Seafood Gumbo, by L

Since the weather’s starting to cool down over here (I had to wear a scarf today – a SCARF!), I’ve started hankering after the autumnal foods of my childhood. Among them is gumbo, particularly seafood gumbo.

Now, even in the South, there are all sorts of things are sitting on menus masquerading as gumbo and I am here to tell you the truth!

… Just kidding. Actually it’s not unheard of for gumbo to comprise of whatever’s at hand. Traditionally there are two types: Cajun, which has a darker base, is spicier, and can contain fowl or sausage as well as seafood; and Creole, which typically focuses on seafood, adds tomatoes, and tends to be less spicy and lighter. Variations have sprung from there. Ultimately, though, gumbo is a  thick stew with either seafood/shellfish, ham, sausage or poultry (hardly ever any other pork or beef), and the ‘Cajun Holy Trinity’ of green bellpepper, onion, and celery (though the latter was hardly used in Creole gumbo prior to the 1950s). A sure-fire identifier is whatever forms the stew’s base and/or thickens it: file’ powder, roux (fat and flour), or okra, and sometimes combinations thereof. It is designed to feed a crowd, and thus is often served over rice.

The name ‘gumbo’ itself is a possible evolution from either the Choctaw kombo (for file’) or ki ngombo / quingombo / ochinggômbo / chinggômbô (Bantu, Umbundu and Tshiluba, respectively) for okra. Hardly surprising, considering the variety of cuisines gumbo has evolved from – elements have been brought from Spain, France and the Acadians (such as its similarity to bouillabaise), Africa, Native American, and a bit of German and Italian for good measure. Louisiana itself is a melting-pot, and gumbo typifies this culture.

My recipe was my paternal grandmother’s, given to me through my mother on one of her recipe cards. This grandmother, Marylene, is the sister of the Great-Aunt Nonie from whom came the Country Chili. Mom used to make it with real lump crabmeat sometimes, and fresh shrimp always, that she got by the pound from a man in a blue pick-up on the side of Hwy61, in front of the feed store across from the Myrtles. I remember craning my neck to see into the sink while she was cleaning and de-veining them, and finding the fact that they were gray very strange. my job was to keep shooing the cats off the counter.

We didn’t have this dish very often, but it was one that made an impression on me and was one of the first things I cooked, ever. It’s been a favorite ever since, and was one of the first meals C and I cooked together (long-distance over webcam, no less!).

Note: the photos taken show a gumbo more soup-like than usual, as I have left out celery, okra, and crab. Slightly sacrilegious, particularly omiting okra.

You will need:

  • Large pot with lid
  • Can opener. BBOCK and chopping board.
  • TWS, whisk, measuring cup, ladle.
  • Possibly a colander if you’ve got frozen shrimp to thaw.

Serves a small crowd (at least eight good bowlfuls) if done for just one meal, but between one/two or when served with rice, can stretch it out for longer. Takes about half an hour to forty-five minutes of prep (roux, veg prep), half an hour to forty-five minutes of cooking/simmering time. If you make the base ahead of time, instead of going all the way to the end of the recipe, the base can keep in the fridge for up to a week, or up to a month frozen.

Ingredients (according to my mother / Grandma Marylene, with [my notes]):

  • For the roux: one cup oil [I use extra virgin light olive], one cup multipurpose white flour.
  • Two cups chopped onion, one cup chopped celery, one cup chopped green bellpepper. [I frequently omit celery, not liking it that much.]
  • Two crushed cloves garlic [I am a garlic fiend, so I often add more]
  • One regular can plain chopped tomatoes
  • Roughly two pounds of chopped okra
  • Two pounds medium shrimp, tail-off, peeled and de-veined [I also use the smaller shrimp, and always tend to buy the frozen, already cooked version]
  • One to two pounds crabmeat. [Can also use less, and can use the fake fishsticks / surimi crabmeat, but use less if the latter, because these tend to have lots of added sugar that will really taint the gumbo flavor. Other seafood or fish fillets can be substituted for all or part.]
  • One pint of oysters (optional)
  • Four cups water
  • One bay leaf, 2tsp salt, 1tsp thyme, 1/2tsp black pepper, sploosh equally of Tobasco and Worcestershire sauces. [I also add some cayenne for a kick.]

Great accompaniments: Traditionally served over rice, but a crusty bread will also work since this is basically a stew. I find often that I’ll eat it by itself, since all the veg and seafood bulk it up. You will probably want to add some of this when you plate up:

(Actually, no – you MUST.)

Method:

The Roux

In your pot over low to medium heat, whisk 1 cup flour and 1 cup oil until smooth. Cook, stirring often, about 45mins or until roux turns ‘the color of cocoa’. You’ll want to leave it one to two minutes between stirrings to give the flour a chance to darken, but keep an eye on it and you should only increase the temperature VERY CAREFULLY if at all. You don’t want the roux to burn.

My roux goes from an olive oil yellow to a dark taupe – not quite cocoa, since I don’t like it to provide too overpowering of a taste and prefer my gumbo to be thicker in consistency (see bottom, notes on thickeners). And that’s the crucial thing; your roux will determine how rich your gumbo tastes – or how burnt. Be careful.

The Base –

  1. Stir into the roux your onion, celery, bellpepper and garlic. Cook for ten minutes more, or more if you want a softer consistency overall. I prefer my veg to be firmer, so I’ll only cook them for five minutes or however long it takes me to get my spices together for the next step. Also, because this tends to be a meal I reheat through the week for myself, this allows for the veg to get cooked more in the microwave and still resemble vegetables, i.e. – not disintegrate entirely.
  2. Add the tomatoes, okra and your spices. Stir well, cook for 30mins to help everything get married in there.

Base without water.

At this point, remember, you can choose to keep the base you’ve just created up to four days in the fridge, or up to a month in the freezer, which is what makes this dish awesome. Again, it’s one of those foods that tastes better the next day.

When you’re ready to eat: add the four cups of water, or more if you want your gumbo thinner. Stir well. (If you’re bringing this out of the freezer, obviously thaw your base out first.) Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium. Taste-test and adjust seasoning.

Base with water.

The Fun Stuff

Add your shrimp, crabmeat, and any other fishy things you’re planning on throwing in there. (If you’re using frozen shrimp, make sure they’re thawed first. See the PepperPea Shrimp recipe for advised thawing method.) Stir, and simmer for fifteen minutes or until your seafood is cooked. Discard the bayleaf, then adjust your seasoning again if necessary.

Cautions/adventures:

Make sure your roux doesn’t burn, number one. Number two, be careful about fake crabmeat. Taste some before you throw it in. I had the misfortune of, the first time I cooked this back in the US, not tasting beforehand and thinking it’d have the same taste as the stuff in the UK. What I ended up with was a horrible sweet-tasting mess that only a heart-attack’s worth of salt could have undone. Add to that (and this is number three) the fact that I wasn’t as attentive with my stirring, and some of it stuck to the bottom and was burnt. I pretty much threw out an entire pot of gumbo.

Also if, when your pot is sitting on the stove cooling down after you’ve dished up and a sort of horrible-looking ‘skin’ forms on top, do not be alarmed. Just stir it and it will be fine, likewise when you heat it up again. Similar thing happens with queso when you make it; all is well!

A note on roux and bases, i.e. – thickeners:

The types of thickener you will find in gumbo recipes that give them their characteristic rib-sticking texture are usually the flour/fat roux, file’, and okra. Usually you will not find file’ and okra together, but roux can be supplemented with okra or file’.

Roux is comprised of flour and fat. While I’ve used oil, butter/margarine have also been used increasingly over the past couple of decades. The longer the roux is cooked, the darker it becomes and the richer it tastes; however, the more you cook it, the less thickening power it has. This is often why you’ll find darker gumbos are thinner in consistency.

Okra is a thickener because it is a  mucilaginous vegetable. In other words, they are sticky, and especially so when cut or crushed (as no doubt you will have discovered, chopping them up). They help bind the other ingredients of the base together, and thus, are added during the formation of the base to give them a chance to work their magic.

File’, also called file’ powder, is ground sassafras leaves, and is added after everything else, including the seafood, is cooked. Think of it as a primitive cornstarch. Some will cook a thinner gumbo and serve the file’ powder alongside the Tony’s seasoning, to enable guests to alter the viscosity to their own taste.

Let me know how your experiences go! Gumbo! Go gumbo go bo gum bo go…

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