La Salle claimed the region for France and over the years, Louisiana was at one time or another subject to the Union Jack of Great Britain, the Tricolor of Napoleon, the Lone Star flag of the Republic of West Florida and the fifteen stars and stripes of the United States. Just to make things even more interesting, Louisiana became an independent republic for six weeks before joining the Confederacy at the outbreak of the Civil War!
Through much of Louisiana’s early history, the fertility of its land made it one of the richest regions in America as first indigo, then sugar and cotton rose to prominence in world markets. Louisiana planters were among the wealthiest men in America until the Civil War shattered the “plantation economy.” Down but never out, the state marched on as a powerful agricultural region and the interest in gumbo never waned!
The word “gumbo” is derived from African words for okra: guingombo, tchingombo, and kingomboa. This pod-like vegetable was first introduced by African slaves and is used to thicken the stew. As the French arrived with their love for bouillabaisse, a similar “one pot” stew, none of the necessary ingredients could be found; instead, they were forced to substitute local ingredients that would forever change their beloved bouillabaisse...at least in Louisiana!
By the time the Spanish, Africans and natives of the region also made contributions to the favored stew, even the French finally agreed it was no longer recognizable as bouillabaisse. Gumbo was born, and what started out as second best became better than the original! Today, this “communal stew” is particularly important around Mardi Gras. In some rural areas of Louisiana, riders don costumes and masks and participate in what is called the Courir de Mardi Gras, or “run of Mardi Gras.” Riders visit many households over miles and miles of designated routes, some over fifty miles long. As they near a house, a single rider advances to ask permission for the group to come up to the house. Once granted, they charge the house and begin to sing, dance and literally beg until the resident offers an ingredient for their gumbo. Live chickens are most often thrown into the air to allow the horseman a spirited game of chase! Polo ala Pollo!
People arrive from all over the world to watch the beginning of the Courir de Mardi Gras and even more are on hand to greet the riders at the finish where they begin to cook a large gumbo with all the food collected. With belly’s full and appetites sated, the festivities end promptly at midnight, the beginning of Lent.
There are as many recipes for gumbo as there are cooks in Louisiana. Having the “best” recipe seems to bring out the competitive streak in everyone and what good cook would easily give up the “golden roux?” Gumbo recipes are often a closely guarded secret, but one rule is constant: you must first make a roux, the base of every gumbo. A roux is made from flour and butter and once combined, it acts as the thickening agent or the gumbo’s base. There are no hard fast rules for the rest of the ingredients used in a gumbo; in fact, “anything that flies, crawls, creeps or lies still may end up in the gumbo pot!”
One might call a gumbo a soup, but doing that is like calling a Rolls-Royce a thing to drive you from one place to another. Gumbos are however, the KING of soups, and there are as many varieties as there are Louisianians…and then some! This is by no means a definitive gumbo recipe-there are an almost infinite number of ways of making gumbo but it is firmly suggested that you go through the stock making process…plain water or a canned stock simply will NOT do if you want a gumbo with real depth and multi-layered complexity of flavor! The stock can be made in advance and refrigerated or frozen, but it must be real!
FOR THE STOCK:
- 8 quarts cold water
- 8-10 pounds chicken parts (backs, necks, etc.) and bones, or a whole chicken, cut up and skillet-browned
- Shrimp shells and heads, reserved from the 4 pounds of shrimp that have been peeled for the final step of the gumbo (the heads are very important!)
- 8 ounces onions, chopped
- 4 ounces celery with tops, chopped
- 4 ounces carrots, chopped
- 2 heads garlic, cut in half horizontally
Sachet d'épices: In a small cheesecloth bag or tea ball, place:
- 1 teaspoon or so black peppercorns, cracked
- A few parsley stems
- 1 bayleaf
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon dried basil leaves
(If at all possible, please try to get shrimp with the heads on. Shrimp heads impart a wonderful flavor to the stock, and it just ain't the same as a real New Orleans gumbo without them. Do whatever you have to do. In many cities you'll have better luck at Asian seafood markets.)
Remove the skin from the chicken and chop into 3-4 inch pieces, making sure to cut through and expose the bones. Brown the chicken parts and bones in a skillet with oil, or in a 350°F oven for about 20 minutes.
Put the chicken in the stockpot with the water and bring slowly to a simmer. Periodically skim off any scum that forms, and if you wish use a skimmer to skim off the fat. (This stock simmering process makes your house smell REALLY good!) Let this simmer for at least three, and preferably four hours. It is this long simmering process that extracts the maximum flavor from the chicken meat and bones, as well as the natural gelatin from the bones. When refrigerated, a good chicken stock will be clear and gelatinous (and in fact will set like Jello when refrigerated, if you've done it properly).
Add the onion, garlic, carrots and celery. Place the peppercorns, parsley sprigs and dried herbs into a 4-inch square piece of cheesecloth or large tea ball (making what's called a sachet d'epices) and tie it into a little sack; add the sack to the stock (you can tie the sack closed with some twine and tie the long end of the twine to the handle of the pot; this makes the bag easier to retrieve.) Simmer for one more hour, then add the shrimp shells and heads. Simmer an additional 30 minutes.
Remember that during the simmering process, it's best not to stir the stock. The end result will be much clearer if it is not agitated while simmering.
Strain thoroughly; the best way to do this is to ladle the stock out and pour it through a strainer which has been lined with a couple of layers of damp cheesecloth. If you're using the stock immediately, skim off as much fat as you can with a fat skimmer or a piece of paper towel, otherwise cool the stock right away by placing the container into an ice-water-filled sink, stirring to bring the hot liquid from the center to the sides of the container. Don't just put hot stock in the refrigerator; it won't cool enough to prevent possible multiplication of harmful bacteria. (A neat trick I learned recently -- fill Ziploc freezer bags with water and freeze them, then place the bags of ice into the stock; this will cool the stock without diluting it!) To defat the stock easily, refrigerate so that the fat solidifies on the surface, then skim off.
Makes about 5 quarts of stock.
(Except for the shrimp shells, this is an excellent general-purpose chicken stock. The shells and heads are added at the last minute for the additional seafood flavor for that I like especially for this dish; for general use, though, it's best to make separate chicken or fish stocks. The stock will keep for a few days in the refrigerator or 6 months in the freezer.)
FOR THE ROUX:
- 1-1/4 cups flour
- 1 cup oil
Blend thoroughly in a thick skillet and cook over medium-high to high heat, stirring CONSTANTLY. BE VERY CAREFUL NOT TO BURN IT!! If you see black specks in the roux, you've screwed it up. Dump it out and start over. Keep cooking and stirring until the roux gets darker and darker. It's best to use a very heavy pot or skillet for roux-making, especially cast iron. With a good cast iron Dutch oven or skillet, you can get a beautiful dark roux in only about 20 minutes.
New Orleans people tend to like a blond or peanut butter colored roux, so feel free to make it that way if you like. Cajuns tend to like it dark, and so do I -- if you feel comfortable that you won't burn the roux, cook it until it's a dark, reddish-brown, almost but not quite as dark as milk chocolate. The roux, when finished, almost smells like roasted coffee ... yum!
If you prefer a blond or medium roux, cut down on the amount of roux you use; dark roux does not have as much thickening effect since the starch is so thoroughly cooked.
You should turn the fire down or off as the roux nears the right color, because the heat from the pan will continue cooking it. You can also add your onions, bell peppers and celery to the roux as it's near the end of cooking to arrest the cooking process and to soften the vegetables (this is the way I like to do it). KEEP STIRRING until the roux is relatively cool. Add the roux to the stock.
They don't call roux "Cajun napalm" for nothing. Don't let any splatter on you, or you'll get a nasty burn. Stir carefully.
If you don't have a heavy enough pan, or if you're nervous about cooking roux at high heat, remember that a dark Cajun-style roux will take about an hour of constant stirring at low heat, so if you're pressed for time, a nice blond Creole-style roux will still do nicely, and will take about half the time. Also remember that the roux can be prepared in advance, and refrigerated or frozen. With a little practice, you'll get good at it.
FOR THE REST:
- 1 chicken or guinea hen, without giblets, cut up
- 1 to 1-1/2 pounds andouillesausage, sliced about 1/4" thick on the bias (you may substitute hot or mild smoked sausage if good andouille isn't available) and/or fresh Creole hot sausage, browned
- 4 pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 6 blue crabs, cleaned, broken in half and claws pulled off (or for a more elegant looking gumbo, omit and instead add 1-1/2 pounds lump white crabmeat, picked over for shells and cartilage)
- 3 pounds okra, sliced (leave out if you don't like okra, but be - sure to add filé at the end if you leave out the okra)
- 2 onions, chopped
- 1 bunch green onions with tops, chopped
- 2 bell peppers, chopped
- 5 ribs celery, chopped
- several cloves garlic, minced
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 bunch fresh parsley, chopped
- Creole seasoning to taste, OR
- black, white and cayenne peppers, to taste
- Salt to taste
- Few dashes Tabasco, or to taste.
- 1 - 2 tablespoons filé powder (ONLY IF YOU DON'T USE OKRA!)
- Steaming hot Louisiana long-grain rice
Sprinkle the chicken pieces with Creole seasoning and brown in the oven. Slice the sausage and brown, pouring off all the fat (especially if you're using fresh Creole hot sausage).
Sauté the onions, green onions, bell pepper and celery if you haven't already added them to the roux, and add to the stock. Add the chicken and sausage(s). Add the bay leaves and Creole seasoning (or ground peppers) to taste and stir. Bring to a boil and immediately reduce to a simmer; let simmer for about 45 minutes. Keep tasting and adjusting seasonings as needed.
Add the okra and cook another 30 minutes or so. Make sure that the "ropiness" or "stringiness" from the okra is gone, add the parsley, crab halves and claws (if you're using them). Cook for another 15 minutes, then add the shrimp (and if you've omitted the hard-shell crabs, add the lump crabmeat now). Give it another 6-8 minutes or so, until the shrimp are just done, turning pink. Be very careful not to overcook the shrimp; adding the shrimp should be the very last step.
If there is any fat on the surface of the gumbo, try to skim off as much of it as possible.
Serve generous amounts in bowls over about 1/2 cup of hot rice -- claws, shells, bones and all (if you've made the original "rustic" version). Remember that the rice goes in the bowl first, and it is not an optional step, despite the trend among some New Orleans restaurants to serve a riceless gumbo.
And that’s the history…and the making of gumbo. Gumbo has stood the test of time and I’m sure at this very minute all across the United States, many Louisianians are enjoying their own special gumbo prepared their own special way. Gumbo wasn’t impressed by a storm called Katrina, it’s lived through hardship and even WAR…it’s the food of the people, remember? Africans, French, Haitians, Spanish…Cajuns, Creoles…have I left anyone out? Bon Apetite everyone…enjoy!