New Orleans cuisine is just about my favorite among regional American cuisines. (No offense, absolutely everybody else in the country.) And of all the iconic dishes — etouffee, blackened anything, jambalaya — there’s nothing I love more than a steaming bowl of spicy brown gumbo. Mm-mmmmm.
Why you need to learn this: Mardi Gras is right around the corner (March 5). Also, this method is so easy to use that you can swap out the stock and protein to make literally gajillions of delicious variations.
The steps you take:
There was a time, not too long ago, when you couldn’t swing a dead catfish without hitting a menu with blackened something on it — blackened redfish, blackened soup, blackened toast … Back in the day, though, New Orleans cuisine was virtually unknown outside of Louisiana. Then, along came chef Paul Prudhomme, who pretty much played St. Paul to New Orleans’ Jesus, if you get my drift.
Today, what we generally refer to as “New Orleans cuisine” is actually the conflation of two originally separate cuisines: Creole and Cajun. Think, “citified” vs. “countrified,” respectively.
From the 18th century, New Orleans was populated by French and Spanish settlers, local native Choctaws and thousands of West African slaves.
Add to this mix the descendants of French settlers of Acadia, a region that now encompasses parts of Maine and the Canadian Maritime Provinces. In the mid-18th century, these mostly poor French speakers landed in Louisiana after fleeing hostilities between British and French forces. Their name, Acadians, gives us their current moniker, “Cajuns.”
Take a look at gumbo’s ingredients, and you’ll see influences from all of these groups.
While probably every cook in Louisiana has her or his own method for gumbo, one thing that pretty much all gumbos have in common is their thick consistency. While some are thicker than others, they all by definition have some sort of thickener in them. (Please, Dearly Affronted Reader, do not send me videos of your Aunt Nell’s Looziana Cooking Party in which she makes a delicious albeit watery gumbo. I’m sure they exist.)
Typically, gumbos are thickened one of three ways.
Roux. This hallmark of French classical cuisine blending equal amounts of fat and flour is cooked to various shades of darkness. In its adopted New Orleans home, the fat is oil and the roux can be cooked to very dark.
Okra. This native African vegetable arrived with West African slaves.
File powder. Ground, dried leaves of the sassafras tree add flavor along with consistency. If you’ve never seen a sassafras tree, they’re really cool because they have three distinct leaf shapes: one regular, leafy shaped leaf; one with two parts that makes it look like a mitten (or Michigan, if you want to stoke a little regional pride); and one with three parts that make it look like the Canadian flag or Lisa Simpson’s hand if you couldn’t see her thumb.
Now, some hard-core New Orleans cooks might argue strenuously about what thickeners go with what. My advice is, listen to them respectfully, then do what you want. We’re not trying to be authentic here; we’re just trying to re-create, as my Kendall College colleague chef Elaine Sikorski lectures, a New Orleans “flavor profile.”
Here’s what you do (for more specific instructions and amounts, see the accompanying recipe):
-- If you’re using roux, combine equal parts by weight vegetable oil and flour in a large Dutch oven. Stir it over medium heat until it’s very dark brown, about 15 minutes.
--Add a 2-to-1-to-1 mix of diced onion, celery and green bell pepper — the New Orleans version of the French “mirepoix.” Stir it into the roux until it starts to brown — 3 or 4 minutes.
If you’re not using roux, start by sautéing the vegetables in oil until brown.
You could also stir in a clove or four of minced garlic when the other stuff starts to brown.
-- Add stock. Homemade is best, but, let’s be honest, who’s got the time, what with all the phone calls and emails? Chicken stock works for just about everything, or use fish stock or canned clam juice for seafood gumbo.
-- Add your other ingredients:
Okra. If you’re not using roux, make okra equal to the weight of the proteins. If you are using roux, cut the amount in half.
Proteins. Andouille sausage, cubed chicken or duck breasts, beef short ribs, chunks of ham, anything. For seafood, don’t add it until 5 to 10 minutes before serving the gumbo, so you don’t overcook it.
Spices and herbs. Try equal parts of ground red, black and white peppers along with dried thyme, oregano and bay leaf. How much? How spicy do you want it?
Tomatoes. Hmmm. More than a few people argue that tomatoes have no place in a proper gumbo. I say, unless those people are rich relatives of yours from whom you stand to collect a tidy inheritance someday, go for it.
Simmer everything together about 30 minutes. In that time, the starchy flavor of any roux will disappear and the okra (if you’re using it) will have thickened the broth.
--If you’re using file powder, it’s typically added at the end, about an ounce or 2 per quart of gumbo.
-- Season with salt, and you’re ready to go. Mound some cooked rice in a bowl and ladle the gumbo around it. Yum.
Shrimp and Andouille Gumbo
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour, 12 minutes
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon white pepper
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 teaspoons thyme
- 2 teaspoons oregano
- 2 bay leaves
- 3/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 3 large onions, medium dice
- 3 green bell peppers, medium dice
- 5 ribs celery, cut into 1/4-inch slices
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 can (28 ounces) plum tomatoes, chopped, with juice
- 1 pound okra, trimmed, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 2 quarts chicken stock
- 1 pound andouille sausage, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick slices
- Salt as needed
- 1-1/2 pounds medium shrimp, peeled, deveined
- Cooked rice as needed
For spice mix: Combine ingredients in a small bowl, and set aside.
For roux: Heat a 6-quart Dutch oven or stockpot over medium heat. Add oil and flour; cook, stirring constantly, until mixture is dark brown, 10 to 20 minutes.
Add onions, peppers and celery and cook until onions are soft and brown, stirring frequently, 20 to 25 minutes.
Add garlic and half of the spice mix; cook, stirring frequently, 2 minutes.
Add tomatoes, okra, stock and sausage; bring to a boil while stirring, then reduce heat and simmer to remove starchy flavor of flour, about 20 minutes. Season with salt, then taste for spiciness. If needed, add remaining spice mix and simmer another 5 to 10 minutes.
Add shrimp and simmer until done, about 5 minutes.
To serve, use an ice cream scoop to place rice in a warm bowl. Ladle gumbo around it and serve immediately.
Makes 12 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 314 calories, 19 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 102 mg cholesterol, 15 g carbohydrates, 5 g sugar, 20 g protein, 505 mg sodium, 4 g fiber
Prep School is a Tribune News Service column by James P. DeWan, an award-winning food writer, chef and culinary instructor who teaches at Kendall College in Chicago. He is the author of “Prep School: How to Improve Your Kitchen Skills and Cooking Techniques,” a collection of his columns.