By Julian Brunt
Gumbo is perhaps the most iconic dish of the Southern Gulf Coast, and I doubt anyone with knowledge of this Southern food culture would disagree. It is most often associated with Creole and Cajun cultures, but over the years, it has become so popular that it can be found almost anywhere.
I’m fond of saying gumbo isn’t a recipe, it’s an opinion. Recipes, techniques and even basic concepts vary so widely it is probably the most argued over Southern dish of all time, with heated debates raging over every aspect of gumbo making, from the Holy Trinity to the roux.
So, where did this iconic dish come from? Many people think its origins are in French bouillabaisse, the famous seafood stew from Marseille. I have been telling the story of the lonely Frenchman from Marseille who invented gumbo for years, although I cannot speak to the veracity of the story. Then again, if it is a good story, it doesn't matter, does it?
The story goes like this: this Frenchman lived on the Louisiana Coast and was homesick for his father's bouillabaisse. His father was a fisherman, and after selling the day’s catch, what was leftover was turned into a stew for the hungry fisherman and crew on the beach, bouillabaisse. Our Frenchman did the best he could to replicate his father's recipe with what he could find, but there certainly wasn't any fennel, and he didn't recognize any of the local fish, but what resulted was the prototype of modern gumbo. Good story, right?
In fact, gumbo came to us from many places besides Marseille’s vaunted bouillabaisse. It came to us from Africa and the okra that slaves brought with them into bondage. Ki ngombo is the term for okra in the Central Bantu dialect of West Africa. The dried sassafras leaves that were once popular to use as a thickener in gumbo came from the Native Americans that sold it in the French Market in New Orleans. The Holy Trinity, a combination of onion, bell pepper and celery, is related to not only the French mirepoix, but also the Spanish sofrito. So, our beloved gumbo is truly an international dish.
Let’s get on to actually learning how to make a good gumbo. It is a daunting recipe to many cooks, but if you take your time, one step at a time, and never, never take any shortcuts, you will do just fine. So, what are the basics? It’s pretty simple, the Holy Trinity (onions, bell pepper and celery), a good stock, sausage, sometimes chicken, seafood of your choice and the booger bear to so many, a good dark roux.
Let’s start with the roux, which is of course French. The French have four types of roux, white, blond, brown and dark brown, but a gumbo roux is far darker than the French dark brown. When I teach a gumbo class, I tell the class that if they want to learn how to make a gumbo roux, make a roux and burn it. Now back up three or four minutes, and you will have it just right.
The vegetables are pretty simple: just chop and sauté, but I like to cook them for at least 20 minutes. I want them to almost disappear—the flavor is intensified the longer you cook them. Think of the difference between a lightly sautéed onion and an onion fit for French onion soup. It really is a big deal.
The stock is perhaps the only place where a tiny shortcut can be made. Buy commercial chicken stock, roast 4 to 6 chicken thighs, de-bone them and add the bones to the stock, along with any vegetable trimmings you might have, now simmer for an hour. I like to season my stock simply with Tony Chachere's Creole Seasoning and red pepper flakes.
The combination of protein is up to you, but I use Conecuh sausage, roasted chicken thighs and shrimp. I also like duck and oysters in a gumbo. But gumbo really is a leftover kind of recipe, and you can make a good gumbo out of almost anything you have on hand. I have heard stories that the poor folks that lived in Biloxi's Point Cadet, the old seafood district, used hot dogs when there was nothing else to use. But I do not recommend it.
Just as in the making of the stock, my basic seasonings for gumbo are Tony Chachere's and red pepper flakes. One point that I think is important, season as you go. Always taste before and after seasoning, never season all at once. Let the gumbo develop slowly, nurture it lovingly and the results will be just as lovely.
Two more tips: this is a one-pot dish. Everything is cooked in the same pot, and the drippings are never wiped out but will add to the depth and flavor of the gumbo. Oil is not only a lubricant but also an ingredient. Use a good quality olive oil in some quantity, and it will make a difference.
Here is the basic recipe:
1 1/2 cups Conecuh sausage, sliced
2 bell peppers, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
2 cups rice
4 cups chicken stock
Chicken stock to cover, maybe 6 cups
1-pound large, peeled shrimp
Equal parts of oil and flour (less than a cup)
Tony's seasoning and red pepper flakes
Sauté the sausage in a little oil until well browned. Remove and set aside.
Add the shrimp and cook over high heat in small batches for just one minute. The point is to give the shrimp a little color, not cook them through. Remove and set aside.
Add the vegetables and more oil if necessary and cook for 20 minutes.
Separately, season the chicken with salt and pepper and roast at 375 F until well browned. Remove, cool and de-bone. Set the meat aside. Add the chicken stock to the bones and skin leftover in the pot and simmer for an hour.
In a cast-iron skillet, add the oil and flour, combine well. It will start out lumpy but gradually smooth out. Keep a good eye on the roux, and do not let it burn, stir often. (It will slowly start to take on color, and when it starts to smell nutty, you know you are getting close. Stir, stir, stir at the end. If it darkens too quickly, take it off the stove. If you need to cool it down quickly, place the pot on a tile counter or the floor. It will draw off some of the heat.) When the roux is almost done, take it off the stove, it will continue to cook for a while.
Add the stock to the vegetables, bring to a simmer. Taste and season as necessary. Carefully add the roux, it will spatter and bubble. Stir and simmer for 10 minutes.
Add the sausage and chicken, simmer for about 30 minutes.
While the gumbo simmers, steam the rice and stock for 20 minutes. Fluff as soon as it is ready. Add the shrimp just before the gumbo is served.
Notes: If you are a garlic fan, toast the dry rice in garlic butter, then steam per usual. It is delicious! I told you this was an opinion, not a recipe! Use as many local ingredients as you can. I like Two Brooks Farm rice from my friend Mike Wagner’s farm in the Mississippi Delta. Buy your vegetables at a farmer’s market, and buy the freshest shrimp that you can find.