Our May hostess, Denise, of There’s a Newf in My Soup!, challenged The Daring Cooks to make Gumbo! She provided us with all the recipes we’d need, from creole spices, homemade stock, and Louisiana white rice, to Drew’s Chicken & Smoked Sausage Gumbo and Seafood Gumbo from My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh.
I had a lot of reservations about this challenge and very nearly decided not to complete this. I’m not a huge fan of okra or ‘ladies fingers’. I always wondered why these green, ridged and pointed sticks had any resemblance to fingers. I also hated the slimy residue that contrasts against their equally unpleasant furry skin. Getting hold of okra wasn’t a problem as I’m surrounded by a multitude of Asian grocery stores. I also had some trouble finding Creole spices and didn’t have the space to justify buying all the components (my 4 tiered spice rack has a big crowd of bottles in front of it). After searching high and low, I had no luck with finding a pre-mixed Creole spice, so Jerk seasoning had to do instead. I stuck rigidly to the recipe apart from substituting Merguez sausages for spicy smoked and andouille sausage, and using red peppers instead of green. This was a very time consuming challenge. Making the Roux was an interesting process that required a lot of patience (thankfully, I had an appointed whisker). After what felt like hours, I was extremely hungry & the deep nutty aromas combined with the burnished spicy juices from the merguez, and the gentle complexity of the allspice really enticed my olfactory senses. The slow cooking made the chicken meat slide of bone, it was deliciously tender. The sauce took some getting used to; it was a bit too rich for my liking.
Recipe Source: The recipes for Drew’s Chicken & Smoked Sausage Gumbo and Seafood Gumbo, as well as the stocks, Creole spices, and rice, are from My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh (Andrews McMeel Publishing, October 2009). “John Besh is a chef and native son dedicated to the culinary riches of southern Louisiana. At each of his six acclaimed restaurants (August, Besh Steak, Lüke, La Provence, American Sector, and Domenica) as well as in his entrepreneurial pursuits, his first cookbook, My New Orleans, and his public activities, he celebrates the bounty and traditions of the region. A former U.S. Marine, Besh has been honored by Food & Wine (“Top 10 Best New Chefs in America;”) Gourmet Magazine (“Guide to America’s Best Restaurants;”) Food Arts (Silver Spoon Award;) and the James Beard Foundation (Best Chef – Southeast.) John Besh is a frequent guest chef on NBC’s Today Show, and has appeared on top programs on The Food Network and the Sundance Channel.” Bio from Restaurant August.
Roux. Crucial to the gumbo is the roux. According to Besh, there are other thickeners besides flour for making their roux, but only a flour-based roux yields that traditional flavor. As for the fats in a roux, just about anything works. Rendered duck fat, chicken fat, or lard is preferred, but canola oil works nearly as well. Use a 1:1 ratio of flour to fat/oil. Heat the oil first and whisk the flour into the hot oil. This speeds up the process and yields a deep, dark chocolate-colored gumbo. Always add the onions first to the dark roux, holding back the rest of the vegetables until the onion caramelizes. Otherwise, the water in the vegetables will keep the onion from browning and releasing its sweet juices. Chef Link stresses that it’s essential to whisk the roux constantly as it cooks (but not so vigorously that you splatter the roux and burn yourself), because if even a small bit of flour sticks to the pot, it will become spotty, scorch quickly, and burn the entire roux. Also, Link advises against using a wooden spoon to stir the roux, until after the onions are added. A whisk allows the roux to pass through it and reduces the possibility of splashing, as well as getting into the sides of the pan.
Holy Trinity. As a culinary term, Wikipedia tells us the holy trinity originally refers specifically to chopped onions, bell peppers (capsicums), and celery, combined in a rough ratio of 1:2:3 and used as the staple base for much of the cooking in the Cajun and Louisiana Creole regional cuisines of the state of Louisiana, USA. The preparation of classic Cajun/Creole dishes such étouffée, gumbo, and jambalaya all start from the base of this holy trinity. Similar combinations of vegetables are known as mirepoix in French cooking, refogado in Portuguese, soffritto in Italian, and sofrito in Spanish. While a “trinity” may refer to a generic representation of three cornerstone ingredients of a particular national cuisine, a trio of specific ingredients combined together to become essentially flavor bases, much like its original usage within Louisiana cuisine, are also called “trinities”. This is often created by sautéing a combination of any three (or at least, the primary three ingredients in a more complex base) aromatic vegetables, condiments, seasonings, herbs, or spices.
Okra. These delicately ridged and tapered green pods, sometimes called Ladies’ fingers, are a member of the mallow family and are bursting with tiny seeds as well as the glutinous compounds that make okra such a natural thickener for soups and gumbos. When buying okra, look for smaller, greener spears. I was able to find fresh okra at Whole Foods. Good frozen okra will also work fine, especially if it’s pre-sliced. In addition to adding it to both gumbos, I deep-fried some okra for garnish on top of the Seafood Gumbo (sliced into ½ inch (15mm) thick slices, dipped in buttermilk, dusted in a mixture of equal parts cornmeal and flour, fried a few minutes until golden, and seasoned with Creole Spices).
Filé powder. Besh tells us filé has been a vital ingredient in Creole gumbo since the mid-1800s, when Choctaw Indians traveled in from communities on Lake Pontchartrain to sell it at the New Orleans French Market, along with bay leaves and handmade baskets. The Choctaws make filé by drying, then finely pounding, the leaves of the sassafras tree into a powder, then passing it through a hair sieve. The leaves, in the form of filé powder, contribute a unique and spicy note to gumbo. Originally, filé was used to thicken the stew when okra was not available, but he likes to use both. He cooks the okra in the gumbo and adds a couple dashes of filé, too, at the end. He also likes to pass filé at the table as a seasoning. The word comes from the French word filer, meaning, “to spin thread,” which is a warning not to add filé while the gumbo is still boiling, as it has a tendency to turn stringy. See link under Additional Information, below, for making your own filé.
Chicken. Drew’s Chicken & Smoked Sausage Gumbo calls for a whole chicken, cut up into 10 pieces. The bones and skin obviously add vital flavor throughout the cooking, especially if you’re using canned broth rather than homemade stock. However, once the chicken was cooked and the meat was ready to fall off the bone, after about 45-60 minutes, I removed the chicken from the gumbo, took the meat off the bones, and discarded the skin and bones. I then tore the chicken into bite-size pieces and returned it to the pot for the remaining 30 minutes. This was a personal preference, and mainly because some of the smaller bones were about to break loose into the gumbo and also because the chicken didn’t really brown well initially when put into the pot with the roux and onions. If you want to leave chicken pieces in the gumbo for serving, bones and all, I would suggest browning the chicken in a separate pot before adding it to the onion-roux mixture.
Shellfish. Gumbo crabs are small blue crabs that have been cleaned and halved or quartered. They are served in the shell, and you pick out the meat as you eat the gumbo. They’re available frozen, usually in 1-pound packages. Ask your fishmonger to get you some if you can’t find them in your grocery, or you can order them online. Fresh or pasteurized lump crabmeat is a reasonable alternative. Do not use shredded or imitation crabmeat. Like the chicken bones in the Chicken and Smoked Sausage Gumbo, these add flavor to the gumbo. I omitted the gumbo crabs and used the 8 ounces (225 grams) of lump crabmeat at the end, plus a few more shrimp (prawns) and oysters. Watch your timing when adding the shellfish at the end to avoid overcooking (add no more than 15 minutes prior to serving the gumbo)!
Sausage. Drew’s Chicken & Smoked Sausage Gumbo calls for 2 pounds (1 kilogram) spicy smoked sausage, cut into slices, and 6 ounces (175 grams) andouille sausage, chopped. I’m not sure what type of spicy smoked sausage to recommend. The andouille we found was pretty spicy, and we also used some Hot Louisiana-Brand Smoked Sausage we found at Whole Foods.
Preparation time: If you choose to prepare the homemade stock, the chicken stock requires about 2 hours cooking time. In order to prepare the shrimp stock, it will take about one hour to peel and devein 4 pounds (2 kilograms) of shrimp (prawns) to obtain the heads and shells used in the stock, and then the stock requires 45 minutes to 1 hour cooking time. Once the chicken stock is prepared, total preparation and cooking time for the Chicken & Smoked Gumbo is estimated at 2 hours and 45 minutes. Preparation and cooking time for the Seafood Gumbo is estimated at 2 hours. Preparing the homemade Creole Spices takes about 15 minutes. Preparation and cooking time for the rice is estimated at 30 minutes.
• Large Stockpot (8-quart) (about 8 liters) for making homemade stock
• Fine sieve for straining stock
• Large cast-iron or heavy-bottomed pot for cooking the gumbo (8 quart) (about 8 liters)
• Wire whisk and wooden spoon for stirring the roux
• Medium saucepan, with lid, for rice
Drew’s Chicken & Smoked Sausage Gumbo
Minimally adapted from My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh
1 cup (240 ml) (230 gm) rendered chicken fat, duck fat, or canola oil
1 cup (240 ml) (140 gm) (5 oz) flour
2 large onions, diced
1 chicken (3 ½ to 4 lbs.), cut into 10 pieces
2 tablespoons (30 ml) (15 gm) (½ oz) Basic Creole Spices (recipe follows), or store-bought Creole spice blend
2 pounds (2 kilograms) spicy smoked sausage, sliced ½ inch (15mm) thick
2 stalks celery, diced
2 green bell peppers (capsicum), seeded and diced
1 tomato, seeded and chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
Leaves from 2 sprigs of fresh thyme
3 quarts (3 liters) Basic Chicken Stock (recipe follows), or canned chicken stock
2 bay leaves
6 ounces (175 gm) andouille sausage, chopped
2 cups (480 ml) (320 gm) (11 oz) sliced fresh okra, ½ -inch (15mm) thick slices (or frozen, if fresh is not available)
1 tablespoon (15 ml) Worcestershire sauce
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Filé powder, to taste
Tabasco, to taste
4-6 cups (1 – 1½ liters) (650 gm – 950 gm) cooked Basic Louisiana White Rice (recipe follows)
1. Prepare homemade chicken stock, if using (recipe below).
2. Prepare homemade Basic Creole Spices, if using (recipe below).
3. Season the chicken pieces with about 2 tablespoons of the Creole Spices while you prepare the vegetables.
4. Make sure all of your vegetables are cut, diced, chopped, minced and ready to go before beginning the roux. You must stand at the stove and stir the roux continuously to prevent it from burning.
5. In a large cast-iron or heavy-bottomed pan, heat the chicken fat, duck fat, or canola oil over high heat. Whisk the flour into the hot oil – it will start to sizzle. Reduce the heat to moderate, and continue whisking until the roux becomes deep brown in color, about 15 minutes.
6. Add the onions. Switch to a wooden spoon and stir the onions into the roux. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Continue stirring until the roux becomes a glossy dark brown, about 10 minutes.
7. Add the chicken to the pot; raise the heat to moderate, and cook, turning the pieces until slightly browned, about 10 minutes.
8. Add the sliced smoked sausage and stir for about a minute.
9. Add the celery, bell peppers, tomato, and garlic, and continue stirring for about 3 minutes.
10. Add the thyme, chicken stock, and bay leaves. Bring the gumbo to a boil, stirring occasionally.
11. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Stir occasionally, skimming off the fat from the surface of the gumbo every so often.
12. Add the chopped andouille, okra, and Worcestershire. Season with salt and pepper, several dashes of filé powder, and Tabasco, all to taste.
13. Simmer for another 45 minutes, continuing to skim the fat from the surface of the gumbo. Remove the bay leaves and serve in bowls over rice. Pass more filé powder at the table if desired.
Basic Louisiana White Rice
Adapted from My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh
Servings: About 4 cups
1 tablespoon (30 ml) (30 gm) (1 oz) chicken fat, extra-virgin olive oil, or butter
1 small onion, minced
1½ cups (360 m) ((280 gm) (10 oz) Louisiana (or another long-grain white rice)
3 cups (750 ml) Basic Chicken Stock
1 bay leaf
1-2 pinches salt
1. Put the fat, oil, or butter and the onions into a medium saucepan and sweat the onions over moderate heat until they are translucent, about 5 minutes.
2. Pour the rice into the pan and stir for 2 minutes.
3. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil.
4. Add the bay leaf and salt.
5. Cover the pan with a lid, reduce the heat to low, and cook for 18 minutes.
6. Remove the pan from the heat, fluff the rice with a fork, and serve.
Basic Creole Spices
From My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh
Makes ½ cup
2 tablespoons (30 ml) (33 gm) celery salt
1 tablespoon (15 ml) (7 gm) sweet paprika
1 tablespoon (15 ml) (18 gm) coarse sea salt
1 tablespoon (15 ml) (6 gm) freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon (15 ml) (7 gm) garlic powder
1 tablespoon (15 ml) (7 gm) onion powder
2 teaspoons (10 ml) (4 gm) cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon (2½ ml) (1½ gm) ground allspice
Mix together all spices in a bowl. Transfer the spices to a clean container with a tight-fitting lid. Store up to six months.
Storage/Freezing Information: Store gumbo in the refrigerator for up to three days and then reheat gently before serving. As with many stews and braises, gumbo tastes better the second day. You can also freeze it for up to eight months. Simply transfer to freezer-safe containers.