For Diana Briggs, because she asked.
Many people mistakenly believe that gumbo is a mysterious dish requiring a thick Louisiana accent, possibly the carcass of an alligator, and a large cauldron bubbling in the woods. Not so. Gumbo is a straightforward dish, but does require the cook to get up close and personal with his or her stove for a good chunk of time. Don’t let that dissuade you.
I’m going to share how I make gumbo. I almost always make a chicken and sausage version, because it’s most popular at my house. But if you’d prefer seafood, go for it. Shrimp and chicken? Sure. The mechanics of the dish remain the same.
First things first. You’re going to want to fix yourself a drink.
Then gather your ingredients. Let’s break them down into four groups:
- Meats – I usually use 2 chicken breasts and a pound of andouille sausage. Can’t find andouille? Super. Use kielbasa. Prefer skin-on, bone-in thighs? Awesome. You do you. Season your chicken with salt & pepper, and slice your sausages.
- Vegetables and Accessories – The Holy Trinity of New Orleans cooking is bell pepper, onion, and celery. I refuse to buy celery on principal (I use one stalk and end up tossing the rest), so I chop up two green bell peppers and one big sweet onion. Put these in a bowl with a big spoonful of minced garlic and a couple of bay leaves. I also add a bag of frozen sliced okra at the very end of cooking, but keep that in the freezer for now. The dish is garnished with sliced scallions and/or parsley.
- Liquids – Homemade chicken stock, canned chicken broth, beer, water, canned tomatoes with juice, whatever. You’ll need about 8 cups of liquid, so mix and match. I like to use 12 oz. of beer and chicken stock for the rest.
- Roux – this is the foundation of the dish. It’s equal parts flour and fat. I like to use 1/4 cup oil, 1/4 cup butter, and 1/2 cup flour. Again, if you want to go all butter or all oil, you’re not going to hurt my feelings.
Ready? Let’s do this thing.
Heat a couple of TB of your preferred fat in a big Dutch oven over medium heat. Add your meats and brown them for a few minutes. You don’t need to cook them all the way through, just get some color on them. When they’re done, move them to a plate to hang out.
That wasn’t so hard, was it?
Next up, add the rest of your preferred fat to the Dutch oven. When it melts, add the flour. YOU ARE NOW MAKING A ROUX. TRY NOT TO PANIC. I use a whisk for my roux; others use a wooden spoon. Either way, don’t make any plans, because this is the time-and-attention portion of your gumbo.
Remember that drink you made? Be sure it’s handy.
The roux will start out a pale tan color. Keep whisking. You don’t have to be quick, just keep everything moving. After 10 minutes or so, you’ll notice the magic happening.
The roux is now the color of your favorite novelty coffee drink. Ta-da!
Keep stirring. After several more minutes, your roux should approach the color of milk chocolate.
It will smell deeply nutty, almost smoky.
Once your roux has gotten nice and dark, add the bowl of vegetables, switch to a spoon or spatula, and stir that mess around to distribute the roux. Let the vegetables soften for 5-10 minutes, then add the meats back in, followed by your liquids. If you want more heat, add some Cajun seasoning or cayenne pepper.
Like any other thickener, roux only works once the mixture has reached a boil. Crank the heat up to medium-high and wait for the bubbles. Once your gumbo has boiled, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for, um, a while. You can simmer it anywhere from an hour to all day, just make sure to add more liquid if it looks dry. Make some rice and chop your parsley and green onions.
When your stomach starts rumbling, add the bag of frozen okra and fish out your chicken pieces. Remove the skin and bones (if you went that route) and shred the meat, then return it to the pot. Test the gumbo for salt, pepper, and cayenne.
Gaze into its majestic depths.
A word about gumbo file (pronounced FEE-lay): File is made from ground sassafras and was banned by the FDA in 1960 because some parts of the sassafras plant are possible carcinogens. Blah blah blah. If you feel that your gumbo experience is not complete without sprinkling some on your finished product, then by all means get some. But don’t beat yourself up over it. Gumbo is a spectrum, not a single dish – everyone makes it a little differently. I tossed my jar of file a few years ago when it expired and haven’t replaced it.
To serve, spoon the gumbo into a bowl. Top with a scoop of rice, sliced green onions, and chopped parsley.
The hands-on portion of gumbo takes at least half an hour, so you might want to save this one for a weekend. But I assure you the result is worth every minute.