It could be said that more than anything else served in New Orleans, Gumbo (click for related OTB post) is the signature dish that defines Louisiana cuisine. At the end of the day it is a soup, but it is so much more than a soup — it incorporates all of the flavors and characteristics and personality of both the Creole and Cajun cultures.
It’s also the reason for an event — making a Gumbo is an excuse for a party and to invite friends and family over to eat. Kids graduating from high school? Make a Gumbo. Daughter getting married? Make a Gumbo. The world is coming to an end? Make a Gumbo.
The Saints are gonna make it to the superbowl? Make a really big pot of Gumbo.
Gumbo is also a dish that has tremendous variety, and every restaurant and family has different recipes. There are also different “schools” of Gumbo cooking and proponents of doing things one way or another — such as the choice of either Okra or Filé to act as a thickener, and when and how they are used in the cooking process, and in what combinations.
I’ve been told by a number of Louisianans that “there ain’t no rules” when it comes to what you can put in a Gumbo, but there are certainly general guidelines.
Most Louisiana cooks agree that a Gumbo needs to start with a roux, or flour that has been cooked in liquid fat until it has browned to a certain degree. That degree of brownness varies with different types of gumbo and in what parts of Louisiana the gumbo is made, it could be a blonde roux, a peanut buttery roux, a reddish roux, a dark roux — but it’s gotta have a roux. Now, I’ve had gumbos sans-roux in New Orleans (the most notable one was at Bozo’s in Metairie) but to quote Robert Peyton, “That’s not a gumbo. That’s a soup with okra in it.”
To understand the process a bit better, I visited Chef Kenneth Smith at The Upperline Restaurant in New Orleans’ Garden District to learn how he makes one of my favorite gumbos in the city, a dark roux duck and andouille sausage gumbo.
The procedure is very straightforward and can be adapted to making other kinds of gumbos, such as the traditional Chicken and Sausage gumbo or an Okra/Seafood gumbo. The difference here is that Ken is using a stock made from roasted duck carcasses and beef trimmings, but you could just as easily use a chicken stock or even a seafood or fish stock.
Got a big turkey carcass leftover from the holidays? Use that and make it into stock. Some people just use water as the liquid base. After making the soup part and it has simmered and thickened for about an hour, it’s traditional to add the raw and steamed seafood or cooked meat (pulled chicken or turkey meat, lump crab) to heat up/cook in the soup for a few minutes before serving.
Creole Chef Kenneth Smith at Upperline Restaurant in New Orleans preparing Duck and Sausage Gumbo.
Want to learn how to make a great seafood gumbo at home? Click on the “Read the rest of this entry” link below for more.
As this is a Seafood gumbo, we’re going to use Okra as our primary thickener. I’ve washed the pods, discarding the tops and cut them into quarter-inch thick slices. This is from a 1lb package I got at the supermarket from the produce section.
We’ve got two ribs of celery plus a small green and red pepper, finely chopped. Not shown is one finely chopped onion. This combination is also known as the “Holy Trinity”, or a Creole/Cajun style Mirepoix.
For our seafood, I bought seven live Maryland Blue Crabs and a pound of small head-on shrimp. We steamed the Blues for five minutes to kill them, cleaned them (removed “dead man’s fingers”) leaving only the bodies, which we chopped in half, and then tossed all the remaining non-edible material (backs, orange roe, etc) into about two quarts of boiling water for about 20 minutes along with the shrimp heads and shrimp shells in order to make a simple seafood stock. The stock was then drained/filtered with a sieve.
In order to get that nice smokey flavor, we chopped up half of a Wayne Jacob’s Andouille sausage and added it to the pile of okra. If you can’t get andouille locally (although you can certainly mail order it — see the All About Andouille post. Chef Ken at Upperline uses Paul Proudhomme’s brand, which is also available by mail order) use any kind of smoked sausage. Texas Links and Kielbasa would work just fine, but make sure to add extra cayenne and black pepper.
Here comes the scary part — in a big pot, preferably one with a thick bottom, cook 1/4 cup of flour in 1/4 cup of vegetable oil, using the method in the video above. Chef Ken uses an 80/20 blend of Canola and Extra Virgin Olive Oil. You will want to keep it on high heat and continue stirring constantly. Do not leave your roux unsupervised for any reason, because it will burn and you will need to do it all over again. Do not touch it with any part of your body, because it will burn you like napalm. Optimally, you want to get your roux to a chocolate brown color, but if you stop short of that its no big deal. Depending on how hot your burners are, it could take up to 20 minutes or so to get it to the right color. There is a certain element of machismo to going to very dark brown, almost to the point of burning and stopping. This takes a lot of practice and very big balls.
Once you get your roux to your desired level of browning, add the Trinity, reduce the heat to medium/medium-low and cook it up real nice for a few minutes, stirring everything and incorporating the roux into the vegetables. Optionally, add some tomato paste and caramelize it with the vegetables. We think this is a chef’s secret, because it adds that extra “something”.
Next, dump in your okra and your sausage. Incorporate this with your browning vegetables and stir everything up good for about a minute.
Next, hit the pot with your simple seafood stock and season with oregano, thyme, salt and pepper, and some bay leaves. Set the burner on low simmer, and walk away for an hour, stirring occasionally.
After an hour your gumbo should have a nice thick consistency. You’ll want to continue to simmer this for another 20 minutes or so, while you cook your rice. Just don’t use converted rice, or Robert Peyton will be royally pissed at you. You’ll want to taste this for seasoning, and if you think it needs it, add a teaspoon or so of a good Creole/Cajun seasoning blend like Tony Chachere’s or Slap Ya Mama. Remember that you are going to be adding seafood to this soup, which will impart saltiness, so try to stick with a seasoning blend with not too much salt in it, or go real easy on it. You can always tweak it after the soup is fully cooked.
Take your shrimp and cleaned crab bodies and dump them in the gumbo.
Cook for five minutes or until the seafood is just cooked. We’ve also added some leftover corn kernels from a backyard cookout, cause it gives it that nice chowdery something.
Serve with rice and Louisiana Hot Sauce.