Sunday, September 19, 2010

My Tribe's Gumbo

All human behavior is tribal.  My children have had that axiom drilled into their heads since they were little.  The trick is identifying an individual’s tribe.  In most of the world, nationality and tribe are synonymous.  Here in the US we have this schizophrenia about our tribes, identifying ourselves as African American, Italian American, Mexican American, etc.  The truth is that most Americans spend a good deal of the lives looking for their identity.  A recent foray into my family tree revealed that much of what I had been told by my grandparents was elaborate fantasy designed to cover up family skeletons.  One place in the US that people know who they are and where they come from is Louisiana. 

It is true that there are many residents of New Orleans are of questionable background.  After all, the city’s most famous literary reference was a woman who created the ultimate fantasy biography. But we are not here to talk about Blanche DuBois.  We are here to talk about Gumbo.  The Cajun folk of Louisiana have an absolute confidence in everything they do.  It comes from knowing who they are.  Descended from French settlers driven out of Canada in the 18th century, the Arcadians settled in Louisiana and became Cajuns.  Cajun food (it seems unseemly to call it cuisine) is an interesting amalgam of the food of tribes out of favor with the ruling classes, Native Americans, slaves from Africa, & the Arcadians. 

It is said that a Camel is a horse made by a committee and so was Gumbo.  Everyone has their own version of Gumbo.  There really isn’t a definitive version.  The only common elements in all Gumbos are the Roux and the Trinity.  The former is French cooking taken to a tortuous level, equal parts of oil and flour are continuously stirred in a cast iron dutch oven or skillet until it reaches a color just shy of burnt.  The latter is the Arcadian version of the French mirepoix trio of onions, carrots, and celery with the Cajun version opting for bell pepper in lieu of carrots.  My version of Gumbo uses the Cajun Trinity, a trinity of meats, and a trinity of thickeners. 


  • ¼ cup vegetable oil (you can use bacon fat or lard, but don’t use olive oil)
  • 1 lb Andouille Sausage (you can use Kielbasa, I won’t tell) cut in half moon slices
  • 4 bone in chicken thighs
  • 1 medium onion (pronounced “un yawn”) diced
  • 2 ribs celery diced
  • 1 bell pepper diced
  • 1 tsp chopped garlic
  • ¼ cup flour
  • 6 cups chicken stock, heated to a simmer
  • 1 28 oz can crushed Roma tomatoes
  • 1 lb frozen sliced okra
  • 1-2 tbsp Cajun Seasoning (Use your favorite blend or make your own.  Emeril Lagasse’s recipe is below)
  • 24 medium shrimp, shelled & deveined
  • Parsley
  • Scallions
  • Tabasco Sauce
  • File (Fee’Lay) Powder
  1. Heat oil in heavy bottomed stew pot.  (You can use a cast iron skillet, but you will have to transfer to a stew pot when you add tomatoes.)
  2. Brown Sausage, remove from oil and reserve. 
  3. In the same oil brown chicken, remove from oil and reserve
  4. Add “Trinity” of onions, celery, & bell pepper, sauté until soft.
  5. Add garlic and sauté for one minute, remove from oil and reserve.
  6. Remove all the solids from oil using a slotted spoon or strainer.  Be careful it’s hot (see note)
  7. Sprinkle in flour and cook over medium heat, whisking continuously.  You can walk away for a few seconds, but you must not let the roux burn.  Cook until roux is a medium to medium dark brown.  The exact color is a matter of debate.   Emeril Lagasse recommends the roux be the color of milk chocolate, but most people can’t accomplish that without burning the roux.  I opt for something a little darker than peanut butter.
  8. Turn heat off.  Remember that roux will continue to cook, so keep stirring until mixture has cooled a little.
  9. After about five minutes, turn heat back on to medium, & start adding stock slowly. If roux starts to spatter, let it cool a little more.  (Careful, they call roux at this stage Cajun napalm!)
  10. After all the stock is incorporated, add the tomatoes, the okra, and seasonings (do NOT add the file yet) and stir.
  11. Add Chicken and Sausage back to the pot.
  12. Cook over medium heat for 40 minutes, taste and adjust seasoning.
  13. Add shrimp and cover and simmer for four to five minutes until shrimp are pink.
To serve, put a scoop of cooked rice in the center of a soup bowl, add one chicken thigh,  ladle Gumbo around rice, making sure to get a generous serving of the sausage, shrimp and vegetables with the soup.  Garnish with parsley & scallions.  Let each person sprinkle with file powder (the roux, okra, & file are the thickeners) and Tabasco to their taste.  Do not add file while cooking, you’ll be sorry.

Note: Here’s my own twist.  I’ve had you cook the sausage, chicken, and vegetables in the oil to flavor the oil, but now you have to be sure you have all the solid matter out of the oil.  I just fish out everything with a slotted spoon.  You can strain the oil, but that’s asking for a nasty burn.  You may want to cook your roux in fresh oil.  Lots of Cajuns make roux in batches and save in the fridge, adding it to the stock  to thicken.

Emeril's ESSENCE Creole Seasoning (also referred to as Bayou Blast)
  • 2 1/2 tbsp paprika
  • 2 tbsp salt
  • 2 tbsp garlic powder
  • 1 tbsp black pepper
  • 1 tbsp onion powder
  • 1 tbsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tbsp dried oregano
  • 1 tbsp dried thyme
Combine all ingredients thoroughly.

Yield: 2/3 cup

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