There aren’t many culinary delights more southern than gumbo. Mother used to cook gumbo. Southern gumbo, very thick and stew-like containing most anything, especially okra. Okra gumbo. Only after moving to Louisiana did I learn how different gumbo is throughout the south and even within the bayou state, from parish to parish, restaurant to restaurant, family to family and cook to cook.
Cajun vs. Creole
Visitors to the bayou state might be surprised to learn that New Orleans is technically not a part of Cajun country. The bayous and lowlands of southern Louisiana were settled by the French, while New Orleans was inhabited by immigrants from diverse cultures. This geographical distinction is evident in cooking styles with New Orleans having additional influences beyond the traditional French, most notably Spanish, Caribbean, and African. This pot of mixed cultures resulted in a cultural gumbo called Creole. The Creole culture is what made New Orleans a singularly unique city that gave rise to a cooking style and was reflected in the new musical genre called Jazz, both hot and sassy. Even though time has blurred cooking styles and terminology, Cajun and Creole cooking really are different.
One big difference between Cajun and Creole cooking is the use of cayenne pepper. Most Cajun dishes are NOT excessively hot! Before Cajun cooking became so popular, Creole cooking was the hotter of the two. Out in the heart of Cajun country, away from New Orleans, the dishes cooked and seasoned in the homes of most Louisiana natives are very nicely balanced. Sure, people season and spice to taste and some like it hotter than others, but rarely have I ever eaten anything that in any way resembles the typical “Cajun” dish found in many restaurants that is nothing more than a piece of meat covered in cayenne pepper and burned on both sides. Anyway, this history lesson has finally arrived at the point, what you get in a restaurant in New Orleans is not necessarily “Cajun,” including gumbo.
First You Make a Roux
A roux is nothing more than flour cooked in some sort of fat. It provides flavor and thickening to dishes that require it. In southern gumbo like mom used to make, the roux is made with butter and flour and not cooked long, just long enough to cook the raw flour taste out but not long enough to burn the butter. She also didn’t use much roux because she thickened her gumbo with okra. This resulted in a very light roux and lightly colored gumbo.
Gumbo made in most Cajun homes is much different. It is a cold weather staple. In the rest of the country cold weather is “chili weather,” but in Louisiana, it’s “gumbo weather.” This gumbo is not as thick as typical southern gumbo; it is less stew like and more a thick soup served over rice, but much darker. That darkness comes from the roux being cooked longer.
To get a Cajun style dark roux you can’t use fats that burn at lower temperatures like butter or olive oil. My preferred vegetable oil for a dark roux is canola. The classic roux flour/oil mixture is 1/1. However, you can make a successful roux with less oil. I use 2/3 cup oil to 1 cup flour and have used as little as ½ cup of oil. Using the 1 to 1 mixture or using less oil depends on how you plan to cook the roux.
Iron Pot vs. Microwave
This brings us to the old black iron Dutch oven verses the newfangled microwave roux discussion. A purist would say the only way to make a roux is with 1 to 1 flour and oil in a big black iron pot cooked slowly for about 45 minutes and stirred constantly with a flat tipped cypress spatula. I’ve made many a roux like this. The color is the important final factor in determining doneness. Long before the roux is dark enough, the oil and flour will smoke (if too much, the heat is too high) and smell like it is burning. That’s ok, just turn on the exhaust fan. But DON’T stop at the first smell of cooking flour or the end result will be flour soup, YUK (made a couple pots myself). As an old Cajun once said, “When you think it’s done, cook it some more.” However, there is a fine line between done and overcooking the roux. The only thing worse for a gumbo than undercooked roux is a burned roux. Color is the key. The best descriptions I have for a finished, Cajun-style roux are a DARK COPPER PENNY or the color of LIGHT MILK CHOCOLATE.
When making the roux the traditional way, the 1 to 1 mixture is best because you are going to add the holy trinity of Cajun cooking (bell pepper, celery and onion) to the roux as it is finishing BEFORE adding the water.
Or, you can shorten the roux making time considerably with the microwave. Trust me, an old fat Cajun cook from Lafayette showed me how. Many people start their roux in the microwave and finish it in the pot with the trinity. If so, you might want to still use the 1 to 1 mixture. I use the lesser oil ratio because I fully cook my roux in the microwave while I start the bell pepper, celery and onions cooking with the sausage so I don’t need as much oil to cook the vegetables. Purist might balk at the change in cooking order, but I swear if it all gets cooked in the same pot it really comes out tasting the same.
1 cup plain or all-purpose flour
2/3 cup canola oil
Combine oil and flour and whisk smooth in a 1 quart PYREX (heat/cooking approved) measuring cup with a handle and pouring spout on the lip. Start on high for 5 minutes. Take out and stir. USE HOT PAD to handle…it gets very hot! Continue cooking at 1-minute intervals, stirring in between. Depending on the power of your microwave, after a very few minutes it will quickly start to darken. Usually I will shorten the cook/stir intervals down to 30 seconds as it finishes. Make sure to stir each time and cook until the color resembles a DARK COPPER PENNY or the color of LIGHT MILK CHOCOLATE. Again, if you want to finish it in the pot, take out a little sooner because it will darken some as the trinity cooks.
Even with shortened microwave cooking time it will smell like it is burning as it cooks…DON’T STOP EARLY…stop when the color is right.
To Okra or Not To Okra
Gumbo gets its name from a native African word meaning okra. My mother always puts okra in her gumbo. I know some Cajuns that never put it in theirs and turn their noses up to gumbo containing okra. Their gumbo is not as thick and contains no other vegetables other than the bell pepper, celery and onion. I personally like a little okra so I put a bag of gumbo vegetables (not soup vegetables) from the store in mine. It contains a small amount of okra. Suit your taste.
A word on file powder (pronounced fee-lay). File is ground sassafras leaves and you can take it or leave it as far as I’m concerned. It is rather tasteless, but the Choctaw Indians were using it in Louisiana before the Cajuns got there and Hank did sing about it. Some put it in the pot but most offer it as an additional condiment at the table. But if you ain’t got it or can’t get it, don’t sweat it.
Gotta Have Sausage
Chicken and sausage gumbo is the staple of most Cajun households. The meat can be substituted to taste but even seafood gumbo has some sort of sausage in it. My most favorite Cajun smoked sausage is Savoy’s. I prefer the mild so I can control the spiciness and I have to feed children. But many like to use the hotter links to kick theirs up a notch. I also don’t care for Italian sausage in my gumbo, there’s something about the taste of fennel and confusing French and Italian cultures that just ain’t right. Most lean smoked sausages are fine in gumbo and it does not have to be expensive andouille. There are those that will also season with a little ham or tasso. I prefer to save my ham for beans and rice, but suit your taste. Just remember to cut down on the salt if you add a salted product. Also, if I made a good hunt, I’ll add some duck or goose pieces to mine.
Fresh Chicken Please
I cook a whole, cut-up chicken in my gumbo. The easy thing to do is serve it as is and let everyone fight over what chicken pieces they get when they serve themselves, but I usually take the pieces out after they are done, let them cool some, de-skin, de-bone, cut them up and add them back to the pot for serving. To save money, and I like the taste, sometimes I will use a fresh pack of thighs only.
One final chicken thing, leave the frozen skinless tasteless chicken pieces for some other dish and use fresh chicken in your gumbo. It will always taste better. And yes, I’m fat and as concerned about the fat content in stuff as the next fat person, but I cook the chicken in my gumbo with the skin on, the way God intended chicken to be cooked. My mom will take the skin off and cook the chicken ahead of time in one pot, and she’ll cook the sausage in a different pot and drain off the juice. This is too much trouble and you lose too much flavor! Cook it all in one pot. After the water is added and you cook it for a couple of hours most of the fat from the meat cooks to the top where it can be skimmed off.
Well, if you’ve never cooked a gumbo try this to get you started and you can call it your own recipe after making your second successful roux.
Basic Chicken and Sausage Gumbo
1 cup flour
2/3 cup canola oil
1 cup diced or chopped bell pepper
1 cup diced or chopped chopped celery
1 cup diced or chopped onion
2 lbs. smoked sausage (cut into ~1/4” bite sized pieces)
½ to 2 tablespoons Tony Chachere’s Cajun seasoning (original with salt, the green can)
1.5 to 2 quarts water
1 whole cut-up chicken (fresh)
1 16 oz. bag gumbo vegetables
Optional: Gumbo file (ground sassafras leaves)
Start the sausage and trinity in an uncovered 12-quart stockpot on medium high. Sprinkle Tony’s in to taste (if no Tony’s, salt, black and cayenne peppers to taste). I use very little, probably a level tablespoon at most for this recipe. The fresh ingredients provide practically enough flavors alone so don’t let the seasonings get in the way of the natural flavors! When using Tony’s, I use it until the dish tastes salty enough and then the other seasonings it contains are balanced for me. Be careful, the heat will sneak up on you. Cook until sausage is browned and vegetables are caramelized. While sausage and trinity are cooking, combine the oil and flour following the above instructions and make a roux. When sausage/trinity and roux are done (I like to almost blacken the sausage and stop just short of burning the trinity (I hate crunchy things in my gumbo), pour roux into pot. Add chicken and gumbo vegetables and cover with water, about 2 quarts (adjust per taste and thickness preferences), cover, bring to boil and then simmer until chicken is done, ~1.5 to 2 hours. Later uncover, check seasonings and adjust to taste. If needed leave uncovered to reduce water, but remember it will be served with rice. Take chicken out as soon as it is cooked, cool, de-skin, de-bone, cut up into bite size pieces and return to pot. Don’t forget to skim the fat off the top.
Quick Lower-Fat Gumbo
I know that for some of you the idea of cooking chicken with the skin is totally gross. Running the risk of having my Cajun Country visa revoked, I am also going to give you a quick lower-fat gumbo recipe. I do believe the old school method I described gives the most authentic flavor but I’ve made this recipe several times and it is quite tasty. Please use fresh chicken, but go ahead and remove the skin, trim the fat and cut into 1” cubes for this recipe. It amounts to nothing less than roux blasphemy but we are also going to take a shortcut with the roux. The flour will be cooked with the sausage and onion and the dark gumbo color will come from browning sauce.
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup all-purpose flour
2 lbs. cubed chicken breast (~3 large breasts skinned and trimmed)
1 lb. lean sausage or andouille
1lb. de-veined and peeled shrimp*
1 large onion diced or chopped
1 16oz bag gumbo vegetables (corn, okra, bell pepper, celery, onion)
1 10oz can diced tomatos*
1 32oz box of low sodium chicken broth
½ to 2 tablespoons Tony’s (or other Cajun or Creole) seasoning
1 tsp low-sodium Worchestershire sauce
2 tsp Kitchen Bouquet browning sauce
Heat stock pot on medium high with olive oil, add sausage and onion. After sausage and onion start to brown, sprinkle flour in and cook 2 more minutes; add gumbo vegetables, creole seasoning and stir well. Add broth slowly while stirring, bring to boil. Reduce heat to simmer and add chicken, Worchestershire, browning sauce, tomatos* and shrimp*. Cook ~25 to 30 minutes or until chicken is done.
Serve It Up
Large flat soup bowls make nice gumbo bowls. In Cajun country more often than not you’ll be served gumbo in a vegetable-service bowl. Of course it is served with rice, cooked separately. There are two kinds of people, those that like a little gumbo with their rice and those that like a little rice with their gumbo. Personally, I’m in the latter category. If you are serving guests, it makes a nice presentation to plate the gumbo and use an ice cream server to place a nice round dollop of rice in the center of the gumbo, sprinkled with a little file powder. Or better yet, let them serve themselves from the kitchen while you start on your bowl.