Gumbo: The Basics
Gumboby Chef David Bulla
Growing up in Houston, I became very good friends with a peer and his family from Louisiana. They were Cajun, and from somewhere in Lafayette Parish, if I remember correctly. I can say it was a good experience growing up with this guy as my friend. Cajuns are tough and full of passion. They are hard working, and honorable. They love having fun, they value friendship, and do what they say they will do. They live by their word and are just part of an amazing culture that is ingrained in our American heritage, all over the country.
What does this have to do with Texas Cooking? My friend and his family introduced me to gumbo when I was a kid. A bowl of brown broth loaded with meats and vegetables served over a bunch of rice. It looked like a steaming bowl of mud dug out of the bayou but, at first taste, it was something special. It was a defining moment in my culinary life. One step closer to my passion. One step further out into the world of food.
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Gumbo is actually a West African word for okra. It was a crop that was brought to the Americas by the slave trade in the mid 1600's. The Africans brought their culture with them, and it was assimilated into the local culture. They brought their food with them, and it, too, was assimilated. They brought their music with them, and it eventually became Zydeco and Jazz and evolved into some of the popular music of today.
Acadians were French colonists exiled from Canada due to the Treaty of Paris (1763) that ended the French and Indian War. They migrated into what is now known as the United States, into the Midwest, through the Mississippi Valley and points east all over the eastern seaboard. But a good portion of those who were willing to make the journey ended up in New Orleans, a French territory. Little did they know that the French had already secretly ceded Louisiana to Spain a year earlier in the Treaty of Fontainebleau (1762). These French-speaking exiles arrived in what would become Spanish territory. In 1777, Bernardo de Galvez (for whom Galveston, Texas was named) was dispatched to govern the Louisiana territory. He allowed the Cajuns to go about their business with minimal interference. The Spanish even recruited approximately 600 of the Cajuns to fight for General Galvez in the American Revolution as part of the Louisiana Militia.
Although gumbo has its roots set deep in the meeting of cultures in the 18th century in the Louisiana territory, this dish is uniquely American. The Acadians (Cajuns) provided the country-style French cooking technique, creating something similar to bouillabaisse. The Native American Choctaws integrated filé powder into the mix. The locale provided a rich variety of ingredients, such as waterfowl, and the bountiful harvest from the Gulf of Mexico and the Bayou. The Spanish provided the rice, and Louisiana was a perfect place to grow it. They also provided the pork, as well as techniques for curing and making Spanish-style sausage from the pork, that were a little bit out of the experience of the French. The Africans brought okra to the mix, as well as other food culture, including the original concept of gumbo as a way to cook greens. Local greens, vegetables and herbs from Louisiana went into the pot, as well.
African, French, Native American, Spanish and other local influences combined to create one amazing dish. One big American melting pot of gumbo!
Laissez les bon temps rouler! (Let the good times roll!)
Enough of the history lesson. I am a Chef for goodness sakes! Lets get cooking and celebrate our heritage with a uniquely American bowl of gumbo.
Stew or soup? It is sort of a bastardized version of both. This is one of those dishes that takes "feel" to cook. You can go by a recipe, but they don't always work. It really comes down to feel and taste. So I will start by giving the basics. If you follow the basics, you will never make a bad gumbo.
Cajun RouxMake this in advance. For all the work, I would suggest making a double batch. It stores well in the refrigerator for extended periods of time.
This process can take up to two hours or more depending on the temperature you use. With experience and a tolerance to pain, you can make it quickly at a high heat, but you will have to stir very quickly to prevent it from burning, and you will most probably be splashed by the hot roux in the process, causing serious burns. Slow is good. Just be sure to set aside the time.
As the flour cooks, it will start changing color and taking on an aroma like nothing else. It is somewhat nutty. For a Cajun roux, in my opinion the best for gumbo, you want to continue the process until you reach the color of dark chocolate. When you think you are done, keep going until you get to that color of dark chocolate without any black bits.
Take the pan off the heat and keep stirring until the temperature of the roux gets manageable, then transfer the chocolate roux out of the pan into something like a ceramic or steel bowl. The roux will be the temperature of something like lava at the point it is finished, so I can't emphasize enough to be careful.
For those weak at heart, or just don't have the time, there are products available on the shelf at grocery stores in some parts of the country or even online. None of them equal homemade roux, but some come close. If using the dry products, you can simply add the toasted flour in after you sauté your vegetables and before you add any liquid.
There is also a technique that I have heard of, but not tried, that involves starting the roux on the stove and then putting it in a moderate oven to cook, stirring occasionally. It takes longer. Try at your own risk.
Chicken and Sausage Gumbo
Remove all but about 2 tablespoons of the hot drippings from the pan and return to the heat.
Add the vegetables and sauté until just tender, about 5 minutes. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Make sure to get all the brown bits off the bottom of the pan. Add the garlic at the last minute with the bay leaves.
Add the roux and make a pasty mix of vegetables and roux. Allow to come to a simmer, being careful not to burn the roux.
When the roux comes up to temperature, add the chicken stock and stir until combined into a smooth liquid, making sure all the roux is incorporated into the stock. Then add the browned chicken pieces, and the browned sausage pieces and optional okra at this point. Continue to stir until the roux is incorporated into the stock and begins to thicken the gumbo. Reduce heat to a low simmer for about 45 minutes to an hour until all ingredients are cooked thoroughly and the chicken is falling off the bones, stirring occasionally. Skim any fat or scum that floats to the surface with a spoon and discard.
This is where the "feel" part comes in.
Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, and even cayenne pepper (use sparingly) or your favorite Cajun seasoning, if desired. If the gumbo is too thin, whisk in some additional roux to thicken. If it is too thick, add some more stock or a little water. You are looking for a consistency somewhere between a creamy soup and a broth-based soup. You also want a hearty proportion of meat and vegetables to broth. So if you find you get the right consistency of the broth, but there is nothing in it, add more stuff. Cut up some more veggies or cook some more sausage, whatever. The last thing you want is a ladle full of nothing but broth.
While you are doing all this, you should have already made your rice and have it set aside (it will stay hot for a long time if covered), along with your garnish of green onions and parsley.
Serve in a large, wide bowl. Scoop a generous portion of the gumbo into the bowl. If you want to use filé powder, put the rice in the bowl first, sprinkle with filé as you would salt and pepper, and then top with the gumbo. Otherwise, top the gumbo with a scoop of rice. Garnish with the parsley and onions. Serve with hot sauce and a good crusty baguette, and plenty of napkins. You might also want to put out a spare bowl or plate for discarded bones.
More gumbo to follow. This was just the intro and the basics. Stay tuned for "Gumbo - Part Deaux".
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