Real Food Origins: New Orleans-Gumbo

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Gumbo is a revelation; a comfort food unlike anything I have ever eaten. If jambalaya is a party, gumbo is a long, warm hug. If you’ve had an awful day at school or work, you want gumbo. If you have suffered a physical or emotional loss, you want gumbo. If you have gathered your family together to celebrate or mourn anything, you want gumbo. There are few foods that I can overeat to the point of discomfort. But I honestly believe, in my heart of hearts, that I could eat gumbo until I actually exploded. It feels that good, and tastes that good.

Gumbo is another great representation of the culinary and ethnic melting pot of New Orleans. It features ingredients and techniques common to Native American, French, Spanish, West African, and Italian cuisines, yet the dish tastes like none of those, but is entirely unique in character and flavor. Gumbo’s origins are not clear-cut, but a few historic points are mostly agreed upon. The first written mention of gumbo is in the early 18th century,  and it’s generally thought the dish is named after either the West African word for okra, or the Choctaw word for file’ (sassafras leaves), two ingredients that are commonly used to thicken gumbo. There are Creole and Cajun versions; indeed, there is a version for everyone that makes it. Although commonly known as a chicken/sausage, or shrimp/shellfish/sausage dish, the recipes I read ran the protein gamut, with duck, oxtail, turkey, goose, fois gras, quail, and fried chicken. There are even some vegetarian versions.  I read at least 15 recipes for gumbo before I made my own, and each one was completely unique.

It is hard to categorize gumbo as either a soup or a stew; it’s in a category of its own. Gumbo is thicker than a soup, but thinner than a stew, and it’s served over plain white rice, rather than having the rice cooked in it as with jambalaya. Some traditional recipes cook for three hours; more modern recipes have shorter cooking times, but gumbo is still a labor of love, taking at least 2 hours to prepare. So, it’s definitely not a weeknight meal (although leftover gumbo is a perfect weeknight meal, and it just gets better as it sits in the refrigerator), but it is completely worth every one of those 120 minutes during a weekend.

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Here’s what I put in my gumbo: oil and flour for the roux, my Creole seasoning blend, tomatoes (because it’s Creole), the Trinity (celery, onion, bell pepper) and okra, vermouth, shrimp stock, andouille sausage, gulf shrimp, long grain white rice and file’. The rice, as I mentioned, is cooked separately, and served under the gumbo, and the file’ is sprinkled on each individual serving, never cooked in the gumbo.

There was a lot of adventure in this project. Three of the ingredients were new to me: file’, okra, and whole, head-on shrimp. File’ is nothing more than powdered sassafras leaves. A Native American ingredient, it thickens the gumbo without cooking; if cooked, it becomes stringy (which sounds like a great science experiment, but not a great gumbo).

I had heard many unpleasant things about okra, but it is a lovely ingredient if treated properly. It contains a slimy juice, which sounds less than delicious, but it’s that juice that acts as a thickener, and once it’s cooked out, the okra has a mild flavor and tender texture that add to gumbo’s uniqueness.

I felt fortune smiling on me when, in my unsuccessful search for crawfish, I found whole, head-on, frozen Louisiana gulf shrimp at the grocery store. I had never prepared head-on shrimp before, but YouTube provided all the instruction needed, and well, after binge-watching the entire 5 seasons of “Game of Thrones”, in preparation for the upcoming 6th season, I was convinced it wasn’t really an adventure unless something was beheaded. I used the shrimp heads and shells to make the shrimp stock for the gumbo.

There was one more piece of adventure-the roux. Sure, I have made a butter-and-flour roux a thousand and one times, but roux for gumbo is another thing all together.

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Equal parts flour and oil are cooked in the pot until they are dark chocolate-brown. Mind you, they start out the same color as the interior of the pot. At the beginning, whisking constantly isn’t completely necessary, but there’s no walking away from it, either. Once the flour has turned caramel-colored, then the whisking is pretty much constant, and it gets to the final shade very quickly. The whole process takes about 45 minutes, over medium heat. This magical elixir is aptly nicknamed “Cajun napalm”, because it is dangerously, frighteningly hot. I added the vegetables and Creole seasoning to the roux with much trepidation, but once they went in, the mixture became far less volatile.

After the vegetables had cooked down, and the okra’s sliminess was gone, I added the vermouth, tomatoes, and stock, brought the pot up to a boil, reduced the heat to a simmer, and let it simmer until it had thickened from a broth to a sauce, at least an hour. I then added the andouille, simmered some more, then the shrimp for just a few minutes. I put the rice on the stove about the same time as I added the andouille, and the rice and gumbo were ready at about the same time. We sprinkled our gumbo with file’, and garnished it with scallions and parsley. No hot sauce was needed; the combination of the Creole seasoning and the andouille brought plenty of heat to the party. The aroma is intoxicating, and the layers of flavor are almost too complex to describe; rich, robust, and deep-down soul-satisfying.

Gumbo is one of the most unique foods I have ever cooked or eaten. I have been completely blown away by gumbo, and all the New Orleans Creole dishes I’ve prepared for this little project. I have been blown away by the history of New Orleans itself. I can’t wait to visit there someday, and I can’t wait to create some Creole-inspired recipes of my own. I hope I can do it justice, and pay proper tribute to the history, the people, and the cuisine.

 

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2 comments

  1. I want gumbo! Wait, I have gumbo! Mmmmmm…. gumbo.

    Great for lunch too. Just be careful not to over-zap and ruin the shrimp!

    Like

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