After our recent and first trip to New Orleans in February (post and photos here) I become enamored with two New Orleans' chefs. I've been cooking/blogging up a storm from their cookbooks, My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh, and Real Cajun: Rustic Home Cooking from Donald Link's Louisiana. After enjoying two fabulous pots of gumbo with our friends and family, I decided to challenge the Daring Cooks to to prepare, and share with their friends and family, one of John Besh's amazing gumbos.
As a Louisiana native, Besh describes gumbo as “the footprint of who we are and where we come from – a cultural stew. Africans gave us their word for okra, kingombo; Native Americans dried and powdered their sassafras leaves to make the thickener called filé; the French brought us their fat and flour base called roux; the Spanish, their sofrito, comprising what we call the holy trinity: onion, celery, and bell peppers. Croatians added oysters and shrimp; the Italians, a little tomato. Germans brought their andouille sausage, and the Caribbeans, their bright spices. And still today newcomers will leave their imprint on our beloved gumbo, and we’ll all be better for it.”
I provided two recipes for the challenge: Drew’s Chicken & Smoked Sausage Gumbo and Seafood Gumbo. I also provided the recipes for the Chicken and Seafood Stocks, Basic Creole Spices, and Louisiana Rice, all from My New Orleans: The Cookbook.
“John Besh is a chef and native son dedicated to the culinary riches of southern Louisiana. At each of his six acclaimed restaurants (August, Besh Steak, Lüke, La Provence, American Sector, and Domenica) as well as in his entrepreneurial pursuits, his first cookbook, My New Orleans, and his public activities, he celebrates the bounty and traditions of the region. A former U.S. Marine, Besh has been honored by Food & Wine ("Top 10 Best New Chefs in America;") Gourmet Magazine ("Guide to America’s Best Restaurants;") Food Arts (Silver Spoon Award;) and the James Beard Foundation (Best Chef – Southeast.) John Besh is a frequent guest chef on NBC’s Today Show, and has appeared on top programs on The Food Network and the Sundance Channel.” Bio from Restaurant August.
I provided some background on gumbo, and its essential components, and a few personal notes about my experience in preparing the two gumbos...
Roux. Crucial to the gumbo is the roux. According to Besh, there are other thickeners besides flour for making their roux, but only a flour-based roux yields that traditional flavor. As for the fats in a roux, just about anything works. Rendered duck fat, chicken fat, or lard is preferred, but canola oil works nearly as well. Use a 1:1 ratio of flour to fat/oil. Heat the oil first and whisk the flour into the hot oil. This speeds up the process and yields a deep, dark chocolate-colored gumbo. Always add the onions first to the dark roux, holding back the rest of the vegetables until the onion caramelizes. Otherwise, the water in the vegetables will keep the onion from browning and releasing its sweet juices. Chef Link stresses that it’s essential to whisk the roux constantly as it cooks (but not so vigorously that you splatter the roux and burn yourself), because if even a small bit of flour sticks to the pot, it will become spotty, scorch quickly, and burn the entire roux. Also, Link advises against using a wooden spoon to stir the roux, until after the onions are added. A whisk allows the roux to pass through it and reduces the possibility of splashing, as well as getting into the sides of the pan.
Holy Trinity. As a culinary term, Wikipedia tells us the holy trinity originally refers specifically to chopped onions, bell peppers (capsicums), and celery, combined in a rough ratio of 1:2:3 and used as the staple base for much of the cooking in the Cajun and Louisiana Creole regional cuisines of the state of Louisiana, USA. The preparation of classic Cajun/Creole dishes such étouffée, gumbo, and jambalaya all start from the base of this holy trinity. Similar combinations of vegetables are known as mirepoix in French cooking, refogado in Portuguese, soffritto in Italian, and sofrito in Spanish. While a "trinity" may refer to a generic representation of three cornerstone ingredients of a particular national cuisine, a trio of specific ingredients combined together to become essentially flavor bases, much like its original usage within Louisiana cuisine, are also called "trinities". This is often created by sautéing a combination of any three (or at least, the primary three ingredients in a more complex base) aromatic vegetables, condiments, seasonings, herbs, or spices.
Okra. These delicately ridged and tapered green pods, sometimes called Ladies’ fingers, are a member of the mallow family and are bursting with tiny seeds as well as the glutinous compounds that make okra such a natural thickener for soups and gumbos. When buying okra, look for smaller, greener spears. I was able to find fresh okra at Whole Foods. Good frozen okra will also work fine, especially if it’s pre-sliced. In addition to adding it to both gumbos, I deep-fried some okra for garnish on top of the Seafood Gumbo (sliced into ½ inch (15mm) thick slices, dipped in buttermilk, dusted in a mixture of equal parts cornmeal and flour, fried a few minutes until golden, and seasoned with Creole Spices).
Filé powder. Besh tells us filé has been a vital ingredient in Creole gumbo since the mid-1800s, when Choctaw Indians traveled in from communities on Lake Pontchartrain to sell it at the New Orleans French Market, along with bay leaves and handmade baskets. The Choctaws make filé by drying, then finely pounding, the leaves of the sassafras tree into a powder, then passing it through a hair sieve. The leaves, in the form of filé powder, contribute a unique and spicy note to gumbo. Originally, filé was used to thicken the stew when okra was not available, but he likes to use both. He cooks the okra in the gumbo and adds a couple dashes of filé, too, at the end. He also likes to pass filé at the table as a seasoning. The word comes from the French word filer, meaning, “to spin thread,” which is a warning not to add filé while the gumbo is still boiling, as it has a tendency to turn stringy. See link under Additional Information, below, for making your own filé.
Chicken. Drew’s Chicken & Smoked Sausage Gumbo calls for a whole chicken, cut up into ten pieces. The bones and skin obviously add vital flavor throughout the cooking, especially if you’re using canned broth rather than homemade stock. However, once the chicken was cooked and the meat was ready to fall off the bone, after about 45-60 minutes, I removed the chicken from the gumbo, took the meat off the bones, and discarded the skin and bones. I then tore the chicken into bite-size pieces and returned it to the pot for the remaining 30 minutes. This was a personal preference, and mainly because some of the smaller bones were about to break loose into the gumbo and also because the chicken didn’t really brown well initially when put into the pot with the roux and onions. If you want to leave chicken pieces in the gumbo for serving, bones and all, I would suggest browning the chicken in a separate pot before adding it to the onion-roux mixture.
Shellfish. Gumbo crabs are small blue crabs that have been cleaned and halved or quartered. They are served in the shell, and you pick out the meat as you eat the gumbo. They’re available frozen, usually in 1-pound packages. Ask your fishmonger to get you some if you can’t find them in your grocery, or you can order them online. Fresh or pasteurized lump crabmeat is a reasonable alternative. Do not use shredded or imitation crabmeat. Like the chicken bones in the Chicken and Smoked Sausage Gumbo, these add flavor to the gumbo. I omitted the gumbo crabs and used the 8 ounces (225 grams) of lump crabmeat at the end, plus a few more shrimp (prawns) and oysters. Watch your timing when adding the shellfish at the end to avoid overcooking (add no more than 15 minutes prior to serving the gumbo)!
Sausage. Drew’s Chicken & Smoked Sausage Gumbo calls for 2 pounds (1 kilogram) spicy smoked sausage, cut into slices, and 6 ounces (175 grams) andouille sausage, chopped. I’m not sure what type of spicy smoked sausage to recommend. The andouille we found was pretty spicy, and we also used some Hot Louisiana-Brand Smoked Sausage we found at Whole Foods.
The rest of the Challenge was presented to my fellow Daring Cooks as follows:
Mandatory Items: Prepare a pot of gumbo, using one of the recipes provided, a variation thereof, or any other gumbo recipe you find that tickles your fancy.
Variations allowed: Although I strongly encourage you to try one of the two recipes as written, if they meet with your dietary restrictions and preferences, these recipes can be varied in many ways. The Chicken & Smoked Sausage Gumbo can be varied by using duck or quail and/or other types of sausages. You can vary the Seafood Gumbo with different fish or shellfish combinations. The Seafood Gumbo recipe does contain sausage, but you can easily omit it. You are encouraged, but not required, to make your own chicken or shrimp stock for superior flavor. You are also encouraged, but not required, to make your own Creole Spice Blend. Under Additional Information, at the very bottom, I have included links to a few other gumbo recipes, including a vegetarian Gumbo Z'herbes recipe, but have not prepared these recipes. I have also included a few other links to interesting/informational articles.
Preparation time: If you choose to prepare the homemade stock, the chicken stock requires about 2 hours cooking time. In order to prepare the shrimp stock, it will take about one hour to peel and devein 4 pounds (2 kilograms) of shrimp (prawns) to obtain the heads and shells used in the stock, and then the stock requires 45 minutes to 1 hour cooking time. Once the chicken stock is prepared, total preparation and cooking time for the Chicken & Smoked Gumbo is estimated at 2 hours and 45 minutes. Preparation and cooking time for the Seafood Gumbo is estimated at 2 hours. Preparing the homemade Creole Spices takes about 15 minutes. Preparation and cooking time for the rice is estimated at 30 minutes.
• Large Stockpot (8-quart) (about 8 liters) for making homemade stock
• Fine sieve for straining stock
• Large cast-iron or heavy-bottomed pot for cooking the gumbo (8 quart) (about 8 liters)
• Wire whisk and wooden spoon for stirring the roux
• Medium saucepan, with lid, for rice
Drew’s Chicken & Smoked Sausage Gumbo
Minimally adapted from My New Orleans: The Cookbook
1 cup rendered chicken fat, duck fat, or canola oil
1 cup flour
2 large onions, diced
1 chicken (3 ½ to 4 lbs.), cut into 10 pieces
2 tablespoons Basic Creole Spices (recipe follows), or store-bought Creole spice blend
2 pounds spicy smoked sausage, sliced ½ inch (15mm) thick
2 stalks celery, diced
2 green bell peppers (capsicum), seeded and diced
1 tomato, seeded and chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
Leaves from 2 sprigs of fresh thyme
3 quarts Basic Chicken Stock (recipe follows), or canned chicken stock
2 bay leaves
6 ounces andouille sausage, chopped
2 cups sliced fresh okra, ½ -inch thick slices (or frozen, if fresh is not available)
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Filé powder, to taste
Tabasco, to taste
4-6 cups cooked Basic Louisiana White Rice (recipe follows)
1. Prepare homemade Chicken Stock, if using (recipe below).
2. Prepare homemade Basic Creole Spices, if using (recipe below).
3. Season the chicken pieces with about 2 tablespoons of the Creole Spices while you prepare the vegetables.
4. Make sure all of your vegetables are cut, diced, chopped, minced and ready to go before beginning the roux. You must stand at the stove and stir the roux continuously to prevent it from burning.
5. In a large cast-iron or heavy-bottomed pan, heat the chicken fat, duck fat, or canola oil over high heat. Whisk the flour into the hot oil – it will start to sizzle. Reduce the heat to moderate, and continue whisking until the roux becomes deep brown in color, about 15 minutes.
6. Add the onions. Switch to a wooden spoon and stir the onions into the roux. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Continue stirring until the roux becomes a glossy dark brown, about 10 minutes.
7. Add the chicken to the pot; raise the heat to moderate, and cook, turning the pieces until slightly browned, about 10 minutes.
8. Add the sliced smoked sausage and stir for about a minute.
9. Add the celery, bell peppers, tomato, and garlic, and continue stirring for about 3 minutes.
10. Add the thyme, chicken stock, and bay leaves. Bring the gumbo to a boil, stirring occasionally.
11. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Stir occasionally, skimming off the fat from the surface of the gumbo every so often.
12. Add the chopped andouille, okra, and Worcestershire. Season with salt and pepper, several dashes of filé powder, and Tabasco, all to taste.
13. Simmer for another 45 minutes, continuing to skim the fat from the surface of the gumbo. Remove the bay leaves and serve in bowls over rice. Pass more filé powder at the table if desired.
Basic Chicken Stock
From My New Orleans: The Cookbook
(Original recipe quantities doubled to yield 3 quarts needed for Drew’s Chicken & Smoked Sausage Gumbo)
½-cup (120 ml) canola oil (or other vegetable oil)
2 onions, coarsely chopped
2 stalks celery, coarsely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 leeks, white part only, coarsely chopped
8 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
2 pounds (1 kilogram) leftover roasted chicken bones and carcasses
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 teaspoons (10 ml) (5 gm) black peppercorns (about 1 teaspoon ground pepper)
6 quarts (5½ liters) water
1. Heat the canola oil in a large stockpot over moderate heat. Add the onions, celery, carrots, leeks, and garlic. Stir often, until vegetables are soft but not brown, about 3 minutes.
2. Add the chicken bones and carcasses, the bay leaves, thyme, peppercorns, and water. Increase the heat to high and bring to a boil. Immediately reduce the heat to low and gently simmer, uncovered, skimming any foam that rises to the surface, until the stock has reduced by half, about 2 hours.
3. Strain through a fine sieve into a clean container. Allow the stock to cool, cover and refrigerate, then skim off the fat. Use immediately, for freeze for later use.
Basic Louisiana White Rice
From My New Orleans: The Cookbook
Servings: About 4 cups
1 tablespoon chicken fat, extra-virgin olive oil, or butter
1 small onion, minced
1½ cups Louisiana (or another long-grain white rice)
3 cups Basic Chicken Stock
1 bay leaf
1-2 pinches salt
1. Put the fat, oil, or butter and the onions into a medium saucepan and sweat the onions over moderate heat until they are translucent, about 5 minutes.
2. Pour the rice into the pan and stir for 2 minutes.
3. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil.
4. Add the bay leaf and salt.
5. Cover the pan with a lid, reduce the heat to low, and cook for 18 minutes.
6. Remove the pan from the heat, fluff the rice with a fork, and serve.
Basic Creole Spices
From My New Orleans: The Cookbook
Makes ½ cup
2 tablespoons celery salt
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 tablespoon coarse sea salt
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon ground allspice
Mix together all spices in a bowl. Transfer the spices to a clean container with a tight-fitting lid. Store up to six months.
Gumbo Storage/Freezing Information: Store gumbo in the refrigerator for up to three days and then reheat gently before serving. As with many stews and braises, gumbo tastes better the second day. You can also freeze it for up to eight months. Simply transfer to freezer-safe containers.
Additional Information and Recipe Links:
Gumbo, Wikipedia article
The Besh Gumbo Ever
Vegetarian Gumbo Z'herbes recipe
New Orleans, Wikipedia article
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
Louisiana Creole Cuisine, Wikipedia article
Cajun Cuisine, Wikipedia article
Homemade Filé Powder
What an incredible experience, introducing gumbo to many of our Daring Cooks! Please visit The Daring Kitchen's Recipe Archive where you can download a PDF copy of the complete challenge, and the Daring Cooks' Blogroll, where you can access all of our Daring Cooks' websites to see the creative spins they've put on their own gumbos!
Please click here for Seafood Gumbo, the second recipe I provided for the Challenge.
I made the Chicken and Smoked Sausage and Seafood Gumbos before I announced my challenge, but I couldn't just sit back and watch all of the incredible gumbos coming out of the Daring Cooks' kitchens, posted in the members' only forum, during the course of the challenge. So, for Easter, I made Momma Rochelle's Stuffed Quail Gumbo. You can find the recipe, here. My only word of advice on this one - be sure you buy semi-boneless quail, and don't believe the butcher when he promises that's what the package contains!