Da was supposed to be enjoying some hot Gulf coast action right about now. Fate threw some wrenches and, well, he’s not. Understandably, he’s disappointed. Oil balls and dead dolphins don’t help.
On a side-note, I’ve been making some wicked gumbo lately. After last fall’s trip to NOLA, I had sworn off the stuff. Not off eating it. Just off making it. I had nothing on the natives. But as with all my intentions, time passes and resolve fades. That recent warm streak doesn’t help. So I’ve been making, again. Making good. Oh so good!
I was crowing about my most recent efforts to Da’s lovely bride, who suggested that some kick-ass Father’s Day Gumbo may be just the thing to perk a certain someone up.
Gumbo is regional cooking. Its family cooking. Everybody has their own “true version”, which is completely different for everybody else’s “true version” If you were to strip out all of the variable or optional bits, you would be left with:
- First you make a roux.1
- Serve hot, over rice.
Which is the business plan for all good Cajun and Creole cooking.
That said, there are some general principle at work. Gumbo is a soup, thickened, seasoned, and bulked up in predictable ways.
Soup means a liquid base — vegetable, chicken, or seafood stocks are all good, depending on what’s going in to the gumbo. You could use water, but why would you want to? Beer, wine, or cider would just be weird. Wait. Beer might be good.
Make you’re own stock. Its worth it.
I like to poach a bird, and then use the poaching liquid plus the bones & skin to make the stock.
If you’re doing shrimp or crab, buy them whole, and make stock from the shells/heads/tails.
It doesn’t really matter what your stock is, just so long as its good. If it turns into meat-flavoured Jell-o in the fridge, then you’re on the right track.2
There are three ways to thicken gumbo, individually or in combination:
- Thickened with a roux
- Thickened with okra
- Thickened with filé
Roux is essential to gumbo, for both texture and flavour. A dark roux gives you a dark, smokey, bitter flavour, but little thickening power. A lighter roux has a brighter, lighter flavour, with more thickening power. The ideal balance comes down to personal preference, and takes experimentation to get right. Anywhere from peanut butter brown to dark chocolate will give you something worth trying. Any lighter, and your gumbo will taste like flour paste. Any darker, and you risk burning the roux.3
Okra thickens, courtesy of the viscous ooze which comes out of it when cooked. Its slimy, and gross. Many recipes call to “rope” the okra first — sauté it in a separate pan, until that ooze dries up4 — which tempers the thickening power a bit. Using frozen okra also reduces the ropiness, and thus available thickening power. I prefer the mouth feel and thickness of fresh okra that hasn’t been sautéed first. YMMV.
Filé powder is ground sassafras leaves. Sassafras has a distinctive, sweet flavour5, which many people associate with gumbo. Even if you thicken with okra, its not uncommon to add filé powder, strictly for flavour, at the end of cooking. Or to offer it as a condiment at the table. If you’re using filé powder to thicken, add it earlier and let the gumbo come to a boil.
This is creole (or cajun — pick your camp) cooking at its most basic. Why wouldn’t you want to start with the trinity? The trinity is a mirepoix made in the bayou, and is used the same as in French cooking — aromatics sauteed in fat at the beginning of the recipe. Unlike a French mirepoix, the trinity consists of onion, celery, and sweet pepper. In the case of gumbo, roux counts as your fat. I suppose technically, its no longer sautéing.
Other seasonings that are at home with cajun or creole cooking: garlic, thyme, bay leaves, cayenne, mustard seed, parsley. Or you can cheat, and grab some pre-mixed crab boil.6
The rest is entirely up to you. Gumbo is often filled with meat or seafood. But it can be made lighter, with sturdy greens — a la gumbo z’herbes.
Putting it All Together
Usually, I make a chicken & keilbasa gumbo. The bits that matter are:
- Making a good chicken stock. Start with 6 litres of poaching liquid, and over 6 hours, cook it down to 2 litres of stock. Serious yum.
- Making a medium brown roux. I used to make a super-dark roux — like 70% chocolate. Its a rush, getting so close to the edge without actually burning it. And it pulls out some pretty awesome, complex flavours out of the flour. But it doesn’t thicken for shit. In my quest for a thicker gumbo, I started using a lighter roux, and realized that I liked the flavour better. Darker than peanut butter. Lighter than milk chocolate. That’s my sweet spot. Yours will be different.
- Fresh okra, and lots of it. Don’t rope it first. So, so good. And, aside from pickles, the only thing that okra is good for. There. I’ve said it.
- Crab boil. Specifically, Zatarain’s whole spice crab boil, which comes in a mesh bag. This is the spice blend I grew up with; its the spice blend all gumbo should use. Unfortunately, its being phased out for liquid and powdered versions, which taste completely different. Also, no tactile pleasure of whole spices. I cry.
Making it Even Better
As this is a special, celebratory and pick-me-up gumbo, we need to do better than chicken & sausage. What’s better? Duck and oysters, of course.
We picked up 2 ducks to smoke, because— yum! And fired up the old weber for its first run of the season. The wood was persimmon, but my philistine taste couldn’t tell.
I took guidance from The Gumbo Shop Cookbook regarding how to deal with the duck:
- remove heads & feet7
- smoke ducks until cooked (~5 hours)
- remove skin & subcutaneous fat, and roast in the oven until fat is rendered and skin is crisp.8
- reserve fat for another use9
- remove meat from bones; reserve for later
- make stock with bones & crispy skin. We also added the duck feet, but not the heads, because brains taste like yuck.
And from there, we made gumbo as per usual:
- make a medium brown roux
- add the trinity and sauté
- add sliced okra
- add stock & additional seasoning
- add shredded duck meat
- simmer for at least 20 minutes. A couple hours is fine, too.
- 5 minutes before serving, add shucked oysters & their liquor
C’est tout. Bon appétit.
Roux in gumbo isn’t historical, but it is nearly ubiquitous↩
Seriously. Gelatin comes from collagen, and collagen is what makes the stock “lip-smacking” good. If you’re stock doesn’t get there, then you may need to use more bones/feet. Yes, feet.↩
As Richard Stewart says, everyone needs to burn roux once, so you know where the line is. But once burned, don’t try to salvage it. Your guests will know.↩
Do it once, and you’ll understand why its called “roping”↩
Growing up, my family used Zatarin’s whole spice crab boil, in the mesh bags. It contains whole coriander, which my grandfather identified as crab eyes. Suffice it to say, I refused to eat gumbo as a child.↩
Not mentioned in the book, but as our ducks had heads and feet, it seemed prudent.↩
Can you say cracklings?↩
Seriously. Don’t you dare throw out duck fat.↩