I have a fascination for the food, people, and writing of the South. My travels have afforded me the chance to meet and befriend some amazing chefs, writers, teachers, and just plain folk, from Richmond to Knoxville, Paduca to Pensacola, Nashville to New Orleans. They’ve enriched my life and my cooking, and I want to celebrate their warmth, generosity, and culinary traditions.
It’s time to make some gumbo and cornbread to go with it. I used to teach this soup/stew to my students at NECI; it was ideal for developing knife skills, because there was a lot of dicing involved.
Gumbo has some fascinating aspects to it. Its backbone, for both flavor and texture, is the roux. A mixture of flour and fat, it’s cooked for quite a while, with frequent stirring, until the flour toasts and takes on a deep, rich color. Some cooks bake the dry flour separately to toast it before combining it with butter, oil, or lard. I like to mix up flour and fat, and cook it in a heavy cast iron skillet over medium heat, so I can see the color and texture change.
Caramelization mostly happens above 300°F. When the roux has reached the desired doneness, the next step is to stop the caramelization.
You “stop” the roux by adding a pile of water-filled vegetables called trinity. It’s the southern version of classic French mirepoix: a mix of onions, carrots, and celery. In trinity, the carrots are replaced by peppers. The vegetables drop the temperature of the roux and keep it from caramelizing any further.
Between the knife work and the time and attention the roux requires, gumbo is something of a commitment. As such, it falls under what I call Chef Susan’s “law of lasagna.” Dishes that require extensive prep should always be done in batches. It is my prejudice and conceit that it should be illegal to make only 1 lasagna. If you have all of that material set up, for heaven’s sake make at least two and put one in the freezer. The freezer is your friend. The freezer is the bank. A stash of prep in the freezer is a gift of time and convenience to yourself for a future busy day.
When I make gumbo, I cook up the roux, add the spices and let them toast for a minute, stop the roux with trinity, and cool everything down. The recipe I’m giving you makes enough gumbo base for 4 meals. Use a quarter of the base for supper tonight, and freeze the other three quarters to surprise and delight everyone at future occasions.
Gumbo is a mixture of roux, spices, trinity, stock, tomatoes, and andouille sausage. From there it can go in a few directions. Shrimp is a frequent member of this flavorful chorus. Chicken, pork, and beef can also make appearances. Gumbo is an excellent bits and pieces dish; I often use it to make use of leftover roast chicken or pork.
The level of heat you bring to the party is up to you. The base can be middle of the road or highly seasoned, you can add more or less by way of hot peppers to the trinity, or you can add extra fire at the end with Mc Ilhenny’s finest, Tabasco in red or green.
You can use all oil, all butter, or a mixture of any fats you prefer for the roux. (For what it’s worth, I’d skip the coconut oil if I were you.) I like the flavor of butter, and combining it with oil raises its smoke temperature.
3 cups (15 ounces, 425g) peppers, medium dice, any mixture of red, green, yellow or orange
1 ½ cups (6 3/8 ounces, 177g) celery, medium dice
1 ½ cups (7 3/4 ounces, 220g) onions, medium diced
2 tablespoons minced garlic
None, 1, or 2 minced hot peppers, depending on your quest for fire
Herbs and Spices
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons onion powder
2 tablespoons paprika
¾ to 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, to taste
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons dried thyme
2 bay leaves
6 tablespoons (3 ounces, 85g) unsalted butter
1/3 cup (2 1/4 ounces, 64g) vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups (6 3/8 ounces, 180g) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 ½ cups (12 ounces, 340g) chicken or fish stock
1 can (14.5 ounces) diced tomatoes in juice or 2 cups peeled, diced fresh tomatoes
¾ to 1 pound andouille sausage
¾ pound diced cooked chicken meat
¾ pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 cups (7 ounces, 200g) sliced fresh or frozen okra
1 bunch sliced scallions, white and green
½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
juice of 1 lime
salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon file powder (optional)
tabasco or sriracha as required, to taste
Setup: Dice the vegetables for the trinity; measure out the herbs and spices mixture.
For the roux: In a large, heavy skillet over medium heat, melt the butter and oil until the butter begins to foam. Stir in the flour until the mixture is evenly combined.
Cook, stirring frequently, until the roux begins to toast and darken. As the roux cooks, it will become slightly thinner. Eventually it will have the look and consistency of warm peanut butter. Continue to cook until the roux has the color you desire; you can stop at peanut butter or go to a deep mahogany color. The choice is yours.
When the roux reaches your desired color, stir in the herbs and spices mixture and cook, stirring frequently, for 1 minute to toast the spices.
“Stop” the roux by adding the Trinity to the pan. The water from the vegetables will keep the roux from caramelizing any further. Continue to cook over medium heat until the vegetables soften. A good way to keep track is to watch the onions. When they go from white to translucent, the gumbo base is ready to take off the heat.
Cool the base and divide it into 4 equal amounts. Wrap, label, and freeze three of the 4 sections of the base.
When you’re ready to make up your gumbo, put the remaining base in a 3-quart saucepan and put it over medium heat. Gradually add the stock, stirring to loosen the roux. Add the tomatoes, sausage, and chicken. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes.
Ten minutes before you want to serve it, add the shrimp, okra, scallions, Worcestershire, lime juice, and salt and pepper. I like to cook okra as little as possible (just until tender; same goes for the shrimp) to keep it from making things slimy. File powder is also a personal choice; it will thicken the gumbo a bit further.
Serve in warm bowls with fresh, hot cornbread on the side.