Despite the fact that my dad was born near New Orleans and also had a Choctaw grandmother (both are critical elements in a gumbo story), I didn’t think I’d made gumbo before. In fact, I had to do a little research and memory jogging…
Then there’s gumbo. The famous stew has as many varieties as there are people with a pot in Louisiana, but all of them get their goopy consistency from some kind of thickener. There’s gumbo thickened with French roux, gumbo thickened with file powder, and gumbo thickened with okra, and it’s one of these thickeners that gives the dish its name.
Which one, exactly, is a little contentious: some think it was named after the flie powder, called kombo by the Choctaw native to the Louisiana region, but most sources support the idea that gumbo gets its name from the Angolan word ngombo, which just meant “okra.” The English word “okra” itself comes from Igbo, another African language (largely spoken in Nigeria), which called the sticky plant okuru. Both the name and the plant came across the Atlantic by the early 18th century, and had made it as far north as Philadelphia by the 1740s.BON APPEITIT, February 8, 2013, Sam Dean
Jambalaya–yes, but I must remember my addictive Jambalaya recipe came from Andrew Scrivani, the top-drawer food photographer for the New York Times–not from any family member in Louisiana.
While I remember gumbo percolating on the stove in our childhood kitchen, that’s just it.
I was a kid with a kid’s typical and essential proclivities toward simple meals like chicken noodle soup, oatmeal, PB&J, sliced apples, bananas, and unending big glasses of milk. With a few exceptions, I don’t have totally accurate recipes for things those silly adults were eating. One fleeting vision or memory (insert clenched teeth grimace) includes something to do with overcooked okra in that pot. And you know what nasty, horrific word that brings to mind in the food world. I’ll just whisper it here: slimey. While dad fried up crispy cornmeal-battered okra from the garden on a regular basis come summer, I now wonder if the okra of cold-weather gumbos might have been canned the previous August or even frozen? Because there’s no fresh okra in Chicago in February or March. Nor is there any in Colorado for Shrove Tuesday, better known to many as Fat Tuesday, Pancake Tuesday, Mardi Gras, or even the day before Ash Wednesday. (Spoiler alert: my gumbo, which calls for frozen chopped okra as well as file–a no-no to gumbo aficionados–holds no trace of–arghhh– slime.)
Scouting around for ideas about gumbo took me in a number of directions. Putting something like “gumbo” into GOOGLE brought up so many pages I had no idea which was the right direction. Could I trust a northeastern newspaper’s recipe? When I found something in a New Orleans publication, it seemed like the next thing I read contradicted the last. Maybe I’d be making a big old mess and, after all, many of the recipes called for incredible amounts of oil and flour (roux) stirred together ad nauseam; could that be tasty?
I knew the roux of gumbo was not the buttery roux I used in my kitchen to make a white sauce or thicken a soup. I found myself drawn to recipes where the fat/flour ingredient lines had amounts like 3 tablespoons each, rather than 1 cup each. For instance, I was drawn to this COOKING LIGHT Chicken and Sausage Gumbo recipe, but really didn’t want to use boned chicken thighs in my gumbo. While boned chicken thighs are wondrous in many ways, I had a strong feeling gumbo demanded on-the-bone chicken.
I searched through books in my cookbook library, ending up with a smaller stack than I’d imagine, but coming up with some better ideas. I was led to the concrete realization I’d need to bite that oil and flour bullet or I wouldn’t have gumbo. I’d have a weak imitation. If I was going to go to all the trouble, I thought I’d do it closer to right. Whatever that might be and however many calories and minutes it entailed.
Some recipes were for chicken gumbo or chicken with spicy andouille sausage; others contained only seafood. One or two featured ham, beef stew meat, diced pork, or even brisket–these last few not really appealing to me — for now. It seemed a Cajun-style gumbo had no okra, but a Creole recipe did. File powder or okra were used for a final thickening, but not both!
By the end of the cookbook dreaming, I’d narrowed my recipes down to a few that made it into the kitchen with me and all of them contained beaucoup (plenty of) chicken. Some had sausage or shrimp, too, which was sounding better all the time–especially as a I had frozen shrimp in the freezer.
One recipe was the googled COOKING LIGHT version, despite the not-as-tasty boneless thighs. I liked other parts of the recipe, especially the low fat and flour amounts. Second was one from my Cook’s Illustrated, THE BEST ONE-DISH SUPPERS book, which included 40 minutes of oven roux cooking rather than the standard “stand and stir for a long, long time, hopefully without burning.” Third was the whole series of gumbos from much-admired Nancie McDermott’s treasured 2015 book, SOUTHERN SOUPS & STEWS.
Fourth was the world famous Leah Chase’s Gumbo z’Herbes from the Dooky Chase restaurant, which while delicious-looking and sounding, had more ingredients than I cared to include, including 6 varieties of greens. (If I understand things correctly, a vegetarian gumbo derived from this recipe is served during Lent.)
Last, but not least, was, “Smoked Sausage, Chicken and Shrimp Gumbo” by Anne Braly from the New Orleans TIME FREE PRESS published just a few days ago. This particular version came from “The Dutch Oven Cookbook,” by mother-daughter team Sharon Kramis and Julie Kramis Hearne. Ingredients I hadn’t yet seen in a gumbo recipe, but included here were butter, Old Bay Seasoning, chili powder, Tabasco sauce, and rotisserie chicken!! Despite the purchased already-cooked chicken, I didn’t think there were really time-saving ideas here, but I kept it so I could muddle around that new list of ingredients. I mean, why wouldn’t Tabasco sauce be a natural ingredient for Gumbo? Tabasco, my favorite hot sauce, despite my southwest address, is made by the McIlhenny Company in Avery Island, LA.
In the end, as it would turn out, I came up with a chicken, sausage, and shrimp gumbo we liked lots, but also one that had me ready to try it or another gumbo again–maybe soon. After picking and choosing ideas from a bunch of places, I found I wanted my very own gumbo to be part of my life in a way it might be if I cooked it regularly or at least for Shrove Tuesday or winter parties. I’d have to figure out later why I had waited so long to bring an old family tradition into my Colorado kitchen. Maybe I’d even enter the Mumbo Jumbo Gumbo Cookoff in nearby Manitou Springs next year.
Need gumbo? Read up, cook on, make your own changes and additions, but maybe first you’ll try something like this:
CHICKEN, SAUSAGE, AND SHRIMP GUMBO
- ¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose unbleached flour the extra tablespoon is added later
- ½ cup vegetable oil
- 1 cup each: chopped yellow onion chopped green bell pepper, and finely chopped celery with leaves
- 5 cloves garlic minced
- Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
- ½ teaspoon sweet paprika
- 2 teaspoons dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon dried marjoram
- 2 Bay leaves
- 15 -ounce can chopped tomatoes, drained
- 4 cups chicken broth, preferably homemade (32 oz)
- ¼ cup fish sauce–I like Red Boat
- 6 skin-on bone-in chicken thighs
- 3 skin-on bone-in chicken legs
- ½ pound smoked kielbasa or andouille sausage 8 ounces, halved lengthwise and cut into ¼-inch slices
- 1 cup sliced frozen okra
- 1 pound frozen peeled medium shrimp with tail
- 1 cup each: chopped parsley + thinly sliced scallions for garnish
- 2 tablespoons file powder ground sassafras root
- Tabasco sauce offered at the table
- 6 cups cooked rice for serving
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place rack at bottom of oven. Add flour to an 7-8 quart heavy Dutch oven and place in oven for 10 minutes, stirring half-way through. Remove to stove top and stir in the oil until smooth. Cover, return pot to oven, and cook until the mixture is peanut butter colored—about 45 minutes. Remove pot from oven and whisk well.
- With the pot over medium flame, tip in the onions and let cook 2 minutes. Stir in the bell pepper and celery; cook about 10 minutes or until softened. Stir in remaining tablespoon of flour, garlic, half a teaspoon each salt and pepper, cayenne, paprika, thyme, marjoram and bay leaves. Cook another minute or two and stir in the drained tomatoes, cooking one more minute. Stir in the broth and fish sauce, whisking if necessary to make the mixture smooth.
- Sprinkle the chicken with salt and pepper and place evenly around the pot. Cover and reduce to simmer for 45 minutes or until chicken is done through. Remove chicken to a cutting board and when cool enough to handle, bone, skin, and shred chicken. Discard bones and skin. Add the shredded chicken back into the pan with the sausage and return to a simmer. Taste and adjust seasonings.
- Stir in the frozen okra and let simmer 6 minutes or so; add frozen shrimp. Continue to simmer until okra is just barely tender (do not over cook) and shrimp are cooked through and pink. Taste and season one last time, if needed, with salt, pepper, and cayenne. Serve hot in a shallow bowls with a scoop of rice, sprinkled with file powder and garnished with chopped scallions and parsley. Pass the Tabasco at the table.