mixture that you whip up before adding stock, or milk, if you’re making a béchamel.  It’s the basis of nearly every good sauce. 

Gumbo roux is an entirely different critter.  Traditionally speaking, a gumbo roux is made with vegetable oil or lard, or a combination of the two, and flour.  Gumbo roux isn’t finished when the flour incorporates with the oil.  It must be cooked to a point where it turns dark brown, to produce the desired flavor.

Once a year, or so, I put myself to the test and try to make a gumbo that can stand up to the good gumbos that I have eaten, over the years.  With all modesty aside, I really nailed it this time!

Looking back on this particular gumbo experience, I would say that there were three key things that made the gumbo so tasty.  First, I was wise enough to prep for the gumbo the night before I made it, as I mentioned in my last post.  I could have pushed on and made the gumbo that night but, I didn’t want to make everyone wait for dinner and, my instincts told me to prepare some of the ingredients so that when it came time to make the gumbo, I wouldn’t be pressed for time or be stressed. 

Secondly, I did what any great chef would tell me to do.  I made a stock.  I will describe how I made the stock later, but I assure you, it was the signature touch that not only made this gumbo different than ones I have made before, but it gave a depth of flavor that can’t be pulled out of can or a few bouillon cubes!

The final touch was the roux.  As I said, I took the training wheels off and made a doggone roux the way it should be made.  My previous attempts at making a roux involved nervously whisking oil and flour over a medium-low heat, trying to avoid the dreaded “burnt roux”.    Cooking the roux at a lower heat resulted in 20 minutes of whisking only to wind up with a burnt roux.  I was too timid.  I’ve seen people make roux and the process should only take about 10 minutes.

You might be thinking, “how do you know if a roux is burnt?”  Well, all I can say is smell it and be honest with yourself.  If it smells burnt, it’s burnt, and there’s no turning back.  Throw the roux out and start all over again. 

This time, I added the oil to the pot and turned the heat up high.  Not maximum, killer-high, but high.  I let the oil get very hot and then I added the flour, all at once.  The flour began to brown instantly, and even though I wanted to take some photos during the process, I had to keep whisking furiously.  I turned the heat down to medium-high and whisked until my wrist was about to give out.  Seven minutes later, I had a deep, dark roux.  I turned the heat off and transferred the roux to another bowl, to stop the heating process and give the roux a chance to cool down.

The good thing about a dark roux is that it makes a rich gumbo.  The downside about a dark roux is that it won’t thicken a gumbo as much as a lighter, blonde roux will.  Big deal.  I’ve got fresh okra!

The origin of the word gumbo comes from Africa, and it refers to okra, which brings me back to the memories I have of my first visit to New Orleans.  The wonderfully diverse city of New Orleans, and the surrounding areas, owe its alluring charm to the many cultures that has made it what it is today.  Africans, Acadians, Spanish, Native American Choctaw and just about every other nationality and culture you can think of helped build New Orleans.  The list of immigrants continues with Germans, Mexicans, Caribbean Islanders, Chinese, Jewish, Vietnamese, Italians…I’m not making this up!  When people speak of American as a “melting pot” of cultures, they shouldn’t just think of big cities like New York or Chicago.  New Orleans was founded by and supported by a mélange of people and cultures.  It is truly a remarkable city, and New Orleans is a testament to the notion that a diverse population is a beautiful recipe for a community.

Ingredients:

16 medium whole, fresh shrimp

3 Chicken thighs (bone-in, skin on)

½ bell pepper, chopped

1 large tomato, chopped and divided

1 large sweet, white onion, finely chopped

1 large bell pepper, finely chopped

4 celery stalks, finely chopped

2 or 3 garlic cloves, mashed and minced

½ lb. andouille sausage, cut into ½” pieces

2/3 cup vegetable oil (I used canola oil)

1 ¼ cup all-purpose flour

64 oz chicken broth (8 cups)

6 oz fresh okra, cut into ½” pieces

3 Tbs Cajun seasoning

Several sprigs of fresh cilantro (for garnish)

Directions:

Chop onion, bell pepper, celery and garlic.  Mix the vegetables in a large bowl and set aside.

Peel the shrimp.  Reserve the heads and shells.  Set shrimp aside.

Rough chop ½ bell pepper and set aside.

Add about 1 tablespoon olive oil to a skillet.  Set heat to medium/high and add the chicken breasts to the skillet, bone side down.  Cover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. 

Turn chicken over and sear, skin side down, for 15 minutes.  Turn the chicken over again and add half of a bell pepper, chopped.  Simmer for 5 minutes, or until the bell pepper softens. 

Remove the chicken, separate the crispy skins and return the skins to the skillet.  Set cooked chicken aside to cool.

Add the shrimp shells and heads to the skillet.  Add 1 cup chicken broth and half of the chopped tomato.  Cover and simmer at low heat for 20 minutes. 

Remove the cover from skillet and mash the softened shrimp heads.  This is not the time to be squeamish.  Just remember, you’re using every part of the shrimp, which is honorable, and you will be rewarded with a very tasty sauce.  This is a must! 

Simmer uncovered at medium heat for another 10 minutes, to reduce the stock.  Pour the stock through a strainer and reserve the finished sauce.  This will make about 1 ½ cups of sauce.

I’m not kidding when I say that I’d be happy just to sit at a table and slurp down this stock and forget about making the rest of the meal.  It’s that good!  But, I know what this relatively small amount of sauce is going to contribute to the gumbo.

After a few moments of enjoying the aroma of the sauce, and dreaming about consomé de camarón, I was ready to get back to the action.

Add a teaspoon of cooking oil to a large stock pot.  Put the pot on the stove and set heat to medium/low.

Slice the andouille sausage and add to the pot. 

Sear the sausage, without stirring, for a few minutes. 

Briefly stir and continue to sear the andouille until the sausage browns slightly.  Remove the andouille and reserve the oil in the pot. 

Add the chopped onion, bell pepper, celery and garlic to the pot.  Cook at medium heat, stirring frequently for 10 minutes, or until the onion begins to turn translucent.  Remove the vegetables to a bowl and set aside. 

Remove the bones from the cooled chicken thighs.  The bones should easily pull away from the chicken.  Chop the chicken and set aside.

Now, go back to the large pot that was used to cook the vegetables.  Wipe the pot dry with a paper towel, to prepare for making the roux.  You don’t want to add oil to a wet pot!  Add 2/3 cup vegetable oil to the pot.  Turn heat to high. 

Once the oil is hot, add the flour, all at once.  The flour should begin to brown as it hits the oil.  Don’t panic.  Quickly whisk and reduce the heat to medium/high. 

Keep whisking as the flour incorporates with the oil.  Over the span of a few minutes, you should see the roux turn from blonde to tan.  Keep whisking and scraping the sides of the pot with the whisk, occasionally.  Let your nose guide you as you whisk.  The aroma should smell something like roasted nuts, or toasted sesame seeds.  The color of the roux should go from tan to dark mahogany.  At this point, reduce the heat a little and bring the roux up to a dark brown.  Again, let your nose guide you.  If you think that the toasty aroma is approaching anything that might be considered burnt, shut everything down. 

Turn the heat off and remove the pot from the stove.  A roux does not have to be chocolate brown to be good.  I’ve stopped at blonde before and have still enjoyed the final product.  This roux wound up being the color of dark, milk chocolate.

As I mentioned earlier, this was the first time I made a roux using high heat.  It came together quickly. I transferred the roux to a bowl, to stop the heating process.  After the roux cooled a little, I carefully tasted it.  Be very careful when tasting a roux.  It’s as hot as lava.  There was a slight hint of flour when I tasted the roux, which told me that I would want to simmer the gumbo for a long time.

Add the remaining chicken broth (7 cups) to the pot.  Turn the heat to medium/low and stir, mixing the residual roux with the broth. 

Add the cooked vegetables. 

Add the andouille. 

Add the okra and remaining chopped tomato.

Okra is a natural thickener.  A dark roux is more flavorful than a light roux, but a dark roux will not thicken a gumbo as much as a light roux.  Okra can make a soupy gumbo thicker, like a stew.

Add the chopped chicken. 

Add the incredible shrimp sauce. 

Add 3 tablespoons Cajun seasoning. 

Add the roux.  Stir gently to blend in the roux. 

Turn the heat down to low and simmer, uncovered, for an hour to and hour and a half. 

Remember, back at the beginning of this post, when I said that you never know what you’ll find in the gumbo?  Well…while the gumbo simmered on the stovetop, I was also finishing a smoked pork shoulder roast in the oven.  A few days earlier, I applied a dry rub to the pork roast and smoked it outdoors for about eight hours.  It was a cool and windy day, and it was difficult to maintain the proper heat in the smoker, so the roast needed a little more time to finish.  I wrapped the roast in foil and put it in the refrigerator and brought it back out while I was making the gumbo. 

The wrapped pork should slow-roasted for two hours in the oven and, when I pulled it from the oven, I saw that some of the juices escaped the foil wrap and left a sticky glaze on the pan.  I added a little water to the residue and whisked it.  That produced a smokey, spicy sauce that just had to go into the gumbo!

Add the shrimp and simmer for another 20 minutes. The gumbo is ready to serve. 

White rice completes the dish. 

Top the rice with a healthy portion of gumbo and top with cilantro.

I’ll never be able to replicate this gumbo recipe, and I’m fine with that.  There will be other gumbos to come, and they will have their own special place in my heart.

Eat well and eat with your family and friends every chance you get!

In case you are interested, the radio program, “New Orleans Big Beat” is presented by volunteer radio station, WEVL, in Memphis, TN.  Check out their diverse and eclectic programming schedule here: wevl.org

Gumbo (Part II: The Intimidator)

At the heart of every good gumbo lies a good roux. 

I probably make 3 or 4 roux every week but they are of the small variety.  You know, two tablespoons of butter, two tablespoons of flour added to two cups of stock or broth.  A small roux takes just a few minutes to prepare and it usually come out just fine.

I have been telling myself that I make gumbo every year or two.  I think that’s because I really enjoy gumbo.  The truth of the matter is that I have probably only made it four times, (now five times).  As much as I love a good hot bowl of gumbo, I dread making the roux.  There are very few things in life that can vex me like a making a big batch of roux. 

Making roux for a gumbo is not easy; at least it’s not easy for me.  The volume of the roux needed is much larger than my normal roux.  Additionally, the roux needs to cook longer to achieve a deep, rich lustrous color and flavor.  Lastly, pushing the cooking process too far results in a burnt roux, which I am unfortunately prone to doing.  If a roux burns it must be tossed and another one must be made.  Nothing good ever happens by attempting to save a burnt roux. 

The good German lager is for me, not the roux!

Once you start a roux you can’t leave it alone until it has finished.  A roux must be stirred constantly to prevent the flour from burning.  Even the tiniest amount of burnt flour will affect the entire roux.

My step-by-step method for making a roux:

1) Add equal amounts of oil and flour to a Dutch oven (over low/medium heat).

2) Stir continuously, making sure to scrape the bottom and edges of the pot as you stir.

3) Keep stirring while the roux goes from blonde, to tan, to mahogany, to chocolate brown.

4) Taste a sample of the roux, after allowing it to sufficiently cool.

5) Detect a hint of burnt flavor, throw away the roux and wipe the Dutch oven clean.

6) Repeat.

Three more important pieces of advice that are often overlooked:

1) Use the bathroom before starting the roux.  You won’t be able to break away from the action until the roux is finished (maybe 45 minutes to an hour).

2) Pour yourself a drink and make sure that it’s within arm’s reach as you stir.

3) Keep a small aloe vera plant in the kitchen, close to the stove, in case of burns.

As for the aloe vera, it’s really good for minor burns.  Roux is jokingly referred to as Cajun Napalm.  Even a tiny drop of the hot roux can cause your skin to blister.  I got two blisters from this batch.  I would have had three blisters but, when I got hit for the third time, I quickly pinched off the tip of an aloe leaf and rubbed it on the burn. 

Look closely and you’ll see I removed a tip from a leaf, at the right.
My drink of choice for the 1st roux was Spaten Lager. A nice Cabernet Sauvignon got me through the 2nd roux. Note the flat ended spatula…this is essential!

As I mentioned, I burned the first roux and had to start another one.  I cooked the roux over low heat both times. 

For the first attempt I used 3 cups canola oil and 3 cups flour.  I cooked the roux for 67 minutes and it reached a near-perfect chocolate brown color, but the roux had a slight burnt flavor. 

For the second attempt I decided to use 2 cups canola oil, 1 cup lard and 3 cups flour.  I cooked the second roux for 50 minutes. I brought the roux to a dark tan and shut the heat down before it turned to mahogany.  I didn’t want to run the risk of the burning the roux a second time!

This recipe makes about 2 gallons of gumbo (25 to 30 servings).

Ingredients:

1 lb medium sized shrimp, shell on and deveined

1 1/2 lbs cooked chicken breast, cut into 1/2″ cubes

3 cups canola oil

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 lb Andouille, cut into 1/2″ thick slices

1 large onion, chopped

1 bell pepper, chopped

1 large jalapeño, seeded and sliced

2 cups celery, chopped

1 whole head of garlic, minced

1 1/2 cups parsley, chopped

1 Tbs dried thyme

1 Tbs bay leaves

32 oz chicken stock

32 oz vegetable stock

1/2 cup shrimp stock reduction

12 oz okra, chopped

1 lb. crawfish tail meat

1 lb. crabmeat

1/2 cup clam stock reduction

12 oz white clams (about 12 clams)

Lots and lots of hot, steamed white rice

Directions:

Remove the shells from the shrimp and place in a skillet or pot.  Add a teaspoon of seasoning salt. Cover with water and simmer at medium heat for about 15 minutes.  Strain the liquid and reserve.  Discard the shrimp shells.  Heat the liquid in the pan until it reduces by at least half.  Reserve the reduction.

Put the chicken in a pot and cover with water.  Boil at low heat until cooked (about 40 minutes).  Remove the chicken to a platter and cool to room temperature.

In a small bowl, add the thyme and bay leaves. Cover with water and steam in a microwave for about a minute. Leave the herbs in the water and set aside.

Prep the vegetables and set aside.

Heat a large Dutch oven over medium heat.  (I used a 12” deep Dutch oven).  Add 1 cup oil and 1 cup flour and stir to incorporate.  Reduce heat to low/medium.  Add remaining oil and stir.  Add the remaining flour and stir constantly. 

After about 15 minutes the roux will begin to change from pale yellow to blonde.  Turn the heat to low and keep stirring. 

The roux will continue to darken and will become light tan and then dark tan.  Once the roux has turned to tan pay extra attention to the aroma and color of the roux as you stir. 

The color of the roux will begin to take on reddish/brown hue soon.  This is where I usually turn off the heat but, if you are brave and careful, keep stirring until the roux becomes chocolate brown. 

Once you are finished with the roux, turn off the heat and continue stirring for several more minutes.  The roux will remain very hot for at least 30 minutes.  Set the roux aside for now.

I stopped just short of mahogany on my second roux…yes, I chickened out!

And now, the easy part!

In a very, very large Dutch oven, (I used a 14” deep Dutch oven), add the chopped onion.  Sauté until the onion begins to turn brown. 

Add the bell pepper, celery and jalapeño.  Stir for a minute and add the garlic.  Stir for a few minutes and then remove everything to a bowl.

Add the sliced Andouille to the pot.  Stir over medium/high heat to brown the Andouille.  Remove the Andouille and set aside.

Add the chicken stock and vegetable stock to the pot and cook over high heat for 2 minutes.  Return the onions and Andouille to the pot.  Add the water from the steamed thyme and bay leaves. Discard the bay leaves and add the thyme to the pot. Turn the heat down to medium. 

Add about half of the roux to the pot and stir, to mix.  

Add the okra and stir.

Add the rest of the roux and stir.  The roux will thicken quickly.  If it is too thick, as mine was, add some water.  I added 3 cups of water.  Continue stirring.

Add the crawfish meat.  Stir briefly and turn the heat to low/medium.

Add the parsley and stir.

In a large skillet,  add two cups of water.  Set the heat to high and cover.  When the water reaches a hard boil, add the white clams, turn off the heat and cover.  The clams will snap open quickly.  Steam the clams for about a minute and remove to a bowl.  If some of the clams have not opened, bring the water back to boil and add the unopened clams.  If they pop open, hooray!  If they don’t open, they are doomed and will need to join the burned roux, in the trash can.  (All of my clams opened – Yippee!)

Reduce the steaming liquid from the clams to about one third.  You should wind up with a milky white reduction.  Strain the liquid through a paper towel and sieve to remove any sandy grit. Add the reduction to the gumbo pot.

Pull the clams from the shells and add the clams to the gumbo.  Discard the shells.

Add the chicken to the gumbo and stir.

Add the crab and stir.

Add the shrimp and green onions to the gumbo and stir.  The shrimp will cook within a couple of minutes.

Give the gumbo a good final stir.

Serve in bowls, over warm white rice.

So, other than a few 2nd degree burns and a failed roux, everything went according to plan!

Gumbo (Part I)

The best bowl of gumbo I ever had was my first one.  That’s the way it goes with me, more often than not.  My first experience with anything that’s new and wonderful finds a special and permanent home in my heart.  My first gumbo experience was at a seafood restaurant in north Texas…far, far away from the gulf coast, where seafood reigns supreme.  I sat alone, outside, at a picnic table on a wooden deck, on a chilly, rainy autumn evening  and I watched the cars as they sped down the wet street.  That bowl of gumbo warmed my bones and lifted my soul.  The aroma, steaming upward from the bowl, was a magical mixture of earthiness and briny sea. The flavor was complex and deep,  yet comfortable like my favorite winter coat.

Gumbo is truly American, like Jazz, which is to say that it is the marriage of many cultures from around the world.  Gumbo is influenced by African, French, Spanish, German and native American cuisines. Gumbo represents what America aspires to be.  Find a seat and share your story with us.  Everyone is welcome here.