Grave philosophical questions, or Having a Dark Night of the Gumbo

I need your help folks. I supplicate myself to your experience and wisdom, particularly our friends from Lousiana. I seek your feedback for help dealing with a failure, of imagination, of technique, of logistics, I know not what else.

Here’s my confession:

I don’t know what I did with the gumbo recipe but I looked everywhere and couldn’t find it. It was on a stained index card that I’d kept for 20 years, through moves between residences, crosscountry from south to east and back again. That’s really where things first went off the rails, was losing the recipe. It was my dad’s recipe and his gumbo was always reliably soul-startingly good. Yes, my emotional memory of meals past may distort a bit, but this I know: it was damn fine gumbo, every one of the hundreds of times I ate it over the years. Every single f*cking time. Dark, thick, spicy and smoky but not to the extent that the taste of the shrimp and crabmeat were overpowered.

I consider myself a good cook with a good intuition, so, other than pastry and baking, I usually succeed at what I try. I’ve been cooking a lot lately, trying to train myself to make food with fresh ingredients, different new things every week, not just purchase crap on the fly or rely on the couple of staple quick meals I can throw together with my eyes closed. I joined the food coop and have been reveling in fresh local produce, meat, and eggs. So, I had a handsome fresh mess of okra, some tomatoes, onions, and a lovely plump free-range chicken. Gumbo just entered my mind and I couldn’t shake it. I blame that okra.


17 thoughts on “Grave philosophical questions, or Having a Dark Night of the Gumbo

  1. I’ve never been able to make a good gumbo. So I’m interested in the comments.
    But may I add that you asked for a civil debate? IN the USA? and about something that to the participants is the sacred mark of the meaning and bais of life as we know it? To most, more dear than even arguing about healthcare????????

  2. I have a recipe at home (will have to excavate it) that I got from one of the chefs at Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse. He made it at the Treme Gumbo Fest last December (btw, they are repeating the yummeh event this December…! :)). I’ll track it down and send it to you.
    My brother makes a divine gumbo based on an Emeril recipe, but he’s done it so often now, he riffs on his own vibes.
    I also found Chef John Folse’s Encyclopedia of Cajun & Creole Cuisine on CDROM (amazon) and snarfed it up – I haven’t looked at it yet, but there MUST be a gumbo or few in there.
    And a good base of reference for making a roux (so I learned from the DBS’s chef and the gal from the Southern Food & Beverage Museum – it takes about two beers (drinking them, they do NOT go into the roux) timewise. 🙂 And watch it and keep stirring! 🙂

  3. This is just a guess, but it sounds like your wok wasn’t hot enough when you made the roux. I’m still a student of gumbo, but what I’ve learned to do is to whisk the flour into smoking hot oil and stir until it’s chocolate brown, then throw in the holy trinity of aromatics (not the okra yet) and seasonings, lower the heat to med. and stir that until it becomes very sticky and thick.
    In a separate pot, get the broth to a rolling boil and drop spoonsful of the roux-veggie-seasoning mix in and stir to dissolve. Then add your other ingedients. I’ve also heard, although I emphasize that my gumbo recipe is a WIP, that you never use okra and file together as they are both thickeners. You save the file for non-okra dishes. But this could be completely wrong. I never saute the okra beforehand, but I can see the value in that.
    Everyone I’ve ever talked to, including good cooks from Louisiana, insist that everything springs from the roux. When the roux is right, your gumbo will be, too.
    I hope this helps.
    And Elspeth, please post those recipes. I’d love to try them.

  4. I’ll play.
    First, if the roux isn’t right don’t move on – start over. It’s that important. I actuallly prefer olive oil – it’s got a higher smoke point than vegetable You need to keep the temp high enough to cook the flour but too high or it’ll burn. If the heat isn’t high enough the flour will keep settling out (of course, it’ll also settle out if you don’t constantly stir it). The pan is important, but it sounds like your wok should work great. After the roux is done and the aromatics clarified, I usually transfer to a large pot.
    If you’ve cooked your roux for over 30 min. and it’s not darker than blonde, I’d say the heat wasn’t hot enough.
    Italian sausage should work fine with chicken. I would brown them both first(I wouldn’t put chicken fat in my roux).
    Okra came from Africa with the slave. Okra gumbo is a poor man’s gumbo. The reason the country cajuns originally started adding okra to their stews & gumbos is the “slime” is actually a thickening agent. I prefer to use plenty of meat or seafood to thicken & if, when almost done it’s too thin – add a little more flour.
    Don’t add the file’ until after it’s been served in the bowl.
    You can’t cut corners with gumbo. Nothing goes in until roux with the bell peppers, onions, celery and garlic are done. This is actually the foundation of several classic cajun dishes.

  5. Eric, you said the heat “wasn’t hot enough”. Do you estimate this or do you have a temperature on that (my wok has a thermometer – so if you have a number, I can do it right the first time)

  6. There’s some old Louisiana chestnut of a joke about the similarity between making love and making gumbo and the punchline is: “First, you make a roux…” LOL!

  7. Jude posted an excellent and detailed gumbo recipe on May 4th of 2008 though it appears you can’t access the archives back that far – I’d be happy to scan and e-mail a pdf of it if you wish to provide an e-mail address – you can find my contact e-mail at the link.

  8. well, I’m Texan, so this might not be authentic Louisiana gumbo enough for you, but if I’m cooking in cast iron I start with a clean dry skillet, heated. I sprinkle in the (measured and sifted, first, please) flour for my gumbo and *toast* it — usually takes three to five minutes, depending on if I’m going for a medium roux (gumbo) or dark (chili … it needs to be the color of coffee for that and believe you me that’s a trick without burning the flour, which is when you dump it out and start over, colorful metaphors included.
    When the flour’s a half-shade lighter than you want it, add the oil (and any dry seasonings you need in the base, e.g. pepper, paprika, powdered chile, etc. NOT File, it’ll burn, and that is a nasty you don’t want to experience) and stir, stir, stir, stir until it’s the color you want. Then put in your veggies / broth / meat and proceed as directed in your receipt / recipe / formula.

  9. We do a gumbo we derived by reverse engineering the Gumbo Ya Ya at the Ivy in Los Angeles. That’s how authentic it is. We don’t make a roux. We base the whole thing on the best stock we can get, usually duck or turkey stock. We do use bacon.
    I think the general rule is to caramelize the drier vegetables and the bacon or ham, so you are doing that right by cooking them up front in a wok. Only then do we add the wet tomatoes, black eyed peas and the stock. Gumbo is a bit fibrous. Unless we deep fry it, it doesn’t really brown, so we add it towards the end along with the file gumbo for the slime factor.
    We do the sausages and / or seafood towards the end, but the rice has to come last because once the rice starts to cook the whole dish solidifies. If we stop cooking it, we can never restart it. We never rue not having roux.
    I think gumbo is one of those folk dishes with tremendous flexibility. Let’s face it, it’s a stew. Odds are, if you make a mistake, except for the rice cooking problem noted above, you can almost always recover. I always believe the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

  10. OK, I’ll admit to cheating: instead of plain flour I use Tony Chachere’s Instant Roux Mix, but use oil (olive oil, and not extra virgin), not water like the instructions claim, and also roast a clove or so of chopped garlic in the oil just prior to adding the flour mix.
    After about ten minutes, the color is plenty dark enough to reduce heat and add aromatics…
    I don’t mind good smothered okra (cooked in broth not water) but generally skip it in a gumbo…green beans aren’t bad, though they don’t work as a thickener.

  11. I have an iodine allergy, so crawfish and shellfish are right out.
    But if it ain’t got okra in it it ain’t gumbo, y’all.
    Here is a good receipt:
    Melt 1/2 cup (1 full stick) salted butter and stir into 1/2 cup good (not extra virgin) olive oil
    Dice and brown in a skillet 1 1/2 lb good sausage; (I like Opa’s if I can’t get regular Cajun sausage) and set aside, reserving 4 tsp fat.
    In reserved fat cook 1 1/2 cups EACH finely minced onion, bell pepper, celery (and carrots if you want them) with 2 medium-size diced shallots and 3 gloves peeled minced garlic until onions are clear and other vegetables are slightly softened
    Toast 1 cup plus 1 tblsp flour in a clean dry skillet until it’s the color of an oatmeal cookie
    Stir fats into flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Season:
    1 tsp regular iodized table salt
    1 tsp each sweet and smoked paprika
    1 tsp each finely-ground allspice and thyme
    1 1/2 tsps dried (or 1 tbsp fresh) each minced sage and rosemary
    1 tsp ground mustard powder (Colman’s or Watkins’ are best)
    1 tsp ground white pepper
    1 tsp ground black pepper
    1 tsp cayenne
    stir until smooth. Add 3 quarts chicken broth, sausage, vegetables, and 3 cups cooked boned chicken (I like dark meat here, and leg quarters are the cheapest chicken parts where I live) and stir well while bringing to a rolling boil.
    Stir in 4 cups raw sliced okra and 2 cups crushed fresh tomatoes
    If using, add 1 1/2 cups rice, bring back to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook 20 minutes or until rice is ready.
    If not using rice reduce heat to just below a boil and cook 15 minutes; if at the end of 15 minutes the okra is still crunchy or the gumbo isn’t sufficiently thick, add five to ten more minutes.
    Season with file (I’d use a teaspoon in a batch this size; it’s not one of my favorite flavors) and adjust other seasonings to taste just before serving.
    If you’re into low-fat cooking, obviously, this recipe is not for you …
    Yummy substitutions: leftover roasted turkey in place of the chicken, tasso ham for the sausage.
    I had some gumbo once that had been made with tasso ham and venison sausage that was out of this world. It had okra but no tomatoes, and was served in a bowl with red beans and rice on the side (those were cooked with tomatoes, onions, bacon, chopped celery, and I’m pretty sure beer), and your choice of cream biscuits or hot-water cornbread for sopping.

  12. I make my roux with a combination of fat for flavor and olive oil to keep it from burning. I like bacon grease for gumbo (you do save the grease when you fry up some bacon, don’t you?) as it adds a nice smokey flavor to the roux.

  13. It was the roux. First, you can’t use olive oil as your main fat, the smoke point is probably too low, and second, you gave up too early. A really good dark roux may indeed take 45 minutes to an hour to make depending on what you’re cooking it in and how high you’ve got the fire…and you were using a wok, so I don’t know what the hell that would do to your cooking time, but you don’t judge a roux on time, you judge it on color, period. You’ve got to at least use quality vegetable oil, or if you really want to nut up, some kind of animal fat, and that roux has to be at least dark peanut butter colored.
    If your texture was wrong, it might be the okra, or it might be how you mixed the stock into the roux. Always either add cold stock to hot roux, or cold roux to hot stock, or it won’t thicken properly.
    Finally…file and okra don’t go together, ever. The roux, the okra, and the file are all thickening agents, and although almost all gumbos have a roux, and you can mix roux and okra or roux and file in the same gumbo, mixing okra and file is always a bad idea texture-wise. Pick one and go with it, or leave both out if you feel like it.
    I make gumbo without okra all the time, lots of people do. My quickie chicken and sausage gumbo uses just roux, no okra. I never use file, just don’t like it. And although almost nobody makes a gumbo without a roux, there are some examples…one of the classic French Quarter creole restaurants, I don’t remember which one, uses only okra to thicken, they use no roux at all and they get the golden brown color from caramelizing the trinity.

  14. Kaleberg, your heart seems pure, but I don’t recognize any gumbo coming out of that recipe. I’m trying to see it, but I just don’t think it’s there.
    Ray said it just right.

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