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.
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)
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