Few one pot meals are more gut/heart/sinus warming than a gumbo. After weeks – nay – months of requests to make one, I finally had a sort of rainy weekend that justified the time consuming process of making this New Orleans cuisine classic. (I would also say that every time I cook food from New Orleans, the Saints win. That would be an argument to continue going through the culinary canon of the city in the coming weeks.) The recipe used this time was John Besh’s master recipe from his book My New Orleans, sans the okra, using the homemade chicken stock shown below. I cooked the gumbo on Saturday and we got to have leftovers yesterday for dinner. There is still enough for two starter sized bowls today, which makes the effort worth it.
Homemade chicken stock, also based on John Besh’s recipe from My New Orleans
If jambalaya is the Cajun/French Creole interpretation of paella, the gumbo would be its approximation to the Spanish Caribbean’s asopao. The cast of characters is in essence the same: an aromatic sofrito/trinity sauteé, chicken, sausage or ham, a little tomato, and rice. Cooked rice is added to the gumbo at the time of serving, instead of cooking it in the pot. The asopao is as good as its sofrito, while the gumbo’s soul is in the roux.
The roux, in print, is just equal parts of fat and flour, cooked until it turns the desired color for each purpose. A roux may be blonde for a béchamel sauce, the color of peanut butter for a homemade macaroni and cheese, or chocolate brown for a gumbo. Lighter roux is used as a thickening agent and looses this property as it gets darker and more flavorful. The dark chocolate roux is a test of discipline and of finding out how attuned you are to your cooking instruments – stove, pot, and spoon. My first dark roux took me close to forty five minutes to make in a cast iron pot. I cooked it in medium low heat, afraid of using the knob – as Emeril Lagasse used to say in his cooking shows. This time around, 5 quart Dutch oven wasn’t large enough for the amounts I wanted to make so I used the 8 quart aluminum/metal pasta boiling pot. The heat conducted much faster, I used a wire whisk and I did not stir it frequently enough, resulting in burned flour bits and a blister in my right hand. I wasn’t taking any chances. I washed the pot thoroughly and started again. In fifteen minutes of non-stop stirring with a large wooden spoon on medium heat, I had cooked the flour and oil to the color of a Hershey bar. A good roux for gumbo should really look like chocolate syrup – silky and without any lumps.
Starting on the roux… the one that burned. Lessons learned: don’t take pictures, keep stirring!
After the roux is done, the onions are sautéed for ten minutes in the pot. The chicken thighs – seasoned with Cajun spices – and sausages follow for ten minutes too, allowing them to render some of the fat for flavor. After that, the remaining aromatics are added to the pot and stirred for about three minutes, followed by the stock. Bring up to a boil, then simmer for forty five minutes, skimming most of the fat that comes on top (I got well over a cup of oil out). Salt, pepper, and hot sauce are adjusted to taste, and the chicken and sausage gumbo should continue simmering for another forty five minutes to allow the flavors to marry. Since I skipped the okra, used in gumbo as thickening agent, I added some filé powder (ground sassafras leaves – Zatarain’s brand) about ten minutes before serving. The file also adds to the distinct flavor.
My only critique to the recipe as written was that it called for a lot of chicken stock and the gumbo did not come out as thick as I would have hoped. I am not sure what would have been the outcome had we used the okra. Other than that, it was a great base recipe, flavor-wise. Next time, I need to do a seafood gumbo to break away from the chicken/sausage combination pervasive in my limited Cajun cooking repertoire. We do want the Saints to win…