When I was young my Irish family didn’t really like much of anything spicy, so the first time I tasted gumbo my senses were reeling. Flavors from fifty different tastes burst in my mouth like an atom bomb of food. I thought it was just some thick soup like Grammy made that had been boiled down over a couple of days as she did.
NO! This was gumbo. Real… tasty… wonderful seafood gumbo.
The term gumbo is basically a translation for the word okra. Okra was used as a thickener for the stew. There is file’ gumbo, but I think it’s a sacrilege to use file’ although some people prefer it because they think boiled okra is slimy. Trust me, you won’t taste it as slimy if you do it right.
The really wonderful thing about any gumbo is you can make it your own. This is mine… all mine! I made five gallons of this for my wedding reception of about twenty people and we ran out in about forty-five minutes, and they were begging for more.
Be forewarned however, this is not a simple process, so unless you’re prepared to go all the way and do it right, don’t bother, because you won’t get the results you want. You can do simpler versions, no doubt, but I wouldn’t do that if you really want to make an impression. Do it right and you will have people bowing at your feet… well… if they like seafood gumbo, and seafood gumbo.
The spices are your choice, depending on how spicy you want it. Since I usually make a quantity and there are a numerous people who will be enjoying it, I make it spicy enough to taste good, but not so spicy it turns some people off. Part of the ingredients you will need are what I call the aftermarket spices. These are the spices people will use to “spice to taste”.
I have tried a number of recipes over the years, but this is one, in my very own personal opinion, that has been honed to perfection. I love this recipe, although it will vary some depending on the season because I want fresh seafood, but the basics must be followed. I’m really not kidding. If you get the basics right, the rest of this recipe is a guideline, although this makes for a great recipe on its own.
One final warning before I get into the recipe itself. This recipe is not cheap, and it is a recipe for FIVE GALLONS. You must do the math if you want to make a lesser amount. I use this recipe for parties. If there is some left over, I freeze it in small serving zippies that can be popped out and nuked in single servings.
There are several things that make for the cornucopia of flavors in this gumbo. The stock, the roux, and the slow process itself makes this gumbo base, and it’s important to take your time with this.
Let’s start with the stock. The stock is something that can be made and frozen if you are like most people and work for a living. If you can, however, start this process and work through it over a couple of days. You don’t have to freeze it either, but do keep it cold and it will last a few days easily.
So here we go. The stock is one of the first things you must make and pay a lot of attention to. Next is the roux, but this is a careful slow process and offers the most ability to make the taste flexible. Here are the ingredients:
The following items are added as suggestion only. Add to taste.
Start by skinning the chicken and cutting it into pieces no larger than four inches. Optimally, want the pieces about two inches, and with as much bone exposed as possible. Brown the pieces, preferably with olive oil in a skillet, or at 350 degrees in the oven. Twenty minutes usually does the job. Make sure you don’t burn the chicken. Brown it nicely to bring out the flavor, but remember you’ll be using this to make the stock, and the flavor of the chicken will be imparted to the stock.
Prepare yourself for the stock-cooking process. I recommend allotting four hours. You’ll know when the stock is ready because it will begin to clear. First, place the chicken in the stock pot and bring the water to a slow simmering boil. Keep a close eye on the stock, especially at the beginning, and skim the fat often as it develops. It is important you stay on top of this.
It’s also important you stir the stock, at the bare minimum. This turns out a more clear and full stock.
The stock flavor comes from this very long simmering process. You want to extract the most flavor you can from this stock. Slow and long like making love. The love you show at this stage will come back to you from the people you share your gumbo with, I assure you.
At this point fill some thick ziplocks with water and put them in your freezer. Make sure they are strong enough to ensure they won’t break. This will be important later.
I can’t tell you how it is important to do this on your own. Taking the quick way and buying the stock or using chicken bullion to make the stock is just not right.
Once the stock is right you can refrigerate and it will be like clear Jell-O. Since you’re probably making the stock one day and cooking the gumbo on another day, refrigeration is the way to go. Save the chicken if you haven’t made the stock before and aren’t sure it’s right. If you feel comfortable with the stock, go ahead and put the spices and vegetables in the stock and simmer for another thirty minutes to an hour.
First, throw in the veggies. Put the carrots in first and let them cook for a few minutes. Add the celery next and let it cook for a bit, and then the garlic and onion. Due to the consistency of each of the veggies, putting the thicker ones in earlier puts everything on an equal level.
Next, put the spices you want into either cheesecloth (appropriately sized) or a tea ball. At this point I usually add the peppercorns (a necessity), parsley, and your favorites on the list, in appropriate amounts as you desire. I personally like the tea ball. Just make sure it’s a big one. If you like the gumbo, you will definitely use it again.
So, here we go for another hour. Add the shrimp shells and heads about a half hour after the spices, and simmer for another hour.
Now it’s time to strain the stock. Ladle the stock into a second container through several layers of cheesecloth. This is another part that has to be carefully done. You have to make sure it gets to the refrigerator pretty quick since bacteria can develop quickly. There are two ways to do this.
Since it’s important to get the last vestiges of fat from the stock, you can either skim off the fat with a skimmer, and then soak the last parts of it with a few paper towels. This can be sped up by placing the container in a sink full of ice and carefully stirring, ensuring the hotter stock from the middle works its way out to the edges and cools evenly.
To assist in this, use the ice in the zippies. Place it in middle. This is why you have to ensure you use zippies that won’t break, otherwise it will dilute the stock.
Even if you choose to refrigerate, put the zippies in the stock. The fridge just won’t cool it quickly enough, and you don’t want to overwork your refrigerator and heat the rest of the food there.
Strain it thoroughly, cleaning and clearing it to the max. Once it cools, the fat will congeal and you can simply skim the fat with a spoon. This is the easiest way. If you’re going to use the stock right away though, this is not an option, and the skim/soak method must be used.
This makes about five quarts of stock in the end, so adjust the amount depending on how much you choose to make. Five quarts usually works best for five gallons since you will be adding tomato sauce and other fluids as you go. I’ve never had to make more than six quarts total. Six really is the best number.
Don’t throw away the chicken. Peel it from the bones and use it later in the gumbo.
Next comes the roux.
Okay, I am gonna have to warn you. Be careful here. This roux has been called everything from the killer flour, fireman’s nightmare, and Cajun napalm. If it spills on you it hurts, and I know this first hand and have the scar to prove it. Ask my ex-wife. She was there. It is a simple process as far as mental needs go, but it is another process that requires close attention. This is why I recommend making the stock one night and then making the roux the next. If you think frying bacon without a shirt on is dangerous and stupid, making this roux is worse.
This is a very simple recipe. Flour and oil.
A really heavy skillet works best since it holds heat better. Even a heavy electric skillet works well. A cast iron skillet is far and away the best. The important part here is constant stirring.
Start out with medium to medium-high heat. Heat the oil (1 cup) first so the flour (1¼ cup) will blend well. Don’t overheat the oil and never, ever, let it get so hot the roux burns, even slightly. If you see tiny specks of black that look like pepper during this process, dump it out and start over.
The color of the roux has a remarkable effect on the flavor of the gumbo. The roux is described as from blonde- to peanut butter-colored. The darker the roux, the deeper the flavor. Also the darker the roux, as weird as this sounds, the more you will need, not because of flavor, but because of thickness of the gumbo.
The starch in flour tends to thicken the overall gumbo, but since the longer you cook the roux, and the more brown it becomes, the more the starch is cooked away. A blonde roux, resembling more of a gold color, similar to potato chips or a Frito, tends to go further that a dark roux. The dark roux, which takes practice and/or patience, will come out a dark reddish color, almost like dark rust, and will start to smell like roasted coffee… a beautiful smell.
In the course of cooking your roux, you must keep on top of it. I really must stress this again. As you get to where you want the roux, slowly work the heat back. Once it gets close to where you want it, add spices and veggies such as nicely diced onions, peppers, and celery. Be creative and flavor to taste. Let it cook a least five minutes before it reaches the color you want, turn off the heat and let them cook. DO NOT STOP STIRRING. The skillet will hold heat and burn the roux and waste all your hard work. Stir until the roux is cool.
Now we’re ready to do the big thing. Let’s cook. The hard work is done, except for dicing and slicing the ingredients.
Let’s make gumbo:
I use a lot of stuff in my gumbo. I like the ingredients to blend and add to each other. I want a bowl of gumbo with rice to be a meal like no other. This list of ingredients is by no means definitive, but it will give you a great idea of how flexible you can be. There are several things you must have and I will denote them as I go. So here it is:
The sausages are non-negotiable but flexible. You may have the sausages in whatever flavor you like, but you must have sausages.
These last items are very, very flexible. You can use a lot or none. You know what you like, and you know the people you will be serving.
Final Hints and Instructions:
When you brown the chicken use the Creole seasoning, the Greek seasoning, and any other preferable seasoning you like. Brown the sausages with the chicken and steak. Slice the steak in cheesesteak-size strips.
Brown all the meat you’re gonna use at one time and drain and sop all the grease and fat.
Next, sauté onions and other various spices, along with bell peppers if you use them, and the celery. Add everything else after bringing to a boil, except for the corn, peas, and other items that logically take little time to cook, including the okra. Add the okra first, letting it cook for a bit, and then add the corn, etc. Lower to a simmer and just enjoy the smell as you stir. Do not let the gumbo stick, ever.
Here’s the fun part. Taste and adjust. Taste and adjust, and then, taste and adjust until you’re happy. Once you’re there, simmer another thirty minutes while stirring and making rice.
There’s a lot of work that goes into this recipe, but I swear it’s worth it. This is, after all, the best damn gumbo you will ever taste, and, in the end, you did it!