Friday, February 8, 2013

A Gumbo for Mardi Gras

                                                “I’m going to make a chicken gumbo
                                                       Toss some sausage in the pot
                                                     I’m going to flavor it with okra
                                                   Cayenne pepper to make it hot…”*

A Gumbo for Mardi Gras
(listening: Wynton Marsalis Quartet: “Live at Blues Alley”, disc two

Is it a cliché to think of New Orleans at the beginning of Lent? They are, after all, known for the largest celebration in the country to usher in the beginning of the Easter season; a symbolic last night of excess before what is traditionally seen as a time of doing with less.
Gumbo, just one of the many foods synonymous with New Orleans, is a stew born out of the necessity to eat and using what was on hand. In her excellent book, “High on the Hog,” author/food historian Jessica Harris reveals that the roots of word “gumbo” can be traced to the Bantu language where okra, often a key gumbo component, is known as ochingombo or guingombo. Gumbo as we know it today has had a long journey with many hands stirring and seasoning the pot along the way.
That said, there is no okra in this recipe, unless you want to add it. I like okra, but not when its, shall we say, “gooey” qualities come out. This is only one approach to making a gumbo. If you’ve never made one, this one will get you started; from here you can stir the pot your own way.
I use andouille sausage, which is now easier to find outside of Louisiana, as well as chicken and shrimp. This recipe will easily feed six. Easily. Expand the recipe and you could feed a small gathering, which begs the question: why isn’t a gumbo made more often than the ubiquitous pot of chili that always seems to appear at social gatherings?
Well, no matter. We’re eating well with this, my friends.
Vegetarian friends can stir the pot in their own way. (This includes any of you who might be distantly related to Cajuns).  Perhaps it could use  vegetarian-friendly “sausage” with plenty of vegetables and spices.
Should gumbo not be your Fat Tuesday choice, locally we celebrate “Fastnacht” Day ("what-what day?"). Fastnacht, or “Fast Night” is the Pennsylvania German tradition of feasting the night before Lent begins and here it is symbolically represented with special doughnuts called fastnachts.  I look at it as a win-win situation.

And always serve gumbo with rice.

This gumbo, like many others, begins with a roux; it can be made in advance and refrigerated until needed.  (Even that “Bam” guy says making roux ahead of time is fine).

6 Tablespoons vegetable oil, such as canola                                  
6 Tablespoons flour

1. Place a saucepan over medium heat. Add the oil and whisk in the flour.
 Cook the roux for 15 to 20 minutes, watching and adjusting the temperature so that the roux slowly browns to a chocolate color. Whisk throughout.
You’ll be able to notice the color changes as well as smell the differences; first there will be the smell of raw flour, replaced by
 a more toasted smell. Think popcorn.
Remove the finished roux from heat and continue whisking; the roux will continue to cook off the heat; you might be surprised how much darker it will get as it sits off of the heat. Store the cooled roux in a covered container in the refrigerator if not using it right away. The roux will keep for several weeks.


1 large onion, diced
1 red or green bell pepper, diced
2 ribs celery, diced
2 to 3 cloves garlic, chopped
6 ounces andouille sausage, sliced
One 28 ounce can whole tomatoes, crushed by hand
1 cup water
1 ½ cups chicken broth or water
About 12 fresh thyme sprigs, tied with string
2 or 3 bay leaves
¼ cup chopped flat leaf parsley
½ cup roux
about 1 pound chicken, white or dark meat, diced
½ pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
olive oil, for cooking
salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Place a large Dutch oven (4 quart size) over medium heat. Swirl in 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil. Add the onion, pepper, and celery to the pot, stir, and season lightly with salt. Reduce the heat and cover to sweat the vegetables for about 5 minutes.
2. Uncover the pot, raise the heat, add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
3. Add the andouille sausage and stir. Cook for another 4 to 5 minutes to release the flavors of the sausage.
4. Add the crushed tomatoes to the pot; rinse out the can with 1 cup water, adding it to the pot.. Add the additional chicken broth or water; season with some salt, about a teaspoon, and ground black pepper. You can also add some red chili flakes or cayenne pepper if you want your gumbo spicy; this all depends on the spiciness of the sausage. Add the thyme, bay leaves, and chopped parsley.
5. Stir in ½ cup of the prepared roux until evenly incorporated.
6. Add the chicken. Raise the heat until the gumbo begins to simmer. Adjust the heat so that the gumbo simmers gently, for about an hour to an hour and a half. Stir occasionally during cooking.
7. Before serving, taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary. Add the shrimp to the gumbo and cook for a final five minutes. Remove the bay leaves before serving.

* from “So Beautiful or So What,”  lyrics by Paul Simon

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