Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Fat Tuesday & Cajun Roux: Shrimp, Chicken & Sausage Gumbo

Gumbo and a Little New Orleans Flair.

Lent is a time of fasting, a time of reflection and reconnecting with the person we might have lost along the good-intentioned-paved road of gluttony and greed we've walked throughout the previous liturgical year. There are no flowers in church, dull songs during mass, accompanied by, most notably, the absence of choirs and instruments and a microphone-boosted, resoundingly off-key and otherwise instrumentally-masked priest voice that is better left to the most pious of imaginations.

But when I think of Lent I think a seafood feast: Fish & Chips, copious amounts of Shrimp, Salmon,
Scallops, in place of my otherwise beloved veal, pork, chicken and lamb. Sadly, most years I look forward to it not as an opportunity to cleanse the slate of my impure soul, but as a culinary challenge. I love to cook seafood but rarely have a good reason to go out of my way to visit the monger of fish and get myself a nice, fresh bit of whatever smells like the ocean. Lent provides, nay, mandates that every Friday I do just that.

But before Lent there is Mardi Gras, the Tuesday that is Fat. :) And having been prefaced with my Lenten fish obsession, it should be relatively obvious to you that when I think of Mardi Gras, the las
t Tuesday before lent, images of beads, Bourbon street, pancakes, and feathery masks and boas are secondary to my long-time love for the infamous Cajun soup we all know and dare not cook: Gumbo.

Never mind that I almost died from going into a severe allergic reaction and anaphylactic shock from eating Gumbo in New Orleans once. "Why dare we not cook it?" you might ask. There are
several reasons for that, and here they are in list form. :)

* * *

Gumbo: Top 4 Reasons I Dared Not Cook It
until now
(Hey, it's Mardi Gras - let's throw caution to the wind!)

4. The Spices.
Despite having grown up in relative proximity to Louisiana, and having visited it on several occasions, I will freely admit that I knew little to nothing about Cajun food and its roots. For that reason alone, I find concocting any kind of semi-legitimate Cajun style seasoning for food extremely intimidating. Frankly, I have a small bottle of Tabasco sauce I keep on hand and some shrimp-boil spice mix, but other than that, as far as I could tell my bodega did not boast anything even close to legitimate Cajun spices.

After some quick reading, I found I was dead wrong about Cajun complexity. Cajun flavors are actually relatively common and simple - it's the combination that makes them distinctive.

All you need for good and authentic Cajun food is: bay leaves, thyme, black pepper, cayenne pepper, onion, celery, bell pepper, garlic, salt, parsley and filé (or Sassafras).

3. The Sausage.
When I was a kid I used to watch cooking shows a lot. I did not think that was odd because my dad was a chef and I'd always had a natural interest in cooking. But I think I finally had a sense that I was a litt-le "different" when I found myself choosing to watch Justin Wilson, THE New Orleans Cajun, over cartoons.

"I dont like that some, none atallll any!"

As Mr. Wilson explains in this amazing flash-to-the-past-piece-of-culinary-heritage video, there is a special kind of sausage used in Cajun cooking, and it's called Andouille. Andouille is "the gumbo sausage," according to Mr. Wilson, because it is the only kind of sausage any self-respecting Cajun would ever grace the gumbo pot with. Originally brought over by the French it is a smokey, pork sausage used in many Cajun dishes including Jambalaya and Etouffee.

Well, I never have Andouille sausage on hand, and I have convinced myself for years that using any other sausage was a little too close to blasphemy for this Roman Catholic, until yesterday when I proudly plunked a bunch of British Cumberland sausages into the mix and lived to tell the tale. :)

2. The Okra.
When I decided to finally cook gumbo, I was convinced that it would definitely be missing one of my favorite southern ingredients: okra*.

Having been raised on the wonderful cafeteria lunches of Texas public schools, I was well-versed in the ways of okra. My favorite lunch consisted of chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes (white gravy on both), buttered corn, and fried okra, with a side of jello and a chocolate milk. (Yeah, yeah heart-attack on a plate, yadda's the south, ok?) And to me, gumbo is not gumbo without okra in it. I have NEVER seen okra in a UK supermarket. In fact, they'd probably laugh at me if I asked whether they had it or not. But yesterday, the universe was smiling down on me.

Roman and I ventured out of the cave to buy some green beans (the sad substitution) when I had a nagging feeling I should peek my head into the local Halal Grocer and see if maybe they had okra. Miraculously, right there in the very center of their veg display was a giant pile of fresh, delicious okra. Needless to say, I dove in head first and ran out raving like a mad woman, my gumbo-making having been legitimized.

*Notes on Okra: Some consider the addition of okra to gumbo to be a specifically Creole thing. Others say Okra should only be used in gumbo that includes seafood or is to be consumed in the summer. Others still say that when using okra, the roux should be cooked to a medium color rather than the darkest, making it a less over-powering flavor and allowing the okra to be better showcased.

1. The Roux.
Everyone knows what a roux is. Ok, Matt didn't know, but, I mean, everyone who's into food knows what a roux is. It's that dark mysterious stuff made in secret white wooden shacks deep in the Louisiana bayou...the real stuff is hard to come by, and even harder to make. The combination of fat (butter, oil) and flour seems simple enough - but when you throw in menacing threats of burning, constant stirring, miniscule differences in coloration making "all the difference," it really starts to mess with your head.

I had myself convinced there must be something so utterly complex and unique about making roux that there was no way in hell I could do it at home, much less in the UK, where the H.E.B. Cajun section is not around the corner to save me in case I mess it up.

Happily (again), I was wrong about Roux being complex. It's about as simple as can be to make -it just take a whole lot of time and patience. You have to cook it for, minimum, half an hour to get a decent color - and the real purists cook it for even longer than that, to a black, dark, chocolatey color. It is the base and the basis for all the flavor in gumbo, and the darker the deeper and more delicious it is. Much like hand-whipped cream, or zabaglione, Roux is a true labor of love, and while you can buy it at a store these days, I highly recommend you take the bull by the horns and make it yourself. You'll never doubt your ability to make gumbo again.

* * *

Brenda's Mighty Fine Gumbo
based on this recipe
Serves 4-6

Roux-y, Pepper-y Might-y Fine Gumbo

I made this gumbo on a whim to celebrate Mardi Gras. I cooked my roux for 30 minutes exactly (Roman would not suffer me being at the stove much longer than that at one time) and it came out a darkish color - maybe slightly darker than milk chocolate. I found the flavor to be to my taste, and almost a little bit overpowering, actually. So if you don't like really intense gumbo, keep it under 30 minutes for roux-cooking time.

I added chicken, shrimp and sausage to my gumbo and used okra as an additional thickening agent as opposed to the traditional use of in the winter filé. I also did not have Cayenne pepper on hand, so I used reguarly crushed red pepper and jalapenos combined with copious amounts of black pepper, with I think is the most Cajun tasting.

Oh, and don't forget to pull out the Mardi Gras masks for dinner - we did and it made it taste all the more authentic. :)

* * *

1/2 cup vegetable or olive oil
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 medium white onion, chopped finely (about 1 cup)
1 small green bell pepper, chopped finely (about 1 cup)
2-3 stalks celery, chopped finely (about 1 cup)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1-2 jalapenos, minced, seeds in
1 quart (~1 liter) chicken stock or low-sodium broth
3 bay leaves
2 medium skinless chicken breasts, diced
1/2 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/4 pound andouille sausage or 4 Cumberland sausage links, cut into 1/2-inch-thick rounds
1/2 pound fresh okra, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch-thick rounds
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp crushed red pepper or 1 tsp ground cayenne pepper
1 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tsps dried thyme
4 cups cooked white rice, made with copious amounts of ground black pepper cooked in

1. Make the roux by heating the oil in a large pot and then adding the flour. Stir with a whisk on low heat (the roux should be bubbling) until it is the desired color (at least 20 minutes, ideally about 30) and has an intense, nutty scent. Do NOT allow it to burn!

2. Add the holy trinity (onion, celery and bell pepper), the garlic, the jalapenos and the red pepper and cook in the hot roux on medium heat until the vegetables are soft. Then slowly whisk in the stock a little bit at a time. It will look like the roux is not mixing with it, but don't worry that's normal.

3. Raise heat to bring the broth to a simmer, then add bay leaves, thyme, black pepper, okra, chicken and sausage and allow to thicken. Lower heat and allow to simmer for 20-30 minutes.

4. Finally, add the salt and adjust the spiciness adding more or less red pepper and black pepper as desired.

5. Five minutes or so before serving, add the shrimp with the heat off and lid on. Allow it to cook through residual heat checking it is completely opaque before serving. If you add the shrimp any earlier it will overcook. Don't recommend it.

Laissez les bon temps rouler
with a little rice in each bowl and the gumbo served over it, some crackers on the side and a Sazerac to toast!

* * *

Oh we brought out the masks alright!

PS: Shout out to my friend and once-partner-in-crime Simin who is, as we speak, in the Big Easy and hopefully nursing a painful New Orleans-style hangover with copious amounts of Absolut Pepa', Sazeracs and a Muffaletta, like a good girl. Party on Wayne!
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  1. Love this. Nothing beats a good gumbo and I am on the side that considers okra a requirement. Your version looks delicious. I have not had the masks wearing requirement for dinner but now see how that would totally help to legitimize this Minnesota girls gumbo. Thanks for all the insights. Hope you had a wonderful Mardi Gras

  2. Even though I'm a good 10 days after Mardi Gras, it's always a good time for gumbo! I tried making it with okra once, but I do not have the touch - it was a slimy mess! So, it's filé for me.

    Actually, with Valentine's and Chinese New Year just two days before, Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday took me by surprise! So no Pancake Tuesday, King Cake, or even a halfway decent promise to give up something for Lent. At least I have 30 more days to make up for it, along with plenty of Fish Fridays!