There’s some things in my kitchen that have, for no real reason, become irrevocably linked with certain foods. Salads only get made in the big white bowl that was my first grown-up purchase for my first apartment. Banana bread is never to be baked in anything other than the blue glass loaf pan. The sangria pitcher is the sangria pitcher and the margarita pitcher is the margarita pitcher, and never the twain shall meet.
The purple Pyrex bowl serves double duty. It’s the official mixing bowl of brownie batter, and it’s the surest sign that there’s about to be gumbo in the house. Not for nothing, that bowl out on the counter is like a prophet of awesomeness.
I’ve been making gumbo from the same recipe for so long that I don’t remember where the recipe came from originally, and don’t even refer back to the scribbled list of ingredients on the piece of oil-splattered paper shoved in the back of my 1960’s-edition Joy Of Cooking. By and large, I make this dish from a combination of rote memory and eyeballing proportions, and trust my nose to make sure it all comes out right in the end.
I can’t promise that this is a particularly authentic recipe, but I do promise that it’s a pretty awesome recipe.
How it’s done:
Start with 2 onions – yellow, white, whichever. Chop ’em up, and don’t worry too much about making it pretty.
Add three bell peppers. Sometimes I’ll use all green, because for whatever arbitrary reason, they’re cheaper. When the pretty colors go on sale, though, I like to mix it up. Chop the peppers up, and again, don’t worry too much about making it pretty. Honestly, you couldn’t ugly these up if you tried.
Celery comes next. I generally try and make sure I have about the same amount of celery as I do peppers. Sometimes that’s 5 or 6 ribs. Last night, it ended up being 9. It’s possible I got slightly carried away because I like chopping celery. Really, nothing makes you feel more like a legitimate chef like a santoku and celery stalks.
In a separate bowl, combine 1 tablespoon of salt, 2 or 3 bay leaves, and a generous 1/2 teaspoon each of black pepper, white pepper, thyme, oregano, and cayenne pepper. It probably sounds like a lot of salt and a lot of heat, but trust me. The salt is necessary, and as for the cayenne…we have fancy extra-hot 60,000 Scoville-scaled cayenne pepper in my house and heap that spoonful without a second thought.
In yet another bowl, measure out 3/4 cups of flour, and in yet another other bowl, add three heaping teaspoons of chopped garlic.
All the bowls are for a reason: everything gets added at different times, and once you start cooking, there’s no time to pause for measuring or mixing. That’s because step one is making a roux, and bringing it perilously close to scorching without actually letting anything get burned.
If you’ve made cream-based sauces before, you’re familiar with the roux-making process. Sauces like that usually use butter, which has a much lower smoke point than the vegetable oil in this recipe. That means this roux can take a bit more heat, and be cooked much darker, much more safely, than a butter-based roux. However, it doesn’t have the nice, predictable seize-and-release that butter roux does, which makes it just as important, if not more so, to keep the whole mixture moving.
If you’ve never made a roux before, please just ignore everything I’ve said above, which probably makes the process mystical and somewhat daunting. It isn’t.
First, heat a pan over medium heat. Much like the bowl, I have a designated gumbo pot; it’s a 5 quart dutch oven. Any pan about that size will work, but if you have one with short, easily gripped handles, that’s the one you want to use.
Once the pan is hot, add 3/4 cup of vegetable oil. Heat it until you can see the heat shimmering on the oil’s surface, then dump in the flour. Whisk, whisk, and keep whisking some more, keeping the whole thing moving, and paying special attention to the areas directly over the heat element on the stove. It’s going to smell like hot oil for a while, and then kind of like popcorn. That’s normal, and if you get nervous, you can use the roux once it hits that popcorn-scented stage, but let it go a little longer if you can.
Dark roux has the best flavor, but does the weakest job of thickening the final gumbo. Light roux thickens like a champ, but it tends to be bland. I like to try and land somewhere between a rich caramel and a milk chocolate.
Once the roux is ready, dump the whole bowl of vegetables in on top of it. Do it quickly, but carefully – I’ve sustained a few burns being careless at this point. Switch from a whisk to the sturdiest wooden spoon you have, and stir and stir and stir til the vegetables are well-coated in the roux.
Cook for 5 or 6 minutes. Stir frequently, but not with the obsessive fervor you used during the roux-making. Things should be smelling pretty great right now. Be careful that you don’t drool into the pan. Add the bowl of seasonings, and the bowl of garlic, and cook for another 3 or 4 minutes, stirring frequently.
If you put your nose over the pot and suddenly have a really good idea of what heaven smells like, you’re doing great.
Add 5 cups of liquid, and stir well, washing down the sides of the pan while you’re at it. If you’re trying go easy on the sodium, stock is going to suit you better than broth. I use broth, myself. Use beef, chicken, seafood, or vegetable stock or broth – it really doesn’t matter. Mix a few together if you’ve got oddball partial cans or cartons on hand. I usually use home made chicken stock if I have it, or store-bought beef broth if I don’t.
Bring the liquid up to a simmer; leave it there for 10 minutes or so, then add sausage or chicken. I almost always use sausage, and vacillate between using legitimate andouille and Johnsonville beef hot links. Honestly? Minimal difference in the final product. I do recommend pan-searing andouille before using it, though; it doesn’t really retain its texture well otherwise. If you’re not interested in using sausage, chicken works well at this stage. However you do it, just make sure you’re adding something like a pound of it.
Leave the whole mess on a simmer, stirring occasionally if you happen to be in the vicinity, for about 30 minutes, then turn off the heat and add a 1/2 teaspoon or so of file powder and a pound of peeled, tail-free, deveined shrimp. If you don’t like shrimp, you can always just add more chicken or sausage, but I strongly recommend you seek professional help, because seriously who doesn’t like shrimp.
As soon as the shrimp is done, you’re ready to eat. Serve over rice, and sprinkled with a more file powder. Leave plenty of room in your bowl to mix things around in, and to justify going back for seconds.
Happy and blissfully literal Fat Tuesday, everyone!