Incredibly, we’re headed into several more days of freezing sleet and snow here in Louisiana. Haven’t seen this much icy weather in several years. Schools and businesses are closed; so we’re basically on lock-down. At least it would be wise to stay home and warm today and tomorrow. Start a fire in the fireplace, do some cooking, check the blogs.
Looking around my kitchen for things to cook in this cold weather, hearty stews and gumbos come to mind. Gumbo is uniquely Louisiana; every cook probably their own recipe variation. It’s origin really isn’t know; to me it represents a melting pot of all the cultures and foods that were brought to Louisiana. Gumbo is served in southern Louisiana at about every social event–weddings, parties, church gatherings, buffets lines–I even went to a funeral in a very rural area for an deseased employee and found gumbo served at the wake!
Gumbo is essentially a dark brown meaty, flavorful soup/stew served with rice; some cooks prefer thin soups, some like thicker. It’s adaptable to many ingredients that a person may have on hand in their kitchen. My favorite is Chicken and Sausage Gumbo.
Start with Roux
Gumbo starts with a roux-browned flour in oil. This technique takes some practice to master and my first attempts were a disaster. To make roux, add flour to oil in a thick skillet, stir and stir until the flour turns to a copper-brown. The problem here is that flour quickly goes from a nice caramel color to burnt flour. As the flour darkens, it looses it’s thickening power. So my first gumbos were essentially burnt-flour tasting watery soups, Ug. I quit making gumbo after that for several years. I’ve now mastered the technique; here are some tips I’ve learned along the way.
- You don’t need alot of roux; make a small batch-1/4 cup oil and 1/4 cup flour.
- Watch and stir often, don’t leave the roux unattended on the stove. It takes 15-30 minutes to make.
- Turn the heat down as you go along. As the roux begins to turn a copper-penny color turn the heat on the stove down and stir constantly.
- Stop the roux and remove from stove when it just gets to a deep brown–you can stop sooner as well. Immediately add the vegetables (onions, bell pepper, celery, garlic) that you’ve pre-cooked. This will stop the roux from browning further.
A person can also make roux–browned flour–in the oven, I’ve also seen recipes for the browned flour prepared in a microwave oven. These methods result in a lower calorie roux and work just as well, or purchase a pre-prepared commercial roux.
A homemade stock enhances the flavor
A really, really good gumbo starts with homemade stock. Homemade chicken and/or seafood stock definitely enhances the flavor of gumbo. If I’ve got all day (or two) I make homemade stock by cooking a chicken on the stove for several hours with water, adding onions, carrots and celery for flavor. Strain the broth and cut the chicken off the bones for the gumbo. Seafood stock, with shrimp and crab shells is delicious too.
However, lately I’ve tried to streamline the gumbo-making process by using canned chicken broth. The difference for my diners is probably minimal.
Okra? Secret Ingredient
Some cooks add okra to gumbo, some omit this. Some cooks add the okra at the end so that it floats in the soup. However, okra is a thickening agent. When it is sauteed long enough so that it disintegrates, it thickens the gumbo nicely. To me, that’s the secret of gumbo–gently thickened. I never omit the okra and used frozen okra most of the time; about one cup.
Creole gumbos used tomatoes as an ingredient. That’s fine. I make my gumbo without any tomatoes or tomato paste. Just a matter of preference.
Chicken, sausage or shrimp
The meat that a person adds is also personal preference. Chicken, sausage, shrimp, oysters and turtle. I’ve seen about everything. Original recipes for gumbo probably used ham. My preference is to use chicken. I’ve used:
- whole chicken, cooked for broth, with meat picked off the bones,
- chicken pieces, with bones, browned in flour and added to the gumbo,
- boneless chicken pieces–thighs are especially flavorful–browned added and added to the gumbo,
- store-cooked rotisserie chicken, with meat picked off the bone–this is the easiest
Sausage adds flavor to the gumbo. The spiciness of the gumbo can be increased by using hot sausage. I like all-beef, mild sausage, and found a skinless variety that works well. Slice into 1/4″ pieces and brown before adding to the gumbo.
If using shrimp, add either defrosted, frozen shrimp or fresh shrimp close to the end of cooking so it doesn’t become tough.
Much of the flavor of gumbo starts with the seasonings–onions, bell peppers and celery–are called the trinity of Louisiana cooking, I add garlic to this mix. My preference is to chop the vegetables very finely using a food processor. Then I saute these seasonings in oil for 15-30 minutes until they are entirely soft and mashed together.
A nice gumbo has a kick, but it’s not necessarily the spiciest of Louisiana foods. I find that the sausage adds spice, also I add several drops of Tabasco sauce to increase the heat.
How to Make A Winning Gumbo
Making gumbo is a multi-step process. At one of my former jobs, our food service department entered a gumbo contest with other hospitals in South Louisiana. We were in competition with the large New Orleans hospitals; many had professional chefs. The purpose of the contest was to showcase the talents of the hospital cooks/chefs and New Orleans restaurant and media celebrities were the judges. My cook was free to do whatever she wanted. She made a stock of chicken, shrimp shells, oysters. She sauteed each ingredient separably–including the okra. It was an all-morning process. We packed up and headed off to the big easy city – and won! The lesson being–go slow, take time, use fresh ingredients and cook from scratch. You don’t have to be a chef to cook gumbo.
How I make gumbo
As gumbo is a multi-step process, the order of preparation can be changed up. I do vary with my gumbo by substituting canned chicken broth, most everything else is from scratch. Here’s what I do:
- Pre-cook the chicken in broth and pick off bones to make 2 cups, or substitute rotisserie chicken, or brown 2 lb boneless chicken thighs in small amount of oil and cut into pieces, set aside. Alternate: dust about 3 lb chicken legs/thighs with bones in seasoned flour and brown in oil.
- Slice all-beef sausage (14-16 oz package) into 1/4″ pieces, brown in skillet and set aside.
- Finely chop vegetables by hand or food processor: 1 large onion, 1/2 bell pepper, 1 stalk celery, 2 garlic cloves, Saute in skillet in oil until soft and mushy about 15 minutes, adding oil or water as needed so vegetables don’t burn.
- Add 1 cup frozen okra, and continue to cook and mash the okra until it disintegrates. Set aside.
- Make the roux. Add 1/4 cup peanut oil and 1/4 cup flour to large, thick pot on medium-high heat. Stir and cook; turn heat down as flour starts to brown. Remove from stove when roux is color of copper penny (or you can cook a little longer until dark brown, but remove immediately before burning–in this case, start over.)
- Immediately add the vegetables with okra and stir.
- Still off the stove, slowly add 1 can (14.5 oz) sodium-reduced Swanson chicken broth, stirring constantly to thin flour and avoid clumps.
- Return to stove, add 1 quart water, the reserved meat and 2-5 drops Tabasco sauce, some salt (optional), and 1/4 tsp black pepper, 1 Tbsp chopped parsley. Stir and bring to boil.
- Reduce heat and simmer for about 30 minutes – 1 hour. Add water if you want a thinner gumbo. Add shrimp the last 15 minutes.
- Serve in individual soup bowls with rice and French bread or crackers.