Sunday, January 8, 2012

My Gumbo

There are as many gumbos as there are cooks who prepare it, so take my recipe as a starting point (at best) and improvise from there using the ingredients you like best.
   I’m told there are three basic ways to put the gumbo in your gumbo.  One is to start with a roux of oil and flour.  The next is to use file, which is dried and powdered sassafras leaves. Others use okra. 
   My friend Bix makes a very pale gumbo with ham, chicken, and shrimp in an okra base.  TR Johnson has an annual gumbo feast where he makes three gumbos, one of which is vegetarian, called Gumbo Z’erbe.  In New Orleans restaurants I’ve had gumbo from almost black to very pale brown, filled with every creature that creeps and swims around a bayou.  Some swear by duck and rabbit and other game, some go heavy on seafood and light on cloven hooves. 
  My preference is to start with a roux, use three meats (chicken, smoked sausage, and shrimp) and keep it pretty simple.  I make my roux using either a sausage fat, like I’m working toward gravy, or plain cooking oil, if I don’t have enough fat.  Goose grease is a popular base too, though I’ve never tried it.
    I fry up my sausages, preferably Andouille, using about a pound.  I pour out and set aside the grease and use the oily pan with the Andouille cut up into bite sized pieces to fry up boneless skinless chicken breast, again about a pound, cut into pieces about the size of the end of my big old thumb to triple that size..  Once it has cooked to light brown on at least one side, I add the trinity of New Orleans cooking, chopped celery, onion, and bell pepper along with a toe or two of minced garlic. Try two big sticks of celery, two medium bell peppers, and a large onion, all chopped pretty small, say the size of a dime or less. Add a big handful of chopped  fresh parsley.  (you can add some cilantro, basil, rosemary, or any other herbs you like in here too, that’s what makes each pot a bit different.  Go ahead and put in filé or okra or both here too, if you want.) Stir it around, add about a tablespoon each of salt and coarse ground black pepper and let it all simmer while you start your roux in another pan. I start browning my flour in the grease in the bottom of a big Dutch oven, but then the Dutch oven is never big enough for the whole pot of soup and I end up moving the whole thing to a large soup pot anyway. Work the flour around in the grease until it gets golden, not too hot.  Next I add chicken stock to thin the roux a bit, then add in the meat and trinity mix.  Stir it to distribute the roux and keep adding chicken stock until you have put in about a gallon.  If you want to drop a whole crab in the pot to add some flavor, now is the time.  Let the whole thing simmer for at least the amount of time it takes you to make a big pot of white rice and clean some shrimp (again, about a pound) by removing their heads and shells and, if you need to, deveining them.  When you are about five minutes from eating, drop the shrimp in the gumbo and let them cook the last little bit with everything else.  The next time you warm this soup, the shrimp will be a little on the tough side, but everything else will be even better, having exchanged flavors and cooked to more tenderness.  And even a tough shrimp isn’t going to break out your teeth or anything.
   Serve the gumbo over rice.  Resist the urge after the first time you eat this meal to dump the leftover rice into the pot in order to warm the whole thing up the next day.  Gumbo is better the next day, but the rice will just swell and turn the soup into a paste.  Keep them separate and when the reheated gumbo is boiling, you can put the cold rice your bowls and dish the soup over it.
  I like my gumbo like this, just add a bit more salt and pepper, but lots of folks in New Orleans wouldn’t dream of eating it without some Tabasco sauce added for a little heat.

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