Today I’m making a holiday special, Gumbo. Gumbo is derived from a West African word ki ngombo, meaning okra. Basically, there are two types of Gumbo, despite all that you’ve heard, okra and filé. The names come from the main seasoning components. Filé is a seasoning made from sassafras leaves. Other than these two components and the addition of tomato paste to the okra variety, the two gumbos are essentially the same, yet the taste is very different.
Before I begin, a bit more on my background. Now days it is very in to talk about Cajun cooking. You hear about gumbo, and jambalaya, and red beans and rice, and the such as Cajun cooking. When I was growing up, I had never heard of Cajun cooking. Our family was identified as Creole (a French/Black mix), and our ethnic cuisine was Creole cooking. Of course, the line is a fine one, especially for a Black Creole. As you may know, the term Creole has had many different interpretations over the years. The first use of the term was in the early 1700s by Europeans wishing to distinguish foreign born whites from European born. Foreign born in this context was those born in the French/Spanish colonies in the Western Hemisphere, aka the Americas and the Caribbean. The term was later used to distinguish African born Blacks from colonial born and later still to identify peoples of mixed race, primarily the mixtures of French, Spanish, Black, and Indian, in varying degrees. These later became the mulattos, which led to the color classifications by the amounts of Black/White blood they contained (quadroons, octoroons, etc...); and once this became too complicated the one drop rule kicked in. Anyway, my grandparents moved from New Roads, Louisiana into a bayou at the edge of New Orleans, now known as Gentilly. My grandfather provided for his family by hunting, fishing, crabbing, craw fishing, moss gathering, basically living off the land as any of the other peoples living on the bayou did. I’m sure he and his Cajun counterparts shared many commonalities, including cuisine.
So, with all that said, let’s make some gumbo. I really wanted to make both okra and filé, but I’m just making filé today.
1 large onion
2 (12-16 oz) large turkey smoked sausage (Louisiana hot sausage)
1 (2lbs) turkey ham (ham)
4 pound bag of chicken wingettes (various chicken parts)
2 pounds of Dungeness crab
3 pounds of shrimp
1 ½ cups of flour
½ tablespoon of cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons of Mrs. Dash Table Blend
2 tablespoons of filé
First of all, I put into parentheses the more traditional meats; I’m using turkey ham and sausage as a healthier substitute. I’m sure that could be debatable, as I’m sure you’ve noticed sodium content goes up as fat levels go down; so I try to find low sodium/low fat turkey products.
I fill my gumbo pot about 2/3rds with water and put it on the fire. While that’s heating, I make my roux. If you make a good roux, the rest is fairly simple. The roux is a flour and oil mix, much like making gravy. In your skillet pour in some oil; I use either a canola or vegetable oil. Then I pour in my flour over a medium heat. Now in the ingredients listed above I said 1 ½ cups of flour. This and the oil you use is an approximation, particularly the oil, which is why I didn’t list how much up there. You will find that you will need to add more of one of the two as you work to get the right consistency. What should that consistency be? Well, you don’t want any lumps in your flour, it should look smooth but not liquidy. If it is lumpy, add more oil; if it is liquidy, add more flour. You really have to do this by feel. All the while you should be moving the roux around in the skillet. You can’t let it sit still in one spot too long or it will burn. The goal is to find the right consistency, brown it, but don’t burn it. Getting the darkest brown you can without burning it is tricky and requires your full attention. Use your nose as well as your eyes. Once this is achieved, begin adding water to it while you mix it, creating a thick smooth mixture similar to mashed potatoes. Now pour it into your gumbo pot and continue to mix it into the water. If your water is still cold it will clump up. Stir it in until it is well mixed in and there are no lumps. If you made it through that last sentence, congratulations, your roux is complete.
The next step is to brown your chicken. In a large skillet add some oil, just enough to keep the chicken from sticking, then toss in your chicken. Let it brown on one side, then turn it over. After that is complete, drop it into the pot. You’re done with your pot for a couple of hours.
You can now turn your attention to the cutting board. Dice up your onion, put it aside. Then cube your ham and slice your sausage and set them aside. If you bought shrimp that needs to have the shells removed and deveined, then you probably should have done that right after your morning coffee. You can find some fresh shrimp already cleaned for you at most markets these days for just a little more than the shelled ones; if it’s worth your time, it’s worth the extra costs. You should probably put on your rice at this time also. There’s nothing worse than smelling a pot of gumbo, ready to be served, and then having to wait for the rice to cook.
Once your chicken starts to get tender, you can sauté your onions until they are clear, then drop them in. I like to sauté my ham and sausage before I put them in as well, then I drop them in. My pot was on a medium high fire so my chicken could boil; now I’m going to turn it down to a low medium. You don’t want to rush this part. You should be getting a nice aroma filling the air as the meats start to blend.
After another couple of hours, my chicken is starting to fall off the bone, which tells me it’s time to add my crab and shrimp. I usually take my shrimp and crab out of the refrigerator about half hour before I use them, depending how cold they are; I don’t want them to be cold when they go into the pot. Besides, I will wash them before I put them in as well. Now’s the time for them to go in. They don’t take long to cook, but I do want their flavors to mix in well with the meats.
So after an hour, I’m ready to season. I did list some measurements in my ingredients this time, but remember it is to your taste. I add my black pepper, cayenne pepper, and again I’m using Mrs. Dash instead of salt. My final step is to add the filé, making sure I mix it in well and adding more if needed.
The gumbo is finish, but should simmer for a while longer so the flavors can continue to blend. This pot took me about 9 hours from start to bowl. Traditionally, we usually have another meal cooking alongside the gumbo, which I did: mustard greens and roasted chicken quarters; but that’s for another post.
Happy New Year!