Saturday, April 22, 2006

Gumbo: Tasting Your Family Tree

Generation to Generation, The Family Recipe Is Our Spice of Life

Daily life in South Louisiana is full of intangibles. Politics, gossip, football, sorted affairs... eavesdropping at a local coffee house has become a local pastime... well, a way of life. Yet among the juicy talk and sly winks that surely ensue, the ever changing scenery of the local landscape confirms one certainty... no two pots of Gumbo are the same.

Being a southern aristocrat has afforded me one rite of passage, a jewel I hold dearly. My momma's gumbo recipe.

As with all family recipes, each generation learns from the last, adds this or that, and calls it their own. My gumbo recipe is the same. Watching my Grandfather (or my Papa) cook his gumbo was always interesting. He was big into fowl, duck and oysters... and loved a dark, rich roux that would turn the gravy very dark. This wasn't a gumbo you'd eat a gallon of.... but a delicate mixture you might enjoy before a main course. He was a terrific cook and I only wish I would have paid more attention.

My own mom mastered her recipe early on, and our household was raised on a diet of shrimp and okra gumbo. Sure, she would make different varieties with chicken, turkey and/or sausage.... but the tried and true was always shrimp and okra, mainly because of a dear woman around the corner (Mrs. Johnson) who would park her old white pickup truck and sell the most amazing shrimp out of her own coolers... shrimp her husband had pulled out of the gulf the night before. Mrs. Johnson recently passed away, and it was a day we reflected on with mountains of wonderful memories.

I watched my momma in our kitchen for years before I took a stab at the family recipe. I started getting serious about it in college, while living away from Louisiana. My first apartment as a grown-up was in Kansas City, Kansas, with a roommate while studying at The University of Missouri at Kansas City Conservatory of Music. It was significant in many ways (as first apartments are) but it did spawn something I didn't realize until the day I moved in. I had my own kitchen.

Well, it didn't take long before I was at the cheapest place in town buying pots and pans... and planning dinner parties for a group of friends, themselves self-proclaimed foodies. Within days I was cooking like mad, and having dinner parties that were labeled in social circles as "must attend". My days were filled with school, rehearsals and a great job at the Fedora Café on the Plaza as a pasta chef. At night, I practiced on my own.

Gumbo can come in many forms. The 2 that seem to be most common are roux based... and okra based. Roux is a mixture of flour and oil, slowly cooked in a skillet or pot, until a desired color is reached. Rouxs are used as soup, stew and gravy starters, because as you add water, milk or chicken stock, so the mixture thickens to a desired consistency. In Louisiana, we have a saying.... "first you make a roux".

It is a tricky skill, as over cooking your roux can and will ruin your dish. The wonderfully nutty texture turns burnt and bitter, and no matter what seasonings you add... it is a taste that you can't hide. I've included some tips below.

That said, I use a roux base.... AND add okra, which was used by the creoles as a thickening agent. Truth be told, there are a group of people who believe gumbo isn't gumbo without okra. I am one of them. For me, it's the flavor. Growing up, I wasn't a big okra fan... only in gumbo, where is was cooked to smithereens. Later in life, I fell in love with smothered okra (okra cooked down with onions and tomatoes).. and then realized that what I was eating was the backbone of flavor I had been using in my own gumbo for years.

So, breaking tradition, I pass along my own gumbo recipe to you. This is the version I make in my own home, and it is my all-time favorite. I hope you will adopt it as your own, and pass it down to your family members as well. It's exactly how I like it, so I call it....

Andre’s Gumbo Like I Like It

(Shrimp and Okra Version)

4- 5 Quarts Chicken Stock
4 pounds frozen okra
1 lrg can of diced tomatoes
1 regular can of diced tomatoes
2 large white onions, diced fine
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/⁄2 teaspoon chopped garlic, fine
1⁄/2 teaspoon salt
1/⁄2 teaspoon black pepper
3/⁄4 cup all purpose flour
3⁄/4 cup vegetable oil
3 tablespoon of lea and perrin’s
2 tablespoons crystal hot sauce (or frank’s)
1 1⁄/2 tablespoons of creole seasoning (Emerils or Tony’s or your own)
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon basil
1 teaspoon oregano
1⁄/2 teaspoon thyme
2-3 tablespoons Kitchen Bouquet
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup chopped parsley, fine
4 pounds peeled medium shrimp
Chopped green onions

In a separate pot, heat 3 tbl vegetable oil, and sauté white onions. Add garlic, frozen okra and tomatoes, season with salt and pepper, and cook over medium low heat until tender (at least an hour, if not longer). Okra should be very tender and want to break up. In a large stockpot, heat oil (3/4 cup) and add flour to make roux. Stir constantly over medium heat, making sure not to burn. Bring to desired color… peanut butter color is recommended for best flavor. Once desired color is reached, whisk in chicken stock, 4 qts first and save the rest if needed (chicken base dissolved in water can also be used , but NOT bullion). Add seasonings (wet and dry) and kitchen bouquet for desired color (a rich, dark brown is perfect). Add okra mixture and bring to boil. Reduce to low simmer, and cook for 1 1/⁄2 hours. Last half hour, add shrimp and parsley and simmer and very low temp, not to overcook shrimp. Serve in bowls, topped with a scoop of cooked long grain rice and top with sprinkle of green onion.

Gumbo is best if cooked day before. Make sure to cool completely before storing in fridge.... if not, the mixture will bubble and MUST be thrown out, as the onions will certainly turn.

*** Tips on Making a Roux

More than anything else, it's the roux that gives gumbo its particular character. Making roux is something of an art. It may take some practice to get good results. If dark specks appear, or if you smell something burning, you'll need to throw out the roux and start over. Don't try to base your gumbo on a burnt roux!

That said, let's make a medium colored Cajun roux, peanut butter in color. A Cajun roux is just flour cooked in fat until it acquires a darker color and a rich, complex, somewhat smoky flavor with nut-like overtones. Some folks have claimed that one can make a roux in the oven or even in the microwave, omitting the fat, but the one true way is to cook the roux on the stove top in a deep, heavy skillet or Dutch oven. The catch is that it will take plenty of time to cook the roux at the proper temperature so that it doesn't burn, and that you will need to stir constantly, working pretty hard the whole time. Some use a large whisk or a large spatula to keep the roux moving, but I find that a large, long-handled wooden spoon works best for me.

The choice of fat does affect the taste of the gumbo. Lard and bacon fat are the traditional choices (sometimes blended together), but other animal fats, or even vegetable oil or shortening, may be used. I prefer using a good vegetable oil. The choice of fat may be influenced by the kind of gumbo you are going to make -- duck fat for a duck and sausage gumbo, for example. You may decide to use vegetable fats for a seafood-only gumbo, and animal fats for your other gumbos.

Regular bleached all-purpose flour is fine for a roux. The proportions of flour to fat vary depending on how thick you want the roux to be. Approximately two parts flour to one part fat works well for me. If I need about a cup of roux, I use a cup of flour and about half a cup of oil, perhaps increasing the quantity of fat by a tablespoon or two depending on the result I'm looking for that day.