New Orleans, aka the Crescent City is a fascinating place known for diversity, culture, and its rich heritage. Put it all in a bowl to eat and enjoy, and you would have what is known as gumbo.
Gumbo originated in Louisiana in the 18th century, but there is no evidence to pinpoint the exact origin of the food. Many believe as do I, that the name “gumbo” is derived from the word kingombo, which is Bantu for okra, a popular ingredient in West African cooking. The Choctaw Indians were found to have developed the spicy file’ powder, a key additive made from sassafras leaves; but the French lay claim to the thickening agent known as the roux.
Gumbo is a full meal, a melting pot of rich flavors steeped in tradition, a comforting stew-like dish. Though I learned to make gumbo in high school, most locals to the state learn at the hand of their mother’s and grandmother’s at a young age. Gumbo can’t be rushed, so if you don’t have the time or quality ingredients, don’t bother.
It is crucial to use the freshest and best seasonal ingredients when cooking gumbo, so selecting meat and/or shellfish, vegetables, including the thickener (usually in the form of okra or file powder) must be done carefully. There are many variations of gumbo, and everyone thinks theirs is the best, but I tend to stick to Chicken & Sausage or Seafood Gumbo, but I do use turkey after Thanksgiving. If lucky enough to have a hunter in the family, game is a wonderful ingredient to use as well.
Having had the opportunity to live in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Houma, and to have toured the state of Louisiana, I have tasted many different, yet exceptional gumbo dishes. Creole gumbo typically contains seafood and often stewed tomatoes, and Cajun gumbo is seafood and fowl based (though typically not together), but one thing is for certain, it all comes down to the roux.
The key to the best gumbo is a milk chocolate colored roux, which can be tricky, as it is at its peak just before being burned. A roux is equal parts flour and fat (I tend to use a little more flour), and is cooked gently on the stove for about 20-30 minutes depending on your altitude. I also prefer vegetable oil over butter that tends to burn, or olive oil that tends top separate.
Note: You must not leave your pot during the roux process; not for anything. If burned it must be thrown out, and a new roux started. I stand at my stove and stir, using a slotted roux spoon with an angled bottom in my heavy bottom pot, for at least 20 minutes.
Every gumbo has to include the holy trinity of vegetables: the onion, celery, and green bell peppers. I always introduce quite a bit of fresh garlic, and of course the okra. I have heard many talk of leaving the okra out, but then you will just have a great stew. It’s not gumbo without the okra!
Gumbo is cooked an hour or more to let the flavors marry. In my opinion it is even better the following day. I tend to make gumbo in a large batch to feed a crowd or to have leftovers, and it does freeze well.
Serve your gumbo around a mound of fluffy Louisiana or Anson Mills rice with a dash of Tabasco or your favorite hot sauce, and enjoy this soulful dish, perfect for the Mardi Gras season.
Note: Use a heavy bottom pot to keep the roux from scorching. Get ready for the cajun facial when you add the holy trinity. During Lent, try Gumbo Z’ Herbs.
Louisiana Seafood Gumbo
The premier stew of Cajun country, seafood gumbo, is known worldwide as the dish to seek out when visiting South Louisiana. There are as many recipes for gumbo as there are people who cook it. This, however, is my favorite.
- 1.5 pound (35-count) shrimp, peeled and de-veined (save heads for stock)
- 1.5-2 pounds lump crabmeat
- 1 dozen shucked oysters, reserve liquid (optional)
- 2 quarts shellfish stock (strain heads before using)
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- 1.5 cup flour
- 2 cups chopped onions
- 1 cup chopped celery
- 1 cup chopped bell pepper
- 1/4 cup diced garlic
- 15 oz bag frozen cut okra
- 1 cup stewed tomatoes
- 1/2 cup tomato sauce
- 1/2 pound sliced andouille sausage
- 1 pound counecuh smoked sausage
- 1 cups sliced green onions
- 1/2 cup chopped parsley
- 3 sprigs chopped fresh thyme
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
- salt and cayenne pepper
- Crystal or Tabasco Hot Sauce
- File powder
- 2 Bay leaves
In a 7-quart cast iron dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat. Sprinkle in flour and, using a wire whisk or roux spoon, stir constantly until brown roux is achieved. Do not allow roux to scorch. Should black specks appear in roux, discard and begin again. Once roux is golden brown, add onions, celery, bell pepper and garlic, thyme and basil. Sauté approximately 3-5 minutes or until vegetables are wilted. Add andouille, smoked sausage, blend well into vegetable mixture and sauté an additional 2-3 minutes. Slowly add hot shellfish stock, one ladle at a time, stirring constantly until all is incorporated. Slowly add stewed tomatoes, tomato sauce, and bay leaves. Stir. Bring to a low boil, reduce to simmer and cook approximately 20 minutes. Stirring often so not to stick. During this time, in a separate pan, saute the okra for 10 minutes, then rinse in a colander, and add to the mixture already cooking. Add additional stock if necessary to retain volume. After the 20 minutes, add green onions and parsley. Add 1/2 pound of crabmeat. Season to taste using salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, and hot sauce. Cook on low 10 more minutes. Fold shrimp, rest of lump crabmeat, oysters and reserved oyster liquid into soup. Return to a low boil and cook approximately 5 minutes until oyster edges curl and shrimp turn pink. Adjust seasonings and serve over cooked rice.
Personal Tips: I like to saute my vegetables (onion, celery, garlic, bell pepper, thyme, basil) in a separate pan and add after the stock. I also pre saute my smoked sausage and andouille in a separate pan, drain on paper towels, and add after the stock. To make the shellfish stock I simmer heads and bodies of shrimp in chicken broth, strain and then use in the gumbo.
To serve: Ladle the gumbo into shallow bowls and pile some rice in the center. Sprinkle the parsley and green onions over the top. Pass the warm French bread, gumbo file powder, and Crystal hot sauce at the table.
Gumbo bowls from the former D.H. Holmes in New Orleans, passed on to me from my mother-in-law, a native New Orleanian.