Years ago, I visited a friend on Christmas Eve night since I was not returning to my family gathering in Virginia over the holidays. My friend served “Chicken and Sausage Gumbo.” How interesting, I mused, to serve a simple soup on this special occasion. Since that dinner, I have eaten gumbo at other Christmas Eve night celebrations. And I have learned that gumbo holds a very reverend traditional place in Cajun and Creole families on Christmas Eve. I am attempting to reproduce my friend’s gumbo — a deep colored, flavorful soup with chicken and sausage. It was, by far, one of the best gumbos that I have ever eaten.
Creole and Cajun Traditions
Creole and Cajun communities in Louisiana have many traditions and rituals related to the Catholic religion which might be termed cultural Catholicism. As I have learned since moving to Louisiana, this is a unique part of our country with many distinct customs. For example, we can recognize events and celebrations associated with Mardi Gras, such as feasting the day before the Lent period begins, as Catholic cultural rituals. (In New Orleans, 35.9% of the population is Catholic — it is a dominant influence in south Louisiana.)
Christmas is an especially important time in the Cajun and Creole culture with a focus on the family. It includes deep Catholic traditions, such as Midnight Mass, bonfires, a large meal including seafood and fowl, sweets and fireworks.
Here’s where the connection between gumbo and Christmas Eve night begins. After fasting during the day of Christmas Eve, Creole or Cajun families returned from Midnight Mass, famished. They would devour a large pot of gumbo on the stove. Typically, this was seafood gumbo since seafood abounds during the winter months. Often the feasting continued with an elaborate buffet. The meal after Midnight Mass and dancing sometimes lasted until sunrise. In many contemporary homes, Christmas presents are opened after the Midnight Mass and meal.
These meals are sometimes referred to as Réveillon which is a French term generally translated as “awakening.” It is a reference to the fact that the meal required family members and guests remain awake late into the night. Réveillon was either a very late dinner or a very early breakfast. Elaborate Réveillon dinners are becoming quite the latest trend in restaurants in New Orleans these days during the holiday season.
So, it is very much a cultural tradition to serve gumbo on Christmas Eve night in Catholic families in south Louisiana. They would never do without this late night meal.
I have received a number of requests for a gumbo recipe since moving to Louisiana. As I have learned, gumbo can be prepared in many different ways and can include many different ingredients. I posted a recipe for gumbo on my blog when I first started based on our contest-winning gumbo, but want to simplify it and make it more “user friendly.” I have incorporated several features included in my friend’s gumbo. She hails from St. Martinville, a small town in St. Martinville Parish, which is deep in the heart of Cajun country; I know her version is an authentic Cajun recipe.
Great Cookbook from “Top Chef” on Bravo show– Christmas Present Idea
I also discovered a similar recipe in the Cajun Cookbook, “Chasing the Gator: Isaac Toups and the New Cajun Cooking,” by Isaac Toups and Jennifer Cole. Isaac Toups is an up and coming chef from community of Rayne, which is also in the center of Louisiana’s Cajun area. He recently won the distinguished contest award as “Top Chef” on Bravo. His cookbook is great reading and contains a fascinating insight into Cajun culture with wonderful photos and recipes. I plan more about Toup’s gumbo recipe and techniques around Mardi Gras. So check back in late February. Anyway, this cookbook makes a good Christmas present for yourself or someone you know. (Treat yourself — I do.)
My Gumbo Recipe Tips
Here are some tips that I have learned over the years about making gumbo. My method of preparing this recipe differs slightly from traditional ones, but it works for me. So I suggest:
- Use a large heavy pot to make gumbo. I love my 6-quart enamel-coated cast iron Dutch oven pot for this recipe.
- Gumbo starts with a “roux” — flour browned in oil until a deep brown color (just past a copper color). This thickens the gumbo. On my first attempt to make gumbo, I burnt the flour and used too much roux in my gumbo. Yuk. In that case, start over and try again.
- Gumbo may or may not include okra. Okra is a thickener should be totally cooked down until it is indistinguishable, in my opinion. It gently thickens the gumbo. You shouldn’t see pieces of okra floating in the gumbo. While my original recipe includes okra, I’m skipping it this time (although I do like okra gumbo).
- Recipes always include finely chopped onion, celery and bell pepper. These three ingredients are called the “Holy trinity” of Cajun cooking. They show up everywhere and give a flavorful seasoning to gumbo and other dishes. Plus I’m adding garlic — not a member of the “Holy trinity” but widely used in Cajun cooking. And I’m adding a bay leaf for aromatic flavor plus a dash of Tabasco sauce.
- Gumbo includes some sort of meat and/or seafood. My friend used bone-in chicken pieces — including the bones and skin. A bit unusual and this is the only time that I have eaten gumbo with whole bone-in pieces. However, the whole chicken pieces add alot of flavor. I also like sausage, and by my preference, I use skinless, mild all-beef sausage rather than andouille sausage. (Gumbo is not a “hot” dish, just nicely seasoned.)
- Gumbo includes a flavorful stock — either homemade or store purchased chicken broth or stock. Remember the stock made from that Thanksgiving dinner turkey that you froze? Time to get it out and use in the gumbo.
- Gumbo should cook a long time — about 2 to 3 hours on the stove. Why? To meld all the flavors together. Otherwise, the result is a vegetable flavor and the floury taste of the roux.
- Gumbo Is served with rice. Just tradition. (In Belle Chase, the folks serve gumbo over potato salad. Go figure.)
And the meat and broth. I use either home-made chicken or turkey broth or canned sodium-reduced chicken broth. This recipe uses bone-in chicken thighs. Often drumsticks are included, but since this photo was taken, I’ve decided not to use them.
To make the gumbo. Get everything prepped first. Chop the vegetables finely using a food processor. Season the chicken thighs and fry on both sides until crisp in the 6-quart Dutch oven. Sausage slices can be seared, too. This is optional, but I do slightly brown the sausage pieces in the same Dutch oven. Leave in some of the drippings. Add the chopped vegetables to the Dutch oven where the chicken and sausage was seared and cook the vegetables until wilted. Remove the vegetable seasonings and set aside.
Cook and stir over low heat. Stir and stir. Once the mixture begins to brown, the roux turns colors quickly. Don’t leave the pot alone and don’t stop stirring. When it turns copper color, cook a little until it is dark brown and then quickly remove the pot from stove. (The heavy cast-iron Dutch oven holds heat, continues to cook the flour and it can easily result in burnt roux.) Quickly add in the cooked chopped vegetable seasonings and stir.
Return to stove and cook a few minutes over low heat. Next, stir in about 2 cups of broth, stirring constantly to break up the flour. Then blend in the rest of the broth, salt (optional), black pepper and several bay leaves. Add in the browned chicken thighs and seared sausage slices. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover and simmer for 2 to 3 hours.
So this is my recipe. A traditional family meal on Christmas Eve night in Creole and Cajun families. I have learned. Even if you are not from Louisiana and live somewhere else or are not Cajun or Creole, you can successfully make gumbo. It is a very satisfying “soup” and meal. This is one of the best gumbo recipes around, in my opinion. I am proud of it. Enjoy!
Cajun Chicken and Sausage Gumbo
For seasoning the chicken:
- 2 Tbsp oil, and more if needed
- 6 (3 lb) bone-in chicken thighs*
- 1 tsp Tony Chachere’s Creole seasoning or other creole seasoning
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp pepper
For the roux:
- 1/2 cup flour
- 1/2 cup oil
For the gumbo:
- 1 recipe roux
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 1/2 bell pepper, finely chopped
- 2 stalk celery, finely chopped
- 1 large garlic clove, minced
- 6 seasoned and browned chicken thighs
- 2 (12 oz) packages of skinless mild, all-beef sausage, sliced into 1/4″ to 3/8″ pieces
- 2 quarts (64 oz) chicken broth – homemade broth or store purchased (or homemade turkey broth) NOTE: 2 quarts = 8 cups
- 1 tsp salt, or more if needed
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 3 bay leaves
- 2 to 6 drops Tabasco sauce
- 2 Tbsp fresh chopped parsley, plus more for garnish
- Cooked medium-grain or long-grain rice**
- sliced green onions, for garnish (optional)
- Crackers or French bread
Instructions and Steps:
- For the chicken: Heat 2 Tbsp oil in heavy 6-quart Dutch oven over medium heat. Clean chicken thighs, trim off excess fat and pat dry. Season with Tony Chachere’s Creole seasoning, 1 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp pepper. Add chicken pieces, in batches, to oil in Dutch oven. Fry on medium heat until browned on all sides. Add more oil if needed. Remove and drain on paper towels. set aside.
- Sear the sausage: Add sliced sausage pieces to same Dutch oven over medium heat. Sear both sides of sausage pieces, turning frequent. Remove and set aside. Drain off any excess fat from Dutch oven, but leave some for cooking vegetable seasonings.
- Prepare the vegetables: Finely chop vegetables (onion, bell pepper, celery) by hand or with food processor. Mince garlic cloves by hand. Add to Dutch oven (using same Dutch oven as sausage was cooked in) and cook over low heat, stirring frequently, until wilted. Remove and set aside. Scrape out any brown pieces from Dutch oven and add to vegetables. Wipe out Dutch oven.
- Make the roux: Add oil and flour to the 6-quart Dutch oven on medium-high heat. Stir and cook briefly, then turn heat down to medium-low. Stir the flour frequently and watch carefully. Cook and stir the roux until it begins to turn to a copper color for about 15 minutes. (Flour quickly burns once it starts to turn to a brown color if let unchecked.) When the flour becomes the color of a copper penny, stir constantly. When it is a nice deep brown color remove from stove. The hot Dutch oven holds the heat which may burn the roux, so quickly continue.
- To make the gumbo: Off the stove, immediately add in vegetable seasonings to the browned roux and stir to combine the roux with the vegetables.
- Return to stove. Over low heat, stir and cook the vegetables for two to three minutes.
- Slowly add 2 cups of chicken or turkey broth, stirring constantly to thin flour and remove flour clumps. Then add the remainder of the broth.
- Add the browned chicken pieces and sausage slices. If using homemade or salt-free broth, add 1 tsp salt. Add black pepper and bay leaves. Stir and bring to boil.
- Reduce heat to low, cover tightly and simmer for 2 to 3 hours. Stir occasionally.
- Taste and adjust seasonings, adding more salt if needed and from 2 to 6 drops of Tabasco sauce. Add chopped, fresh parsley. Cook 15 additional minutes.
- Serve in individual soup bowls with cooked rice and green onions, for garnish.
- Serve with French bread or crackers.
*If you are uncomfortable using bone-in chicken pieces, substitute boneless chicken thighs. Trim and brown the pieces as above. then cut into chunks prior to adding to the gumbo.
*NOTE: To cook medium-grain or long-grain rice you need a small pot with a tight-fitting lid. Add 1 cup dry rice, 2-1/4 cup water and 1 tsp salt to a small heavy pot. Bring just to a boil, then immediately turn to the lowest heat on the stove. Put on the lid tightly. Let steep for 25 to 30 minutes. This “steams” the rice. Medium-grain rice is slightly more “sticky” than long-grain rice. The long grain rice should be nice and fluffy when cooked by this method.