Southern Pot o' Gold

I'm a Yank through and through...I was born and raised in Michigan now reside in Chicago...and my husband says my accent borders on BBC English.  It doesn't get too much more Yankee Doodle Dandy than that. roots reach down the Mississippi River landing you smack dab in the Deep South.  Mississippi and Louisiana, to be exact.  In addition to "traditional soul food", I grew up eating Creole and Cajun food too and with that heritage comes some serious responsibility in the kitchen.  

One mainstay has been gumbo ya ya, which is a Creole roux-based soup with a variety of meats and seafood included.  While gumbo is really a way to use up leftovers, we make it on special occasions - usually at Christmas Eve and on New Year's Day.  Most people are familiar with chicken and sausage gumbo, but in reality, gumbo has traditionally been made with what you had on hand.  It might be rabbit and chicken gumbo if you lived inland or shrimp and clams if you live close to the sea.  There's only a handful of rules when it comes to gumbo, and I'll spell those out for you: the holy trinity, the right roux, and the filé, which is the finishing touch.  Most folks would argue that the fourth rule is that of smoked meat. Gumbo is typically hostile to vegetarians, but I reckon you can rustle something up with corn, okra, mushrooms and wouldn't quite be gumbo as I know it, but that's the beauty of gumbo - use what you've got.

Let's go to Chuuuuuch!

Before we get started with the gumbo, let's talk about the holy trinity. Not THE Holy Trinity, but that of onion, bell pepper, and celery.   Pretty much every cuisine has a holy trinity - three flavors that go together to make the base of damn near everything.  In traditional French cooking, the holy trinity is mirepoix, or onion, celery, and carrot.  Onion is in the base of many trinities for its aromatic flavor and it's the base of the Southern holy union that is going to start off your gumbo. Most soups and stews start with mincing and sautéeing these three vegetables in a fat as the beginning of something heavenly.  

C'mon Ride the [Gravy] Train

People seem to be perplexed by roux (certain folks in my family included, but I won't out them here.)  Roux [pronounced roo] is French in origin and it's little more than a gravy.  You can cheat and buy Gumbo Base (as seen in the photos), but making your own roux is way more satisfying, and you know exactly what's going into your gumbo and you can control the salt.  Making roux is easily; cook equal parts flour in a fat of choice - for gumbo we'd use corn or peanut oil  - until the flour browns, and I mean really browns - a good roux should be the color of dark caramel.  Add in your seasonings of choice - we use cajun seasoning which is little more than onion powder, garlic powder, dehydrated bell pepper, paprika, and salt.  The roux will help thicken your gumbo, but you'll get some more help from an unlikely cast of characters.


The Finishing Touch

Tony Chachere's Creole Gumbo File' - 1.25 oz
Tony Chachere's Creole Foods

What does gumbo and root beer have in common?  Both were flavored by sassafras.  The sassafras tree produces aromatic leaves that have commonly been used in cuisine and one such application is gumbo filé (fee-lay) powder.  The grey-green powder gives a distinctive flavor to dishes and also acts as a thickener.   Often, people will sprinkle it on their gumbo when serving, but we add a few heaping tablespoons to the pot - a little goes a long way with this one.

Extra Credit

A good gumbo generally has some smoked meat in it.  Most often it's andouille (ann-doo-ee) , a dense, heavily smoked sausage, but often tasso ham is used.  Tasso is from pork shoulder and is spiced and smoked.  

And now, to the important stuff - how to make gumbo.  When we make gumbo, it's a $200 pot of soup...but it also serves 20.  I don't recommend that you scale this large for your first pot, but you can make enough to serve 8-10. You will need a heavy skillet for the roux and a giant pot (10-12 liter) for the gumbo. Be sure to pick up some long grain rice hot sauce for those who like it a bit spicy.

Ingredients - serves eight to ten, takes about 1.5 hours to make

  • 1/2 pound chicken breasts, cut into bite sized pieces
  • 1/2 pound chicken drummettes (wings)
  • 1/2 pound chicken thighs, cut into bite sized pieces
  • 1 pound chicken gizzards and hearts, trimmed
  • 1/2 pound fresh Vienna sausages (like Koegel's) or frankfurters sliced into 1 inch coins
  • 1/2 pound andouille, tasso ham, or other smoked sausage, sliced into 1/2 inch pieces
  • 1/2 pound large uncooked shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 1-2 pounds crab legs
  • 16 oz okra (fresh and sliced into coins or cut and frozen)
  • 1 bell pepper
  • 1 onion
  • 4-6 stalks of celery
  • 1 box of gumbo base or 1/2 cup of flour
  • 1/2 cup oil
  • 2-3 tablespoons Cajun seasoning (see below)
  • 3 quarts water, shrimp stock, or chicken stock
  • 3 bay leaves
  • Two 4oz packets of dried shrimp if you can find it


Cajun Seasoning

You can buy this at your local foodservice, but it's just as easy to make.  Mix equal parts paprika, granulated garlic, granulated onion, dehydrated bell pepper flakes, and a bit of salt and cayenne pepper to taste.  

Start by finely mincing the onion, bell pepper, and celery and set aside.  This is easily done in a food processor.  Next, set the stock on to boil and add chicken gizzards/hearts and chicken thighs.  Add the bay leaves in the pot and turn the heat down to allow these to simmer.  You can throw in a tablespoon of the Cajun seasoning to help get things going.  

Next, it's time to make your roux.  In a heavy bottomed pan, heat the oil on medium high to frying temperature.  Begin to whisk in the flour (or gumbo base) and stir constantly while the flour starts to brown.  Add the flour in slowly and continue to stir until the flour turns the color of dark caramel.  It's important to constantly stir so the flour doesn't burn.  If you find that the flour is starting to clump, carefully add small amounts of oil to get it to the consistency of yogurt.  

Once the roux has reached the right color, add in the diced onion, bell pepper, celery, and seasoning and stir carefully to incorporate.  Cook this for about five minutes - don't worry about the doneness - it needs to be cooked just enough to release its aromatic flavors.  When done, dump it in the pot and add the okra too.  Okra usually conjures feelings of slime and disgust for most people, but it is essential in your gumbo.   Remember when I said the soup would thicken due to an unlikely cast of characters?  Well okra is part of that.  

The chicken thighs and gizzards should be simmering gently and almost be done.  Next, add the chicken breast pieces and drummettes - these will cook quickly and shred, giving the gumbo a very meaty base.   After adding the chicken, you can also add in the andouille or tasso ham and the Vienna sausages as well.  You're nearly done!  Cover the pot and let this simmer for at least 30-40 minutes, stirring regularly.    

During this time, you can go ahead and make your rice, and set the table with saltine crackers, hot sauce, knives for cutting crab legs and large bowls to ladle the gumbo into.  This is a family dish, and should be served family style; each person dips into the pot to get their own (and watch for the ones who like to fish out all the crab and shrimp...)

About 15 minutes before you are ready to serve, add in the crab legs.  Then, about 5 minutes before you are ready to serve add in the shrimp.  These cook almost instantaneously.   Finally, add in 2 tablespoons of gumbo filé and stir well.  You can also have filé at the table to add to  individual bowls.   

To serve, put rice in the bottom of your bowl and add the hot soup on top. Grab a crab leg or two. I prefer a little more rice; some people prefer none at all!  Enjoy!

This post is dedicated to my cousin Darnella, who loved her a pot of gumbo.

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