Gumbo: The Basics


Gumbo: It's all an elaborate roux.

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.

The cuisine of Texas, especially East Texas, has an obvious influence from Louisiana. Texas Cajuns are as passionate about gumbo as West Texans are about their chili. How can you blame them? New Orleans, Louisiana is one of the "Four Corners" in extreme American cuisine as far as I am concerned. And in regards to the size of Texas, they are just down the road from Houston.

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.

Rich Stock
The stock should be made from whatever ingredients you plan on using in your gumbo. Chicken stock for chicken gumbo. Duck stock for duck gumbo. Fish stock or shrimp stock (made from salt water fish heads, or shrimp heads and shells) for seafood gumbo. If it doesn't sound good, get past it. No waste! The enhanced flavor will be noticeable. The key is that the stock MUST be of the highest quality. You want a stock that will turn to "jello" in the refrigerator. That is a whole other topic, so if you don't know how, and don't want to research it, go to your local butcher and ask them where you can get the good stuff (usually frozen, sometimes condensed).
Cajun Roux
Roux is a combination of flour and butter, lard, or oil, cooked to the desired color. As an integral part of much Cajun food, roux is a very important ingredient. Roux is so important that in a conversation of a Cajun mother to her son when he is telling her about a new girlfriend, a standard question is "Can she make a roux, and is she Catholic?"

This step can be fairly technical, but there are ways around it. For Cajun gumbo, you are looking for a chocolate colored roux, and a lighter colored roux if you are looking for a Creole-style gumbo. It is hard to make and requires a lot of patience and time. If you burn it, you have to start over or you wreck the dish.
Celery, Bell Pepper &
"The Holy Trinity" of Cajun/Creole cuisine. I have yet to find out why bell peppers were replaced from the French version of the trinity that included carrots instead of peppers. I imagine it has something to do with what would grow in the area at the time. Bell peppers provide some of the sweetness. One of the most common mistakes in gumbo is that people don't use enough of this mixture. Not only does it cook down and shrink to almost nothing, but it releases moisture into the dish, so they end up with watery roux-flavored broth with a few bits of stuff here and there. Not very satisfying. Don't skimp on the trinity. It is the least expensive part of the dish.
Filé powder
(pronounced fee-lay) is basically ground sassafras leaves. It is sprinkled into gumbo to thicken it and give it a unique texture. It was originally introduced to the Cajuns by the Native American Choctaws and was discovered to have some of the same thickening characteristics of okra. It was used in gumbo when okra was not in season. Eventually it was learned that a compound in sassafras caused liver cancer in laboratory rats. So, it fell out of favor for those that eat gumbo on a regular basis, especially with the advent of freezing food where okra was available year round.

However, the commercial producers of gumbo filé have found a way to remove that compound from the leaves. Some say the taste is not quite the same. Some street vendors in New Orleans still manufacture and sell the real deal in a tradition that has been passed down to them for generations. It is worth trying once. A martini will cause liver cancer if you drink a million of them every day but, once in a while, well, you can make up your own mind on that. Okra also provides some thickening power to the dish, but not everyone likes okra.

My suggestion is to try it. If it is cooked long enough, it is not slimy. It adds unique texture and truly classifies your dish as gumbo. But in the modern world, you don't always see okra or even filé powder in the dish. The modern gumbo that you will find in your typical Cajun restaurant is primarily thickened with roux. I think that is a shame, because the real deal of old adds complexity of texture and nuances of flavor that cannot be obtained by roux alone.

From there, you have infinite gumbo possibilities. Seafood gumbo, Chicken and Sausage gumbo, Crawfish and Crab gumbo, Wild Game gumbo, Green gumbo (typical during Lent, when many Catholics avoid meat). You could get radical and go vegan or vegetarian and create something with your favorite protein substitute using vegetable broth instead of stock. There are all kinds of vegetables that could be added. So you see, gumbo could almost be classified as a technique, not a recipe. In the traditions of the Old World, stews were typically used to make sure there was no waste. Whatever you had, make a stew out of it. An easy way to get rid of leftover food.

Cajun Roux

Make 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.

  • 1-1/2 cups vegetable oil
  • 2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Heat a heavy pan (cast iron, stainless steel or dutch oven) over medium heat. Add the oil and get it hot. Slowly whisk in the flour, being careful not to splash hot oil on yourself. Whisk until smooth. Keep up the heat and work quickly. Switch to a wooden spoon and constantly stir. When you stop stirring, the flour on the bottom of the pan will quickly burn. If you see black bits in your roux, you have burned it, and it will taste horrible and very bitter if used. Start over if this happens, using a lower heat setting.

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

Let's make the chicken and sausage gumbo.

Step One:

  • 1 whole stewing chicken, cut into pieces. Cut the breasts into multiple pieces. Leave the bones in. Use a cleaver if necessary. Have your butcher do this for you if you don't want to mess with it. Ask for 16 pieces.
  • 1 pound boneless/skinless chicken meat, white or dark, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1-1/2 pounds of smoked sausage, typically Andouille. If Andouille is not available, use your favorite smoked sausage. Cut into 1/2-inch slices.
  • 2 tablespoons reserved drippings or vegetable oil or a combination of both
Step Two:
  • 2 whole onions, or about 2 to 3 cups, chopped
  • 1 cup chopped celery
  • 1-1/2 cups chopped bell peppers. Use multi-colored if desired.
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed
  • 4 dried bay leaves
Step Three
  • 6 cups of STRONG chicken stock, prepared in advance
  • 1-1/2 to 2 cups Cajun roux
  • 1 cup fresh or quick-frozen sliced okra, about 1/3 to 1/2 inch slices (optional)
The Intangible Steps:
  • Salt and pepper to taste, and to season the chicken
  • Fresh parsley for garnish
  • Fresh sliced green onions for garnish
  • Cooked white rice for service (about 1 cup cooked rice per serving)
  • Favorite Louisiana hot sauce for service

Heat the oil in a large stock heavy stockpot over medium high heat. Brown the sausage slices in batches and remove to a paper towel or brown paper bag. Season the cut chicken lightly with salt and pepper on all sides. Brown the cut up stewing chicken in small batches until browned on both sides. Do this in batches, and leave space between pieces to allow for browning. Remove from pan, leaving 1 to 2 tablespoons of drippings behind. Season the cut up boneless chicken with a little salt and pepper and then add to the hot pan to brown and par cook. Remove when the browning starts.

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".