Mardi Gras is once again upon us. Folks are getting ready to whoop it up and let it all hang out down in New Orleans. The crews have built their floats, and there are millions of beads just waiting to be flung every which way up and down Bourbon Street. Mardi Gras in New Orleans is one of those Bucket List items that I have yet to cross off, but I can still celebrate here in Virginia as the cold arctic air brings temps down into the negative degrees and the snow flies.
I love New Orleans. I had the pleasure of visiting it way back in 2003. Four days in The Big Easy, walking the streets of The French Quarter and soaking in the thick air that permeates every pore of your body. You don’t just experience New Orleans, you feel it. Voodoo Priestesses, Jazz, the lazy roll of the Mississippi, and food so good you’ll think you died and went to heaven. So much amazing food! Po Boy’s, Muffelatta’s, Jambalaya, succulent seafood, and the official dish of Louisiana – Gumbo.
I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t have any gumbo when I visited New Orleans. In fact I’d never had it in my life until I made my first attempt at this iconic dish this weekend. And, good grief, how I’ve deprived myself years of sheer gastronomic joy! I’ve watched enough cooking shows to know that making gumbo is an art form, and an all day venture; two factors that have made me a little gun shy. But now I know that the time and effort is so totally worth it!
Before I began making it I did my research online, culling through recipes, going to food boards and seeing what folks did making their gumbo’s, and it started to get overwhelming. Like most stew dishes, every family seems to have their own way of making gumbo – no two are alike. There’s even debate over what items are truly essential for a good gumbo. The answer I came up with most often was roux. A dark, deep, rich roux, that gives gumbo it’s color, and a depth of flavor that simply can’t be created any other way.
Roux is basically equal parts fat and flour, cooked over high heat, while stirring constantly to ensure it doesn’t burn. The idea is to cook the flour to the point where it becomes either a deep dark caramel color, or a dark chocolate color. The fat can be oil, butter, or fat rendered from bacon or some other meat. Most common seems to be oil, so that’s the route I went down. It’s not for the faint of heart though. Oil on high heat, being stirred constantly can be dangerous. That’s why they call it Cajun Napalm! The trick is to just not get overzealous when you stir it, and be sure to use a long handled spoon or whisk.
Two other components that seem to be essential to a lot of gumbos are okra and filé powder (ground sassafras). They’re both thickeners. Personally okra freaks me out. I’ve heard way too many people talk about how slimy it is, so I’ve not yet plucked up the courage to try it. Plus, it’s not in season right now. As for the filé powder, I tried to find it, but it’s obviously not a item that’s commonly stocked in the supermarkets this far north. Roux was officially the key ingredient, and going to be my way to real gumbo.
There’s something magical about the smell of roux. As I said, I’ve never made it before, but I know I lived in New Orleans in a past life. The smell of it cooking on the stove was like home to me. Some part of my soul just knew that fragrance, and it brought such a feeling of comfort, and that deep sense of belonging somewhere long ago and far away that certain scents can have. There’s nothing like it!
One personal touch I added to this recipe was an addition that caught my eye on one of the food boards – Star Anise. I’m a big lover of pho, and when I saw this suggestion, I just knew it had to be part of my gumbo. Star Anise add such a wonderful subtle, singular, flavor that was truly a revelation in this dish. It’s not traditionally used, but I know I’ll never make it again without it.
Of course I decided at the last minute that I wanted something to accompany my gumbo, so I decided to give Hush Puppies a try, too. I know they’re usually served with seafood dishes, but since I don’t usually cook seafood (Roomie doesn’t eat it – full stop), I thought what the heck, it would be a nice addition. Didn’t hurt that I already had all the ingredients to make them in my pantry.
So I spent most of my Sunday in the kitchen, making a dish that I know (in spite of the aching back and sheer exhaustion after 5 hours of cooking) I’ll make again. It was a success that will be even better the next time I make it. I understand now why everyone says that gumbo is a dish made with love, because the work that goes into it is truly an expression of love. Isn’t that the key ingredient to all great cooking? Love.
I hope you give this dish a go and make it for someone you love. And if the opportunity ever presents itself, go to New Orleans and tell The Big Easy I say “Hi”. Laissez les bon temps rouler!
- 8 C. water
- 5 Tbs. vegetable oil, divided
- 1 whole chicken, cut up
- 1 lb. Andouille sausage, diced
- 5 bay leaves
- 5 parsley sprigs
- 5 garlic cloves
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 1 green bell pepper, diced
- 3 ribs celery, diced
- 3 tbs. minced garlic
- 2 whole star anise pods
- 3/4 c. vegetable oil
- 3/4 C. flour
- 3 Tbs. salt
- 1 tsp. ground black pepper
- 4 green onions, chopped
- 1/4 C. parsley, chopped
Hot cooked rice
- In a large pan cook the sausage over medium heat, stirring constantly, until browned. Remove the sausage from the pan to a bowl and set aside, covered with foil.
- Add 3 Tbs. vegetable oil to the pan you just removed the sausage from, and brown all the chicken. Cooking for approximately 5 minutes, just until you get color on all the chicken pieces.
- Place the browned chicken, bay leaves, parsley, star anise pods and garlic cloves in a large stock pot. Cover with 8 cups water. Bring the pot to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer. Cook for 1 hour.
- After removing chicken from the pan, add remaining 2 Tbs. of vegetable oil. Cook the celery, green peppers, onion and garlic in the pan just until translucent. Set aside.
- After 1 hour, remove the chicken from the pot to a bowl and allow to cool completely.
- Pour broth through a wire-mesh strainer into a large bowl, discarding solids. Pour the strained broth back into the stock pot.
- Add the sausage, sauteed vegetable mixture, and star anise to the pot. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 1 hour.
- Heat the 3/4 vegetable oil in a large skillet or high sided heavy pot on medium to medium-high heat. Gradually add flour, whisking constantly. Continue whisking until the flour is a dark caramel color (this is a light roux). This will take anywhere from 10-20 minutes. Just keep whisking and pay close attention to the color for doneness. If you would like a darker gumbo, cook the flour until it’s the color of dark chocolate.
- Remove the star anise pods from the pot and discard.
- Now slowly add the roux to the stockpot, whisking it to fully incorporate. It will sizzle a bit as you pour it in, since you’re introducing oil to water. Just be careful when pouring. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 1 hour.
- Take your chicken and remove all the meat from the bones and chop or shred the meat into nice bite size pieces.
- Add the chicken, salt and pepper to the stockpot. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes.
- Stir in the green onions and parsley, simmer for 10 minutes.
- Serve over hot rice.
- 1 C. yellow cornmeal
- 1/4 C. flour
- 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- 3/4 C. milk
- 1/2 C. corn
- Vegetable oil
- In a large bowl, combine the cornmeal, flour, baking powder and salt.
- In a separate bowl, whisk the egg, milk, and corn.
- Add the egg mixture to the dry ingredients until just combined.
- In a deep-fat fryer, or high-sided heavy pot, add your vegetable oil. It should be approximately 2-3 inches deep. Heat oil to 365 degrees, you will likely need to turn your burner all the way up to high to achieve the right temperature.
- Drop the batter by the tablespoonful, in small batches of four or five, into the hot oil. Fry for 2-2 1/2 minutes, flipping over half way through, until golden brown.
- With a large metal slotted spoon, remove from oil to drain on paper towels. Serve hot.
CHECK IT OUT: Be sure to read out my other great blog post for Beignets. I just can’t get enough of NOLA and it’s amazing cuisine!