May 26th, 2014
I’ve been watching Tremé (probably 3 years later than most people), an American drama series showing the people of New Orleans, dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Alongside the rebuilding, every episode is full of food and music, so when I got to the sequence where they hold the first Mardi Gras carnival after the storm, I needed to eat some gumbo too!
First of all though, there are two types of cooking in Louisiana – Creole (from the original French and Spanish colonists in New Orleans), containing tomatoes and Cajun (from the Cajun people of South Louisiana who were originally French colonists of Canada, who’d been expelled by the British), without tomatoes. Both Cajun and Creole styles of cooking use a trinity of celery, onions and sweet peppers for flavour. When garlic is used, it becomes a holy trinity.
Gumbo is a type of stew which originated in Louisiana around the early part of the eighteenth century and comes from a mixture of cultures. The name itself comes from the African word for okra – ngombo or quingombo (used to thicken the stew), but a filé gumbo contains ground sassafras leaves instead, as a thickener and flavouring (originally used by the indigenous Choctaw Indians).
Gumbos can be made with most meats, (especially wild ones) including alligator, chicken, duck, rabbit, squirrel, turkey, veal, or, seafood like crab, crawfish, oysters, shrimp, etc. Meat combinations and seafood combinations are common, but it’s unusual to have meat and seafood mixed together. However, both should contain andouille, originally a French smoked pork sausage, but adapted and made by German settlers to Louisiana. If you can’t find an American andouille in the UK, smoked Polish sausage (from most supermarkets) would be the best alternative.
Gumbo should start with a roux – normally fat/oil cooked with flour to create a thickener in traditional French cuisine, but in Louisiana this is cooked further until it takes a toasted chocolate colour. Okra and filé can be added later for flavour and thickness – some combine the two but most use either or. There’s also some debate over which oil or fat to use – any of the following are acceptable: butter, lard, chicken fat, goose fat, olive oil, groundnut oil, etc.
Chicken Gumbo recipe (serves 3 people):
3lb chicken (jointed)
1 andouille sausage (sliced)
1 onion (chopped)
1 green pepper (finely chopped)
2 sticks of celery (finely chopped)
6 pieces of garlic (finely chopped)
1/2 lb okra (stalks removed and sliced widthways)
1 cup of olive oil (or other oil/fat)
1 cup of plain flour
2 pints of chicken stock
2 dessertspoonfuls Cajun seasoning: 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 teaspoon ground black pepper, 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, 1 teaspoon garlic powder, 1 teaspoon of onion powder, 1 teaspoon mustard powder, 1 teaspoon dried oregano, a pinch of fennel seeds and 2 teaspoons pimentón de la Vera (picante) – all mixed together
3 bay leaves
2 teaspoonfuls of cayenne pepper
2 dessertspoonfuls of Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce
2 or 3 teaspoonfuls of Tabasco Sauce
Joint the chicken and put it in a plastic bag with a couple of tablespoonfuls of Cajun Seasoning and two teaspoonfuls of cayenne pepper for a few hours, or overnight in the fridge. The longer you leave it the better it tastes. When ready, bring the chicken to room temperature and brown in the oil or fat, in a large cast iron casserole (in several batches as necessary). When browned, remove the chicken to a plate.
Scrape the bottom of the casserole to loosen any caramelised chicken, then added the remaining oil or fat. Stir the flour into the hot oil – to make a good Cajun style roux, you will need to keep stirring or it will burn. If it burns you will need to throw it away and start again! Either stir slowly on a medium heat for up to an hour to get a good chocolate colour, or use a whisk on a high heat – I’m good at roux and can achieve the above on a high heat in about 20 minutes. I cannot stress enough, that the stirring must be non-stop. By browning the roux you achieve a deep nutty, slightly bitter flavour. This is something best done to your own personal taste. The dark roux reminds me a little of a Mexican molé – a dark unsweetened sauce made of cocoa. While cooking, if the roux is too thick, slowly add more oil/fat, if it’s too wet, sprinkle in a bit more flour.
Once you have achieved a roux of the desired colour, stir in the holy trinity of onion, celery, pepper and garlic. Cook this for a few minutes before slowly pouring in the chicken stock. When the stock starts to bubble add the chicken, the Worcestershire Sauce and the bay leaves (I noticed that while my gumbo isn’t made with filé, bay leaves are actually of the same family as sassafras – Lauraceae). Put the lid on the casserole and place it in a preheated oven at 150º C for about 90 minutes. I imagine this originated over an open fire, but I do appreciate the non stick cooking achieved with a cast iron casserole in the oven.
After an hour and a half, remove the chicken and allow it to cool before removing the skin and bones. Slice it into chunks before returning it to the pot with the okra, sliced andouille sausage and a couple of splashes of Tabasco sauce. Have a taste and adjust the seasoning. Put the casserole back into the oven for another couple of hours at 120º C.
When done, adjust the seasoning again before serving with a couple of spoonfuls of rice and a Dixie beer or even a Sazerac. Make sure you play some music by BeauSoleil, Buckwheat Zydeco, Dr. John, The Meters, The Neville Brothers, Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint, The Wild Tchoupitoulas, etc., to set the mood. I sprinkled a little smoked pimentón over the top of my rice to give it a hot smokey flavour.
Gumbo is considered to be an economical dish which can easily be stretched to feed an unexpected dinner guest or two – serving it with rice certainly makes it go further. It’s often an accompaniment to Louisiana dance parties known as fais-do-do (French for go to sleep). Outside of New Orleans, in Arcadiana, Cajuns hold a gumbo hunt (courir de Mardi Gras) on Shrove Tuesday – participants go from house to house asking for gumbo ingredients which are cooked as a group feast at the end of the day.
I don’t often use Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce, prefering to create my own savoury flavours from red wine vinegar, anchovy paste, etc. However, I used it here as a nod to Justin Wilson, Cajun chef and humourist.