Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Divine Secrets of the Gumbo Brotherhood - Apologies to Sandra Bullock, Charlize Theron, et al.

Gumbo! I wrote a post previously about jambalaya, but this time we're going to tackle gumbo - just in time for the annual chant of, "What the hell do I do with this turkey carcass?"

So, what IS gumbo? Well, it's soup, basically. Or is it stew? Or is it chowder? Or is it all of the above? The answer? Yes.

What it is not is that crap you get in a can from Campbell's, with the rice swimming in the broth, which is loaded with tomatoes.

The three keys to gumbo, as with almost all Cajun/Creole dishes, are the Trinity (equal parts of onion, bell pepper and celery - the Cajun version of mirepoix), the stock and roux. The Trinity is a simple matter of chopping the vegetables and the stock I've discussed elsewhere, so let's tackle the roux.

Heat a cup of vegetable oil over medium heat until it's shimmering, preferably in a cast-iron pan as I've done here, but almost any skillet will do as long as it's not thin, stamped steel. Sprinkle a cup of flour into it, whisking constantly. Continue to whisk continuously, and if you're using a non-stick skillet (not really recommended because of the heat and the potential for not only damaging the pan but leaching the chemicals into the roux) use a silicone spatula or whisk instead - as long as it's one that's approved for 600 degrees or above. The roux will change color gradually and you need to pay attention or you'll burn it.

Don't rush, though. This whole process will take 20 to 30 minutes or even longer, so be patient. Sure, the real experts can whip up a good roux in a few minutes (I once did it in 5 minutes as a class demo) but there's no point in pushing your luck, and I don't. You'll also want to be very careful about splattering as you whisk or stir. The stuff isn't called Cajun napalm for nothing. If you get it on your skin it will stick and you'll have a second or third degree burn. OUCH!

The first color change will turn the roux from white to a sort of beige color. Next will be something that resembles peanut butter. The picture doesn't really do justice to the color because the light is too intense, but I hope you'll get the idea. After that, the roux will darken and eventually you'll get to the stage where it resembles mahogany - a sort of deep, reddish brown. This is where you really need to pay attention.

This is the mahogany stage. Unfortunately I didn't frame this picture too well. Oops.

The next stage is a deep chocolate color, slightly darker than milk chocolate. When you get close to this stage, IMMEDIATELY turn off the heat, remove the pan from the burner if you're one of the unfortunate souls who's cooking with electricity and dump the Trinity into the pan. The roux will continue to cook and turn darker from the retained heat in the skillet and, if you're using cast iron which retains heat longer, you'll have to add some stock, preferably chilled, otherwise it will burn for certain and you'll have to throw it out and start over. When the mixture has cooled a bit, toss in a couple of cloves of minced garlic and let the whole thing cook for a couple of minutes.

This picture doesn't really show the color, partly because of the lighting and partly because I'd added some stock and diluted the roux. What it does show is the Trinity in the roux.

The next step is to put this mixture into a stock pot or a Dutch oven and add some stock. In this case, I used about a quart of stock with a half recipe of roux and a Trinity made from half a cup each of onion, celery and bell pepper, but only because I didn't want to make a whole batch. Simmer the mixture for two hours, partially covered. It won't be as thick as you might imagine because the dark roux loses its thickening power, but it's not supposed to be thick like library paste, anyway. Many recipes call for okra to be cooked with the stock, roux and Trinity, but I can't stand the stuff, so I don't use it.

After two hours, brown some chicken pieces (I used thighs) that have been seasoned with salt, pepper and cayenne and some andouille (I used about 6 or 8 ounces sliced into 1/2-inch pieces on the bias), then add them to the pot with some dried thyme and a bay leaf or two, and simmer for another hour or more. If you're using leftover turkey (and brown turkey stock you've made from the carcass, remember), just cut it into bite-sized pieces and simmer them. This is a great way to use all those little bits next to the bone that are hard to carve at the Thanksgiving table.

You'll want to be pretty aggressive in skimming the fat off the surface because the chicken (if you're using it) and the andouille will render quite a bit. Refrigerating helps, but the chicken fat won't really congeal like beef or pork fat will, so just work at it a bit. This is what the dish will look like when it's getting close to serving.

At this point, all that's left to do is to remove the chicken from the bone and either cut it into bite-sized pieces or shred it. Of course, if you're using leftover turkey you won't need to do this. Now, if you like, and it depends on my mood, you can add some shelled and de-veined shrimp, cooked crawfish tails or crab meat. Or, if you're fortunate enough to find them, raw crawfish tails. A really rustic gumbo can have blue crabs broken in half, but whatever you do, only add the seafood long enough before serving to either cook it through or heat it if it's already cooked.

Taste the gumbo and adjust the seasoning if necessary, then ladle it into bowls over a mound of cooked, long-grain rice and sprinkle with sliced scallion tops. If you'd like, you can stir in a little file powder to thicken the broth, but I reserve this for gumbo made strictly from seafood - and that's another recipe and another post.

Tonight I'm going to put shrimp in my gumbo, so I'll take a picture when I serve it and post it right here. In the meantime, think about gumbo for Saturday or Sunday this week. You'll be happy.

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

PS - Thanks to Chuck Taggart's The Gumbo Pages, a website that's been a valuable resource for me for several years.

1 comment:

  1. Hi there mr. juice! I follow tracey's blog and therefore, have come to know you as well! I read your post about jambalaya and smiled. Then, tonight, when I saw your gumbo post, I had to comment. You see, I am from Looziana..Home of the Pot of Gumbo!! (you yanks say Louisiana, I know) I have to tell you that you are the first person north of the mason dixon line that seems to truly understand the concept of true coonass cooking! I commend you.
    Not many can master the art of roux-making like we do, but your pics seem to tell me you may be a pro. I, myself, just made roux today for my Thanksgiving gravy...for you see, we use roux for most everything!! Took me 1 1/2 hrs to make it but then, that's why we have Chardonnay...one must partake while stirring roux!
    So cheers to you on mastering some cajun cooking....you've still got crawfish etoufee, catfish and dirty rice to try out!!
    Love your blog, by the way!!
    laissez les bon temps roulez!!!!