How To Create A Perfect Homemade Gumbo Just In Time For Mardi Gras
Everyone has that special comfort food they turn to when they need something to warm their soul after a busy day.
Gumbo has been that food for me for a long time. But when you live in New York City, many miles from New Orleans, the chances of finding a really great bowl become pretty limited. I’ve made some good finds over the years, but I’ve always been tempted to recreate it myself at home so I can enjoy it whenever I want, in endless quantities.
Of course, that in itself is intimidating. Gumbo is serious business and difficult to get right. There are many variations and each chef has their own time-honored method. But even with all the gumbo variations, there are certain common themes.
Getting a handle on these issues can help those of us who are nervous make a great gumbo just in time for Mardi Gras.
“Three areas to think about when deciding what type of gumbo recipe to make are thickeners, proteins, and techniques,” said Michael Handal, executive chef and culinary arts instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education.
Believe it or not, great gumbo starts with using the right oil to start your roux. That is the imperative.
“It’s important that you use an unflavored oil like canola, peanut, avocado, or grapeseed,” said Ryan Pearson, executive chef at Couvant at The Eliza Jane in New Orleans.
Don’t use olive oil. “Bring the neutral oil to the smoke point. Slowly stir in all-purpose flour. As you add the flour it will cool your oil. This method cuts the roux preparation time in half,” Pearson said.
Born and raised in New Orleans, chef David Guas has cooked his share of roux — and knows their nuances. According to Guas, a cook must understand how to read the color of the roux for flavor. Finding the perfect shade of gumbo also involves knowing that you need to stop a little early, says Guas. The Holy Trinity (celery, peppers, onion) cooks in the roux, further deepening its color. “It comes with experience,” says Guas. “No one sticks a thermometer in the roux—it’s sacrilege.” He follows the wise advice of his Aunt Boo in Abbeville, Louisiana. “She said, ‘Your roux should be like the bayou after a heavy rain,'” he says. “Once mud and silt are stirred up, you get a muddy color – that’s the color to go for.”
A dark roux is a must when thinking of gumbo. “The nutty, earthy flavor forms the base of the gumbo,” says Handal.
One of the best gumbos I’ve ever had was at Gris-Gris, so I knew I had to ask the chef his secret. It turns out it’s quite simple. “Everyone will tell you that the key to great gumbo starts with the roux,” said chef Eric Cook at Gris-Gris in New Orleans. “I use equal parts flour and oil. A dark roux takes time and patience, but when done right, there’s no substitute.”
Cook makes his roux for his gumbo, stirring constantly and slowly to make sure he doesn’t burn the roux. But, he says, that also gives you plenty of time to enjoy your company and maybe sip a glass of wine…or two. “Celery, onions and peppers, the holy trinity, is the next step. Add them to stop the cooking process when your roux is where you want it. I like a dark fudge color. Canning your vegetables is the start of that rich layer of flavor that will win over your family every time,” said Cook.
Some gumbos rely on it primarily as a thickening agent, although it’s important to remember that the longer a roux is cooked, the less thickening there will be in the finished dish. I learned this the hard way with my own gumbo experiments. “It’s helpful to note here that the dark roux used in gumbo is particularly important for the flavor component. Just using a dark roux as a thickener would be a good starting point for making gumbo at home,” Handal said.
The next step in thickening would be to consider adding filé powder, which is used in some recipes as an additive to the dark roux. “Filé powder (or gumbo filé) is made from the dried and ground leaves of the sassafras tree. The Native American Choctaw Indians were the first to use this spice as a condiment. Filé derives from French and means ‘to become viscous’ or turn into ‘threads’, which describes the consistency of the filé powder when used as a thickening agent,” Handal said.
Okra is also a traditional way to thicken gumbo. “In fact, the word gombo means okra in several African dialects. Okra imparts a decidedly viscous quality to a gumbo that some find off-putting and an acquired taste, while others find it a very traditional and necessary ingredient,” Handal said.
While most gumbos contain a dark roux, some gumbos use filé powder or okra as an additional ingredient added to the use of the roux, but usually not both in the same dish.
One of the nice things about gumbo is that it can be anything you want it to be. This can be determined by available ingredients, seasons of the year, or even personal preference. While some people love a shrimp or crab gumbo, others swear by chicken and sausage or turkey. “I prefer a good dark chicken broth when making a gumbo with poultry and sausage, you can use fresh seafood if you like, the process is almost exactly the same. Fresh, locally sourced andouille is my go-to choice for this recipe, and you can use roast chicken or wild duck depending on what’s in season,” said Cook, who then thinks of simmering slowly and low the rest of the way. “Let your flavors all come together, it usually takes about 2 hours for the roux to really mix all of your ingredients together perfectly. Season with your favorite Creole spices, I love zatarains, and serve with rice or a potato salad for your Cajun friends. The best thing about gumbo is that it can be unique to you and your family’s recipes because you can never have the “best gumbo,” but it’s a win to be second best in the South,” Cook said.
Protein consumption in gumbos varies widely, from seafood to shellfish, from poultry and wildfowl to beef and veal, fur animals and wild animals. “To navigate this broad category, a good starting point might be a chicken andouille sausage concoction. If you’re that inclined, the addition of shrimp here would add a nice complement to the chicken and sausage without getting too unfamiliar or upsetting,” Handal said.
While it’s definitely true that all recipes require us to keep an eye on our dish as we prepare it, this is especially true when we’re making a great pot of gumbo.
“From carefully and patiently preparing the dark roux, to adding vegetables and flavorings that don’t burn, to carefully cooking proteins so they don’t become tough and dry and stringy, to possibly final thickening with added Coming filé powder off the heat, understanding each of the steps, and following them with due attention will produce a finished gumbo to be proud of and enjoy with family and friends,” said Handal.
make things a little easier
Seems like a lot of work? I tend to agree. But there are some starters and mixes that will help do a lot of the work for you — and still result in a tasty gumbo.
camellia beans Gumbo Cajun Roux Base: This is a delicious blend of Cajun spices and veggies, and a way to make a complex-tasting gumbo from scratch in under an hour.
Slap Ya Mama Cajun Gumbo Mix: This couldn’t be easier to make and delivers delicious results.
Zatarin’s Gumbo Mix: Also easy to follow, all you need is water, the mix, your proteins of choice and get ready for a hearty weeknight meal.
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