It occurs to me that I write often about the foods and drinks of New Orleans. I’m not sure why the city and its food has left such an indelible mark on me. I only spent about 6 months living there, while doing a culinary internship, but there is something about the food of that city that has made a lasting impression. The city is proud of its culinary heritage, a meld of Old World and New. The cuisine is a true American invention, a blend of cuisines from France, Spain, Africa, and the Caribbean along with the bounty of New World food stuffs. I think this is what has captured…and kept my interest for so long. I know of no other cuisine that draws from so many diverse cultures, blends those influences together, and creates something that is so wholly new, yet still reminiscent of each cuisine it has drawn from.
One of my favorite dishes, from New Orleans and Cajun folk who settled in the area, is Gumbo. A combination of European and African technique, along with the foods of Africa and the New World, this soup is the apex of that melding of so many cuisines and cultures, in my opinion. In fact, the word gumbo, itself comes from Africa and is an African word for okra, a traditional thickener used in the soup.
Gumbos come in a wide variety of styles, some containing only seafood for the protein, some containing chicken and andouille (sausage), while others contain all three, and some, eaten during lent are completely meatless. Some contain tomatoes while others do not. The creole versions tend to use a lightly browned roux, while Cajun versions use a very dark roux that adds an incredible depth of flavor to the dish. Traditionally okra or file powder (ground sassafras leaves) were used as the main thickener, though traditionally cooks always used one or the other, never both. Seafood gumbos were usually thickened with okra while chicken and sausage gumbos were thickened with file. This had more to do with timing than any great culinary revelation. Okra was available during the summer when one could go crabbing and shrimping. In winter, when okra was not available file was used, a time when chicken and sausages were easier to come by then seafood.
The version I offer up below, is a Cajun style gumbo using shrimp, chicken and andouille sausage. It’s a rich, and hearty soup but not overly thick so while it will warm you up in winter it is not too heavy to enjoy in summer. In other words it makes a great meal year round. Ladle it into a bowl as is, or spoon it over rice for a more “stick to your ribs” meal.
1 pound shrimp (2 pounds if you can get head on shrimp)
8 cups water
1 cup vegetable oil
1 1/4 cups flour
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 medium onions, peeled and chopped
1 pound chicken breasts, boneless and skinless, diced
1 pound andouille sausage (if you can’t find andouille a spicy smoked sausage such as kielbasa will do)
2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
1/2 tsp. granulated garlic
1/2 pound okra, sliced
Peel the shrimp, removing the tails also. Place the shells, tail, and heads (if you got head on shrimp) into a pot and cover with the water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, in a large pot, heat the oil over medium high heat. Add the flour to make a roux. Stirring almost constantly cook the roux until it is dark brown.
Do not allow the roux to burn or the gumbo will taste bitter and burnt. Also, they don’t call dark roux “Cajun napalm” for no reason. This stuff is HOT and it sticks like crazy. Getting this stuff on you burns like crazy so be careful! Once you have achieved the color above add the vegetables and cook 5 minutes longer.
Strain the shrimp shells from the stock you just made and add the stock to the pot, discarding the shells. Add the chicken, sausage and seasonings, adding salt to taste. Bring gumbo to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes. Add the okra and cook 15 minutes longer. If the shrimp are large cut them into bite sized pieces, if they are small just add them as is along with the hot sauce to taste (gumbo should have a little kick to it, but it shouldn’t be overly spicy). Allow to cook a few minutes longer, just until the shrimp are cooked through, then serve.