Story Time Recipe: Gumbo

Once upon a time, I decided I wanted to make Gumbo. I'd never had gumbo before, and I wanted to try it. So I looked up about 100 different recipes, and figured out what they all had in common:

  • Roux, especially a peanut butter roux
  • Mirepoix
  • Stock, mostly chicken stock
  • Spice
  • Andouille sausage (in most of them)
  • Shrimp (also in most but not all)
Well, I had no idea what half of that was. So I started asking questions. 

What is a roux? It's a thickening agent for sauces and soups. It's a mixture of equal parts fat and flour. You melt the fat and mix the flour into it slowly so as to avoid lumps. Works best if you sift the flour directly into the fat. You can use pretty much any fat, but lard, bacon grease and butter are preferred. All purpose flour is best, but gluten-free websites have other suggestions with good results and you can use whole wheat for some things but you may have to adjust your proportions and thickening expectancy. It is great for anything you want to have a creamy texture, and it is how I get a creamy tomato soup that's vegan. 

What the heck is a peanut butter roux if it doesn't have PB in it? White roux is when you get it all mixed together, and it comes to a bubble; it's still pretty runny and has quite a bit of a gritty, starchy texture and flavor. Blonde roux is when you cook it a little longer, stirring frequently, and toast that flour a little, so it looks like a nice blond ale or a buttercup yellow; it is sticky, but still kind of loose with a light starchy flavor to it. Peanut butter roux is about as sticky and the same color as peanut butter, doesn't feel too gritty and has a nice caramelized starch flavor rather than tasting like uncooked flour. A brown roux is cooked a bit further, to the point where you've almost burnt it but not quite. 

What is a mirepoix? In French cooking, a mirepoix is a mixture of onion, celery and carrots. Other international cuisines have different names for this mixture or a different mixture entirely, but the important thing is, it is the basis of almost any sauce and soup. Here's the kicker: Cajun and Creole cooking use the Holy Trinity instead, where the carrots have been subbed out for bell peppers. So for Gumbo, that's what you want to use. Mirepoix is typically half onion, half an even combination of the other two; for the Holy Trinity, just make sure the celery isn't overpowering the rest and you're not skimping on the onion, this does not have to be an exact science.

Ok but can I use boxed stock or bouillon cubes? Please, just don't. I've been known to use them in various things but whatever you do, absolutely don't use condensed soup mix or cubes or anything like like. Use boxed broth/stock if you must, or make it yourself which is actually really easy. But that is a post for another day.

So what is this Andouille? It's a spicy smoked pork sausage. You can get it in chicken, it's good too. It comes in various spicinesses, but (I'm committing blasphemy here) I used kielbasa the first time with great results and almost any similar smoked sausage would do.

Onto the recipe!
I will never forget that first day. It is ironed onto my brain. I was in the kitchen at 9am, and by 10am I'd gotten the stovetop fired up.

First I made stock: I took a whole chicken and I boiled it with some mirepoix and a sachet of herbs. When it had simmered a bit and the chicken was done (a couple hours), I took it out and carefully pulled the chicken off the bones. I put the bones back in the water and simmer that for another couple hours with the shells from the shrimp. I strained well and discarded the spent vegetables and bones.

Then I made my roux: It took me an hour of constant stirring over my cast iron pan on ridiculously low heat to get my peanut butter roux. I was terrified I would burn it, and I am ever so grateful for the experience. Now I'm confident that I understand the process that's happening, and I can get a peanut butter roux in a few minutes, or not stir so constantly.

I slowly added in my stock, hot though it was because at the time I didn't know it shouldn't have worked. I still do it wrong, and I've never had roux balls the way my culinary instructors insisted I should. As long as I add liquid to roux, I do just fine regardless of the temperatures.

Next I sautéed my holy trinity and added it to the soup with a bunch of seasonings that I couldn't possibly remember now. I sliced up my kielbasa and added it. I let that simmer for a few hours.

By now, people had heard what I was doing. We had neighbors coming by asking what the smell was. The security guard at the gate came by to say he could smell it from there, a quarter mile away. A friend  who grew up in New Orleans came by and I was more nervous to feed anyone than I had ever been up to that point or ever have been since. People were crowded into my living room, waiting. It was 9pm.

I started rice to cook in another pot, and when it was ready I turned the gumbo off and added the shrimp. My recipes said that if it cooked for more than a couple minutes it would become too tough, and to add it right at the end. It only cooked long enough for me to wash some bowls so we would have enough for everyone. We still didn't have enough bowls for everyone, and I told people they were going to have to share.

Our friend from New Orleans got the first bowl. Everyone waited with bated breath, waiting to see his reaction, waiting to see if this was the most horrible thing he'd ever tasted. I won't repeat here what he said because it would make my sailor uncle blush, but suffice it to say, he enjoyed it. We dished out the rest of the bowls, and there weren't enough for everyone. When someone finished a bowl they would refill it and hand it to someone who hadn't eaten yet. We called the security guard down to grab a bite to eat, and he took a bowl back to the guard shack with him to keep him warm on the cold wintery night.
That was the first time I'd ever cooked something completely from scratch. I was hooked. I knew this was my calling. I knew I wanted to spend my life as the mama in the kitchen slaving over a hot stove for hours to feed people a meal that would be gobbled up in minutes, the bowls and plates licked clean.

I can only hope my efforts to please my guests tomorrow are half as successful.


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