October 12, 2014

7 Things You Need to Know about Gumbo on National Gumbo Day

7 Things You Need to Know about Gumbo on National Gumbo Day

Chef Leah Chase says that all the world’s problems can be solved over a bowl of gumbo and some fried chicken. You just need to get people around the table to deal with whichever problem is at hand. And she should know. Chef Leah Chase is the inspiration behind the Disney movie The Princess and the Frog. She has seen firsthand what a powerful connector food can be between people, particularly good food, like a Creole gumbo.

Today is National Gumbo Day. I don’t know why this particular day is designated as such, nor do I know who did the designating. But I do know a few things about gumbo, and I want to share with you 7 important gumbo-making tips on this “special” day.

7 Important Gumbo-Making Tips from The Catholic Foodie

TIP #1

“First you make a roux…”

This quote captures the classic beginning of any good gumbo, and you can find that line in many a good Louisiana cookbook.

Roux is essentially a mixture of equal parts oil and flour, and it serves as a thickener. In gumbo, the roux also colors and lends a nutty flavor to the final product.

Making a roux can be tricky. To do it right, you need to have patience. You need to be willing to give up 20 to 30 minutes constantly stirring a pot over a hot stove. The demand on time and energy to do it right is one of the reasons that store-bought jarred rouxs have made their appearance over the last few years. It’s also why there is an old tongue-in-cheek answer that many Louisiana cooks tend to give in response to the question, “How long does it take to make a roux?” The answer can range from “two beers” to “two Bloody Marys” to “two sides of a Louis Armstrong album.”

For a good gumbo, you want a dark roux… the color of dark chocolate. To achieve this result, you need to take the roux almost to the point of being burnt. As you can imagine, it’s not rare to overdo it. Hence the demand of time and attention to make sure you do it right.

One alternative to the traditional oil-and-flour roux – an alternative that can side-step the fear of burning a roux – is to make a dry roux in the oven. For a dry roux, you slowly roast flour in the oven, stirring regularly to prevent burning. Another benefit of a dry roux is that you can store any leftover roux in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for months.

As I mentioned, a roux is a mixture of equal parts oil and flour. In simple terms, the method involves “frying” the flour in the oil until it is like dark chocolate. But, you might be wondering, “What kind of oil?” That, my friend, is an excellent question!

I would venture to say that most rouxs are made with vegetable oil. I base that on the fact that most cookbook recipes call for vegetable oil. Why? Because vegetable oil has a relatively high smoke point, meaning that it can take a lot of heat before it burns. Olive oil has a low smoke point, so you wouldn’t want to use it to make a roux. But vegetable oil is not the only option when it comes to making a roux. I have also used butter, coconut oil, duck fat, goose fat, and chicken fat. Each works well, and each lends a different flavor to the finished dish.

And, yes, it’s even possible to make a gluten-free roux.

TIP #2

When it comes to gumbo, you should put your stock in stock.

Water is nice. Experts say that we should drink 8 glasses a day. But when it comes to making gumbo, I think it is better to start with something that has more flavor. If you’ve never made a gumbo using stock before, then you are going to be amazed at the results.

I make stock regularly. Usually at least weekly. Mostly chicken stock. But I also like to make beef stock and seafood stock too… when I have beef bones or seafood shells on hand.

And using stock makes all the difference in soups and gumbos.

I only use stainless steel pots to make stocks. I find that aluminum pots give off a funny metallic taste that I can do without.

TIP #3

Your gumbo is only as good as the ingredients you put into it.

This shouldn’t have to be said. But, unfortunately, in our day and age when convenience reigns over quality and corners are frequently cut, it has to be said. Ingredients matter.

You’ve probably heard the expression “garbage in, garbage out.” The same can be said when it comes to ingredients. Poor quality ingredients always lead to poor quality food.

When I cook, I try use to the best ingredients I can afford. That means buying Vidalia onions when I can, and spending the extra time to locate fresh garlic instead of the old dried-out garlic that most grocery stores tend to stock. It means spending the time to actually chop the trinity by hand, and, when possible, to use fresh ingredients over canned or boxed. [In Cajun and Creole cooking, the trinity refers to onions, celery, and bell pepper.]

Speaking of fresh ingredients, I need to say a word about the difference between Cajun and Creole gumbos… because the difference is in the ingredients. As a matter of fact, I wrote a whole article on those differences between Cajun and Creole cooking a few months back. You can read it by clicking here: Louisiana Cooking: Cajun or Creole?

In simplistic terms you can boil it down to one ingredient: tomatoes. There are other differences, of course. But this one sticks out as obvious.

Louisiana Cajun vs Creole

TIP #4

Maximize the flavor of your meats and seafood.

Gumbo is basically a type of soup or stew. Can’t you just throw the chicken, sausage, turkey or whatever other meat into the pot and boil it down? Sure. YOU can. But I won’t.

For Chicken & Andouille Gumbo, I roast my chickens in the oven while I work to get the rest of the gumbo going. I don’t add the chicken until shortly before serving. I don’t want the chicken to be overcooked, which will make it harder to chew. An added perk is that roasting the chickens yields crispy and delicious chicken skins that we can snack on while waiting to serve the gumbo. 😉

For Turkey & Andouille Gumbo, the turkey is already cooked. It was roasted on Thanksgiving day. If I make it any other time of the year, I still follow the same protocol. We eat on the turkey for a day or two, then make gumbo with the rest.

For any gumbo made with meat, I always degrease the andouille sausage by slicing it and frying it in a cast-iron pot. Not only does this method reduce the amount of grease going into the gumbo, but the slight charring of the andouille slices also increases the flavor of the gumbo.

I should probably state this outright, though it can be inferred from what I wrote above: I prefer to use bone-in chicken and turkey… even if I am deboning it when adding it to the pot. I find that boneless chicken tends to dry out when cooked. Cooking meat on the bone keeps it juicy.

For Shrimp & Okra Gumbo and for Seafood Gumbo, maximizing the flavor means simply this: put into the pot only what is necessary to serve. Shrimp and oysters are so delicate. If they are added to the pot and cooked for too long, they get overcooked and become tough and rubbery. I prefer to add only what is needed to serve the first round of bowls, and reserve the rest in the fridge. Shrimp and oysters take only a few minutes to cook. If people want seconds, they will only have to wait a few minutes… and their second bowl will be just as good as their first.

TIP #5

Gumbo in da pot? Then low and slow is best.

I have already mentioned that I prefer to use a stainless steel pot for stocks, soups, and gumbos. I find that aluminum pots give off a funny metallic taste. But I should also say that stainless steel does a better job at distributing heat than aluminum, which means that there is a greater chance of burning the contents of an aluminum pot than the contents of a stainless steel pot. Even with the stainless, I go with a heavy-bottomed pot. There are some folks I know who will use only cast-iron when making gumbo. I understand.

Another way to prevent burning the gumbo is to cook it slowly on low heat. The extra cook time allows the flavors to better marry. As a matter of fact, here’s a bit of old cultural wisdom: Gumbo is always better the second day. Another reason to make BIG pots of gumbo!

TIP #6

Don’t be afraid to taste and tweak as you geaux.

This is another tip that could remain unstated.

Below you will find my recipes for gumbo that I have published here at CatholicFoodie.com. But here is my advice to you: even if you are making my recipes, taste and tweak along the way to make them your own.

I often refer to a conversation I had with Marcelle Bienvenu about recipes back in 2009. At the time I was struggling with the decision to start writing recipes. It was a struggle because I generally did not cook according to a recipe. However, my listeners and readers were asking for recipes, and I didn’t really know how to proceed. That conversation with Marcelle gave me a sense of peace, and also a direction in which to approach recipes and recipe writing. Looking at CatholicFoodie.com you can see that I’ve been writing recipes ever since.

But that doesn’t mean that you have to make my recipes exactly as they are written. Make them your own. Cook according to your tastes. And enjoy!

TIP #7

Serve with style by serving like the locals do.

When we serve gumbo we always have plenty of hot sauce (Crystal Hot Sauce, Tabasco, or Louisiana Hot Sauce), chopped parsley, and green onions on hand. We put small dishes of parsley and green onions on the table in case anyone would like to top their bowls with a little extra. Depending on the type of gumbo we are serving, we will also have filé powder available. Filé is made from ground sassafras leaves. It adds an aromatic quality to the gumbo at the same time as it thickens it. Traditionally, filé is added to each individual bowl, not to the pot.

Bon appetit!

Below are some gumbo recipes that you find here at CatholicFoodie.com.

Gumbo Recipes from The Catholic Foodie

Authentic Chicken and Andouille Gumbo

Chicken & Andouille Gumbo This is the real deal, folks. This is authentic gumbo. This isn’t store-bought. This isn’t frozen. This isn’t pre-packaged. This is something you make with your own hands in your own kitchen in your own house. Or maybe at a friend’s house.

There’s nothing like the warm nuttiness of a roux pervading the rooms of a house in the late afternoon. Gumbo-making is a community event. Not only can everybody smell it, but you need a big pot to make it in.

I can still think back to my days as child of 7 or 8, and I can recall the smell of my mom making roux and the happiness that smell brought me. My mom used to make chicken and sausage gumbo regularly. Gumbo is a dish of smells. Roux. Sauteing onions, celery and bell pepper. Fresh garlic. And after all of those delicious smells comes yet another delicious smell: sausage cooking in a skillet (because you have to de-grease the sausage before adding it to the gumbo).

Turkey & Andouille Gumbo

Turkey and Andouille Gumbo

– A few years ago I came across a recipe by Emeril Lagasse for a turkey-bone gumbo. You can find it in Louisiana Real and Rustic, a cookbook he co-authored with my friend Marcelle Bienvenu. The first time I made it, I knew I had found a winner. I also knew that my concept of what we are cooking for Thanksgiving dinner had taken a different tact. Ever since the first time I made Emeril’s Turkey Bone Gumbo, I can honestly say that the only reason we do turkey on Thanksgiving is to get the carcass for a turkey stock, and to get the turkey meat for this gumbo.

We save the seafood gumbo for special occasions is that it is so expensive to make. But now I think I have found a variation of seafood gumbo that I can make more often. It’s a Louisiana favorite: Shrimp & Okra Gumbo.

Shrimp & Okra Gumbo –  Seafood gumbo is reserved for special occasions, like Christmas. One reason that we save the seafood gumbo for special occasions is that it is so expensive to make. But I have found a variation of seafood gumbo that I can make more often. It’s a Louisiana favorite: Shrimp & Okra Gumbo. It’s still more expensive than chicken & andouille, but it’s not too expensive. I am frequently able to pick up some fresh Gulf shrimp for $4.99 to 6.99 / pound. Not bad.

Seafood Gumbo and Grilled Oysters

Seafood Gumbo – Gumbo is a dish that remains ostensibly connected to the land (and water). Chickens, turkeys, pigs, quail, ducks, crabs, shrimp, and oysters all find their way into our gumbos. And it seems there’s a gumbo for just about every occasion: Chicken & Andouille Gumbo, Turkey & Andouille Gumbo… There’s even a vegetarian gumbo (for Lent!) called Gumbo Z-herbes. But, hands down, our favorite (and probably the one that most closely resembles the gumbos of 300 years ago) is Seafood Gumbo.

Seafood is plentiful in Louisiana. Traditionally, the R-months were considered oyster months: SeptembeR, OctobeR, NovembeR and DecembeR. Modern day refrigeration makes the R-month rule obsolete. However, the tradition remains and seafood, especially oysters, fit perfectly at the end of the December R-month.

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