This time of year, as the holiday season approaches and the days grow short and chill, I will inevitably feel the stirrings of my Gumbo Jones. And nothing will satisfy it save a steaming hot bowl of gumbo.
What, you may ask, does a damnyankee Jewish kid know about gumbo? And I will answer: Years of living in gulf coast Texas taught me many things, among them the appreciation of this Louisiana elixir… an elixir that bears virtually no resemblance to the soi-disé “Chicken Gumbo Soup” of my youth, a product notoriously supplied by Campbell’s. I learned to love the Real Thing during my many years in Houston, and since then, I accept no substitutes, condensed or otherwise.
The hard part of making a good gumbo is preparing the roux. I used to do this the old-school way, carefully stirring and scraping my flour and oil (about half a cup of each) in a sauté pan over medium heat until the mixture was fragrant and chocolate-colored. It takes almost an hour, give or take, and there is no margin for error: a moment of inattention and you end up with a pile of carbonized shit in your pan. Now I use a method I learned from local boy Alton Brown: whisk the oil and flour together in a Dutch oven and just stick it, uncovered, in a 350°F oven for about 90 minutes. Stir once in a while, and you end up with a nice dark roux with much less risk of burning. Easy!
When the paste is a nice dark brown – something like a Hershey’s milk chocolate bar – take the roux out of the oven. At this point, you can proceed to the next step, or scrape the contents of the pan into a bowl and shove it in the fridge (or freezer) until you need it. In my case, that’s whenever the clock strikes gumbo o’clock.
Chop up a couple of strong yellow onions – I end up using about 1½ onions’ worth – along with four stout ribs of celery and two good-sized green bell peppers. Into the Dutch oven goes the whole mess, along with the roux, at medium heat. Now mash the whole heap around until the vegetable mixture is well-coated with roux, and let it cook down for fifteen minutes or so, stirring occasionally.
This is when the magic of heat and chemistry takes place. Roux, by itself, doesn’t smell all that impressive. And raw, the “Trinity” of onions, celery, and green bell peppers doesn’t thrill me: I’m no fan of either celery or bell pepper. But a few minutes on the fire, and WHAM! that gumbo aroma happens. Yeah, baby. House be smellin’ like Baton Rouge now, cher.
Now it’s time to throw in a couple of quarts of chicken stock. Use store-bought broth or stock if you have to, but if you happen to have on hand a few quarts of turkey stock left over from Thanksgiving – or homemade chicken stock – so much the better. I usually keep a supply of homemade stock around, frozen rock solid for long-term storage: it’s conveniently defrosted in the Nuclear Heat Machine whilst the Trinity is settling in on the flame. In goes the stock.
Time to add the Gumbo Protein. For me, this time it’s a brace of chicken legs that I’ve browned off in the oven, along with a pound of so of andouille sausage. (Got shrimp, crab claws, or crawfish? Throw it in during the last 20 minutes of simmering.) You want a variety of goodies to ensure that every spoonful will have something interesting.
A cup of sliced okra goes in at the end, for to provide a little extra texture: Make sure it cooks down enough so it doesn’t have Okra Snot hanging from it when it’s time to serve the ’bo. A few dashes of cayenne to provide that nice, slow burn at the back of the throat. Now bring the whole mess to a low simmer and let it roll.
Forty-five minutes later, time to eat. While the gumbo cooks, steam up some white rice with which to line your Gumbo Bowl. As often as not, I’ll skip this step so as to avoid the extra carbs, but that’s just me. Garnish with a handful of sliced scallions (the green part) and fill your bowl.
Pass the Tabasco. This stuff kicks assco!