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, also 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, that was adapted and remade 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 and or 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 – 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. In New Orleans, one can buy buckets of pre-made roux in shops and supermarkets.
To complicate things, 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, expelled by the British), without tomatoes. Both Cajun and Creole styles of cooking use a trinity of celery, onions and sweet peppers, when garlic is used, it becomes a holy trinity. It seems to me that a trinity made with sweet peppers comes from Spanish cuisine, because a French mirepoix normally contains carrots instead.
To make a prawn stock, twist the heads off the bodies, pull out the black vein that runs down the spine (it’s easy, most of the time, to grab when the head comes off) and peel off the shells. Keep the prawns in the fridge after peeling.
Prawn Stock recipe:
the heads and shells from 1lb (500g) prawns (or shrimp)
1 small onion (chopped)
1 stick celery (chopped)
6 cloves garlic (finely chopped)
juice of a lemon
2 bay leaves
a few sprigs thyme
a squirt anchovy paste
a few black peppercorns
salt (to taste)
1 pint of water
Bring to a simmer, scoop off any foam, put the lid on and cook gently for 30 minutes. Adjust the seasoning, allow to cool and strain into a jug. Don’t add the salt (to taste) until the stock is cooked.
Venison and Prawn Filé Gumbo recipe (serves 4):
600g venison (cut into bite sized pieces)
500g andouille sausage (sliced)
500g raw prawns (or shrimps)
1 large onion (chopped)
1 green pepper (chopped)
1 red hot chilli pepper (deseeded and chopped)
2 sticks of celery (chopped)
5 tomatoes (grated)
6 pieces of garlic (finely chopped)
1/2 lb okra (sliced)
2 heaped teaspoons goose fat
1/2 cup of pork fat (from cooking a shoulder of pork)
extra virgin olive oil (as necessary)
1 cup of plain flour
1 pint of prawn 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 (I make a big jarful of this every year or so)
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 bay leaves
1 handful fresh coriander (finely chopped)
2 dessertspoonfuls of Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce
2 or 3 teaspoonfuls of Tabasco Sauce
a squirt of anchovy paste (to taste)
a splash or two of red wine vinegar (to taste)
First of all, rub the diced venison with Cajun Seasoning and an additional teaspoon of cayenne pepper. Cover the meat and leave in the fridge overnight so the spices permeate.
Take the venison out of the fridge 2 hours before cooking, so that it comes to room temperature. Using a large cast iron casserole, brown the meat in some olive oil. Do this in stages rather than crowding the meat. Remove the browned venison to a plate.
Next brown the sliced andouille and reserve.
Once the meat is done, add the pork fat and two heaped teaspoons of goose fat to the pan. Most types of fat will do – olive oil and butter are commonly used.
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’ll need to throw it away and start again! I do this on a hot flame and stir furiously for about 15 – 20 minutes. Initially, there’s very little change in colour, but when it does go, it can be quite quick – I am inclined to turn the heat down a little when this happens, to slow it down a bit. After a minute or two the flame goes back up again. This stage is hard work and requires a good arm and lots of concentration. A chocolate brown roux tastes biscuity, a bit like well cooked pastry.
Once you have a decent looking roux of the desired colour, turn off the heat for a few minutes before stirring in a holy trinity of onion, celery, pepper and garlic – with the gas back on low, cook for a few minutes.
I went Creole as opposed to Cajun, by grating in 5 tomatoes. Cut the tomatoes in half and grate the wet side until you are left with a disk of tomato skin in your hand. Dispose of the skin or save it for stock.
Sprinkle on the chopped coriander.
Return the venison to the pot with two bay leaves and pour on the prawn stock.
Cook the venison in the gumbo, with the lid on, for 90 minutes at 160ºC (ideally in the oven, but the hob will do).
Chop the okra and add it to the gumbo along with the andouille.
Adjust the seasoning and cook for a couple of hours more at 120º C.
Cook the rice and add the raw prawns to the gumbo 5 minutes before serving (while the rice is resting) and smother them with the sauce.
As soon as the prawns turn pink the gumbo is ready.
Ordinarily a gumbo made with okra (which has thickening properties when cooked) doesn’t need the addition of filé powder (which comes from grinding the leaves of the sassafras tree). However, okra is seasonal, so expect to find it used more often during summer and autumn (fall). Ground sassafras leaves also have thickening properties plus a subtle flavour, but should be added at the end of cooking, because over time (with heat), the texture becomes stringy. The French word filé actually means yarn or thready. So, if you expect to have gumbo leftovers, sprinkle a teaspoon into the bottom of your serving bowls (not the cooking vessel) and let the gumbo stand for a minute or two before eating. This way you achieve flavour and thickness without string. For the uninitiated, filé imparts a subtle sweetness reminiscent of flowers and it does taste very good with okra.
The traditional accompaniment to gumbo is rice, which can make the dish go further if unexpected guests arrive, as can more stock. Gumbo can be severed thick like stew or thin like soup. Sprinkle a little chopped coriander (or parsley) on top for presentation. I recommend drinking a glass or two of Marqués de Aldeanueva (a Tempranillo from the Rioja region in Spain), with the gumbo.
The smell of the roux had me salivating and then roux plus prawn stock was …heavenly! It’s the taste and smell of the roux and seasoning that makes a gumbo!