Let's talk gumbo! Experimentation is the key to this cold-weather classic
New England has long stretches of truly polar weather and, as such, is famous for its soups, chowders and stews — all of which are designed to melt the frost of your autumn/winter doldrums.
Why, then, is our region so deep-space void of gumbo? If you folks only knew what you were missing.
I'll TELL you what you're missing — and how to remedy the situation.
First of all, "gumbo" is an amorphous proposition — which is to say it's very loosely defined. At its heart, though, gumbo is more stew than soup and has at its base a roux which can range in color from toffee to dark chocolate. Core elements include okra, tomatoes, filé powder and, as associated with the terminology of Saint Emeril, the "holy trinity" of Cajun/Creole cooking: onions, bell peppers and celery.
After that, though, the tone and scope of the gumbo depends on the mood of the cook and the available ingredients on any given day. Typically, any combination of greens, meats and seafoods — including sausage, chicken, turkey, shrimp, catfish, oysters and/or crab — complete the dish, which is ideally served over white rice.
I happen to be fairly damned good at making gumbo, since you asked.
Here's my own recipe for Chicken, Andouille and Shrimp Gumbo, which at its skeletal structure doesn't vary a great deal from most gumbo scripts. It all comes down to attitude and nuance. Once you try making it, you'll understand because the process is also predicated on a "flying by the seat of the pants" strategy, which means things can change on a whim. That's part of the ritual.
Oh, I've also included are helpful tangential hints. Note: gumbo is a process that takes a while. Don't think of it as work. It's fun and therapeutic.
First, the ingredients.
2 1/2 lbs boneless chicken breasts
1 lb Andouille sausage, sliced into coins
1 lb medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
3 qts. water
1 bay leaf
1 1/2 lbs. fresh okra (frozen and sliced if that's all you can get)
1 tsp. thyme
1/2 cup flour
1 tsp. basil
1 large bell pepper, chopped
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
2 ribs celery, chopped
1 tsp. black pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp. salt
1 16 oz. can tomatoes
1 tsp. filé powder (aka sassafras)
1 bottle of Crystal hot sauce (from which you'll shake droplets with regularity over the course of the whole process)
A quick note to avoid confusion: Have I already gone egregiously off-course by not including one of the trinity — the onion? Yes, I have. Onions do not agree with me. Period. Feel free to finely chop and include a small medium yellow onion if you wish.
A quick second note: Some folks think chicken breasts are too dry and prefer to use a whole chicken or thighs. Go for it if that's what you like. See what I mean about improvisation and whim?
Okay. You have your ingredients. Now: put on a Saints T-shirt or, better, a jersey. In the case of the latter, I have only an Aaron Brooks black home unit (number 2 in your heart!) because I can't afford a newer Drew Brees or Jimmy Graham model. No matter.
Stock the CD player or your iPod and hit RANDOM so loud music will come from a selection of the following sources: the Neville Brothers, the Radiators, the Meters, Irma Thomas, Professor Longhair, Cowboy Mouth, James Booker, Sonny Landreth, the Rebirth Brass Band, Bois Sec Ardoin, Dr. John, Galactic, BeauSoleil, the subdudes, Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five or Hot Seven, and not Lady Gaga.
Let's get to work. Open a bottle of cold Dixie beer and drink deeply. Cover chicken in a pot of water and simmer approximately 1 hour until it's fork-tender. Pour off the stock and set aside. Allow chicken to cool and cut the breasts into bite-size pieces.
You should be midway through Dixie number two and, while the chicken was simmering, you've sliced the okra and done all of your chopping on the other ingredients. Now, saute the okra in 2 tbsps of oil, stirring almost nonstop until the vegetables are no longer stringy or gluey. This takes a while and you'll know when it's ready.
Take a beer break, dance around the kitchen for a minute because, now, it's ROUX TIME. Very crucial — but don't psyche yourself out. In heavy cast iron skillet or Dutch oven, combine 1/2 cup oil and 1/2 cup flour. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently to make until it blends and morphs. Don't let it boil. The coloring is up to you and the flavor and density shifts as you go from peanut butter-colored to dark brown. There's no right or wrong — you'll learn what you prefer over various batches — but do NOT burn the roux. Stir, stir, stir, keeping your eyes peeled. Have an assistant on hand to wipe sweat off your brow or tilt the beer bottle to your lips. You don't want black specks surfacing fromt the bottom of the pan because that means the roux is BURNED.
But you won't do that. No. Take a deep breath and work it. Whew! Nice job, bro. Home stretch time. Add celery, bell pepper and garlic and saute until vegetables are tender. Then load in the okra, tomatoes and sausage and let it all sing together for about 15 minutes. Open a Dixie and taste sweet relief. Is that the Rads doing "Deep in My Voodoo"? Perfect.
Onward! Add bay leaf, thyme, basil, pepper and salt. Taste it and see if you think more Crystal is required. Then pour in the chicken stock, stir it all up and bring the whole cauldron to an easy boil. Let it all simmer for about 1 1/2 hours with the pot loosely covered, stirring occasionally and tasting for quality assurance. Drink more beer and marvel over Fess' left hand on the piano. Now add chicken and simmer an additional 15 minutes. Finally, pop in the shrimp and simmer a few more minutes to let them cook through.
Remove the batch from heat, skim the excess fat from the surface, and stir in the filé powder. Serve over steamed rice.
You are a god.
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