Sunday, January 22, 2012

What makes a good gumbo?

Everyone claims that they, or someone they know (who is usually related to them), makes the best gumbo.  There are as many gumbos as there are stories about gumbo.  And like wine, gumbo is a highly personal thing, tuned to an individual's palate and preferences, as unique as the person who made it.  A gumbo could be spicy or not, it could be thick or thin, it could start with a roux or not, it could contain file or not, okra or not.  Should you use a chaurice or an andouille?  A true gumbo maker (or eater) will tell you exactly what is in a good gumbo and will be as opinionated about it as a true wine lover.  Maybe even more so.

First, you make a roux...All of the gumbos that I personally like have started with a roux.  Roux is very versatile and it is virtually indispensable in Cajun cuisine.  Roux is identified by its color and terms such as blonde, peanut butter, mahogany, dark, and black are some of the descriptors.  For my palate, the taste of browned flour and oil brings a depth and nuttiness to your gumbo that you cannot obtain any other way.  Making a good roux takes experience and patience.  And if you're very, very skilled, you can make a black roux over high heat in about 12 minutes, according to New Orleans chef Billy Gruber.  Mr. Gruber refers to his black roux as "Cajun Napalm," and I can only imagine why, having burned myself making roux on at least one occasion.  Having had a gumbo made with black roux in Kinder, LA at a little establishment called Fausto's, I can tell you that the depth and the flavor is outstanding.   Fausto's doesn't have a website, but they have great food and I've never been disappointed anytime I've eaten there.

This is a gumbo that has been made with a dark roux:

Taking a roux all the way to a proper burnt umber stage (scroll down to the last frame on this link) or even a mahogany-hued roux takes patience and courage, something I had very little of the first time I attempted to make my now-favorite family gumbo recipe.

So now we're at the point where I can tell you my gumbo story:  I had finally wrested the prized family recipe for gumbo from my Cajun uncle's sister-in-law and I was tackling it for the first time.  After I made it through all the chopping and dicing (and there is a considerable amount), I set aside the vegetables and began to make the roux.  I heated my oil, I added my flour.  I stirred and stirred.  I stirred some more.  Several minutes went by and I was still stirring and the roux was still the same color.  I decided that I must be done making the roux.

So I called my Auntie for a consultation since she had made this gumbo recipe many times herself for all the gumbo-eaters she feeds.  She asked, "What color is your roux?"  "Oh, it's a tan color," I said.  She put her hand over the receiver and I heard her muffled voice say to my uncle, "Honey, she made chicken broth." 

After a pep talk and a little coaching from a much more experienced gumbo maker, I hung up the phone and made a second batch of roux.  This time it was a peanut butter color and I stopped right there, thinking that I shouldn't tempt fate.  But now when I make that gumbo, I push the roux as far as I can.  I like it deep and rich.  I've never gone darker than the mahogany stage, however, although plan to make a black roux in the near future.  Wish me luck.  I have a penchant for coming into contact frequently with hot oil.

So without further ado, here is the recipe for my favorite gumbo.  I think the balance of pepper, herbs and seasonings is just right.  You can add whatever you'd like to this recipe: okra, tomatoes, crawfish, shrimp, crab, oysters, chunks of cooked chicken thigh meat, diced cooked pork, ham, tasso, or sausage of almost every variety.  You can adorn it with additional green onion and parsley.  You can baptize it in Lousiana hot sauce or Tobasco.  You can serve it with rice or without and accompany it with warm, crusty French bread and a wonderful salad.  You can do whatever you'd like.  It's your gumbo.  And once you make it, you'll have your very own gumbo story.


The original recipe was given to me without the addition of file powder.  I like the flavor it imparts, and it's also a thickener, so I use it whenever I make this recipe.  Count on adding up to 2 teaspoons per gallon of gumbo.  Also, you can use less chicken stock for more concentrated flavor and when you reheat (like a lot of things, this gumbo tastes better when made the day before), either serve the gumbo thick or thinned down with warmed chicken stock, depending on the consistency you prefer.

8 cups chopped onion
8 cups chopped celery
1 cup chopped bell pepper
2 1/2 cups oil
3 1/3 cups flour
1 1/2 to 2 gallons chicken stock
2 Tbs. and 2 tsp. salt
1 Tbs. ground black pepper
1 tsp. ground cayenne pepper
1 tsp. ground white pepper
2 tsp. dried thyme
2 tsp. dried oregano
5 Tbs. dried parsley
2 to 4 tsp. file powder (optional)
2 1/2 cups chopped green onion
1 Tbs. Tobasco sauce
2 to 3 lbs. andouille or chaurice sausage, cut into 1/4" slices (optional)
6 lbs. raw shrimp, shelled and deveined (or any combination of seafood) or 6 lbs. cooked chicken thigh meat, ham, or tasso (or any combination)
chopped flat leaf parsley, for garnish
chopped green onions, for garnish

1.  Heat oil over high heat until very hot; add flour.
2.  Whisk flour and oil rapidly to brown; reduce heat to medium and continue to stir constantly until roux is the desired color.  Bear in mind that if you want a darker roux, you'll either need more patience, or higher heat and a quick response once the flour starts to darken.
3.  Add chopped onion, celery and bell pepper and continue to cook until vegetables are softened, about 10 to 15  minutes, stirring frequently, maintaining heat on medium.
4.  Meanwhile, bring chicken stock to a boil, then add roux and vegetable mixture to stock, stirring well to incorporate.
5.  Bring to a boil and cook for 30 to 45 minutes.
6.  Remove gumbo from heat and add salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, white pepper, thyme, oregano, dried parsley, file powder (if using), green onion and Tobasco sauce.
7.  Add sausage (if using), stir well and store in refrigerator overnight.
8.  When ready to serve, bring gumbo to a boil, add shrimp and cook 13 minutes.  If using precooked seafood, or other kinds of raw seafood, adjust cooking time accordingly.  Add other ingredients as wish.
9.  Serve hot, over hot rice (if desired), with crusty bread (if desired) and garnish with chopped parsley and green onion.  Serves 16 people.

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