To say that I was excited about going to Louisiana as part of our Summer 2014 road trip of the Southern US would be an understatement, in any which way you look at it. To say that I was excited from a culinary perspective would be hitting the nail right on the head! The South, and Louisiana in particular, have ancient, diverse, exciting and at times downright weird culinary traditions drawing influences form a myriad of cultures from around the world – and I was dying to check them out.
The dishes of Louisiana, to the average Dane at least, are elaborate, filling, colorful, fragrant, oft-times spicy and composed of rather unusual ingredients. And they’re diverse. There are probably more regional dishes and varieties of dishes than you can name in a few days, let alone eat in the same about of time. But gosh darn it, I tried my best and I made an impact. I certainly came nowhere close to finishing my quest of sampling all that Louisiana had to offer (that means I get to go back, right?), but I did cross a few dishes off the very top of my culinary bucket list. One such dish was the (probably) most famous one-pot meal of all of Louisiana: Gumbo!
True, authentic, poorly lit New Orleans style gumbo at Elizabeth’s Restaurant. Unforgettable!
Gumbo, which could probably be considered the state dish of Louisiana, is a dish that has always fascinated me and one that was not only at the top of my list to try, but also at the top of my list of things to take home and try my hands at. And I’m quite happy to report that over the course of the last month, I’ve done both and then some! I’ve not only dwelled on the fabulous gumbos of Louisiana, I’ve also tried to perfect my take on gumbo… and I’ve nearly lost a finger in the process! That is what this post is about. So fair warning, it may not always be pretty, but the results are pretty good.
Before we get started, though, we must for the sake of clarity ask ourselves: what on earth is Gumbo?
What is gumbo?
Let’s start with an easy question that’s not so easy at all: just what is gumbo? Gumbo is a unique, extremely popular and strongly flavored dish that originates in Southern Louisiana. Always served over rice but varying wildly in consistency, taste and ingredients, gumbo consists of a well-seasoned and properly reduced stock in which usually swims bits of meat or shellfish, okra and aromatic vegetables such as onion, celery and bell peppers. Aside from the above mentioned ingredients and a lot of spices, a gumbo also usually contains one or more thickeners including, but not limited to a roux, okra, or a strange powder known as filé, more on that later.
If America is the melting pot of immigrants from all the world’s nations, then gumbo is definitely the melting pot of American cuisine. It blends, in a single dish, ingredients and culinary traditions of several cultures including but not limited to the Spanish, the French, The German, the West African slaves and the native Choctaw Indians of the Southeastern United States.
Actually, it’s such a wonderful blend that the origins of the dish are shrouded in complete mystery. It’s thought to be based on either West African or Native American stews, possibly even the French bouillabaisse. It may be named from the Bantu word for okra (ki ngombo) or the Choctaw word for filé (kombo) and then again, it may not. We will probably never know. All we know for sure is that it was first described in a 1802 cookbook but didn’t gain widespread popularity until the 1970’s when it became a stable in the United States Senate cafeteria and the rise of Southern star chefs helped elevate national and international attention to the dish.
Oh, and we also know it’s delicious and a dish that, while certainly best when served in those little far away hole in the wall restaurants of its native Louisiana, can and should be made in the comfort of a modern kitchen in places as far away as little old Denmark. And it’s not even a difficult procedure to tell you the truth. All we need is a bit of roux, a bit of protein, some aromatic vegetables, a bit of quality stock, a lot of spice, some okra or filé and quite a lot of time. So walk with me, won’t you, as we trawl through ingredients and try to recreate a Louisiana classic in the comfort of our own homes, starting out with a roux less ordinary.
You’ll roux the day: Sacrificing thickening power for flavor
Haha.. Get it? No, right, I realize, that’s not really funny. Sorry. Anyway, the first key ingredient of gumbo is a roux, a classic French blend of flour and fat, stirred together over a heat source and then used to thicken whatever liquid you decide to dump in afterwards. Only, in the wonderful world of gumbo-making, roux is not used merely as a thickener. It is also used as a flavoring agent!
Roux? A flavoring agent? But how? Well, quite simply my friends, while a roux is usually used as a mere thickening agent it’s also quite capable of inviting a whole lot of flavor to the party. This is done simply by cooking the roux. For a little more than the two minutes you usually give it to eliminate the flour flavor. If left over medium-low heat for a good 20-30 or so minutes, stirred very regularly to prevent burning, the roux will take on first a light tan, then a light brown and eventually a deep, dark brown. It will also start to give off a nice, nutty smell indicating that good things do indeed come to those who wait.
After patiently stirring and tending, you’ll have a roux that is deep brown in color, nutty in smell and flavor – and nowhere near as capable of thickening anything as it was when you set out a half hour ago. What it has lost in thickening power, though, it more than makes up for in the deep, nutty, almost baked flavors it adds to the final dish.
But wait? Does that mean our gumbo will be a thin, runny mess? No, of course not, we’ve other ways of thickening things up, but that’s another chapter of our story. Next order of business: aromatic vegetables!
A foundation of
faith taste: The Holy Trinity
No stew is eventually better than the aromatic vegetables on which it is based. And gumbo is no exception. Gumbo, though, is based on a mix of vegetables a little different from those we usually use around here.
On this blog, we’ve often talked about mirepoix: the traditional French mix of aromatic vegetables – onion, carrot and celery – used to flavor stews and other dishes. The Cajun and Creole cultures of Louisiana have their own spin on mirepoix. They employ a mix of onion, celery and green bell pepper so vastly important in their dishes that they actually refer to it as The Holy Trinity because it lays the foundation of all cooking. No, I shit you not. This is seriously how they take their food down there. Seriously enough to take the Lord’s name in vain, and that’s saying something in America.
The Holy Trinity provides the solid foundation of most cajun and creole dishes including gumbo – they just wouldn’t be the same without them. The Trinity imparts a certain flavor on the gumbo that would be sorely missed were it not there. So here’s the first and only cardinal rule of gumbo, switch around whatever you want, play with the spices, step up the game as much as you like. But don’t mess with the Holy Trinity, ok?
Oh, and speaking of switching around and stepping up games, let’s talk protein!
Anything that crawls, slithers, walks or swims… Anything?
The most important part of a proper gumbo is animal protein. And with animal protein comes choices. A lot of choices.
I think it was either an old cajun fellow from out on the Bayous or quite possibly Alton Brown who once said that the protein part of a gumbo can be made up of anything that crawls, slithers, walks or swims. Which opens up an entire Pandora’s Box worth of possible gumbo additions. Especially when you’re outside the flood gates of the city of New Orleans where people do things a little differently and often cook with what they have at hand.
My colleague still tells fond tales of snake and alligator gumbos had in the past, but really more household proteins such as chicken, sausage and seafood are much more common in this day and age. More specifically, a combination of sausage and one of the other proteins mentioned above is most common in this day and age and when it comes to sausage, there is really only one appropriate choice: Andouille!
Andouille is a coarsely ground, heavily smoked and spicy pork sausage native to France but extremely popular in Louisiana. It’s heavily seasoned with garlic, pepper, onion and wine and is THE go to choice for gumbo. The only problem with andouille is, if you don’t happen to live in France or Louisiana, you’re probably shit out of luck when it comes to procuring Andouille sausage – in which case you’ll have to make do with your coarse-grained, high fat sausage of choice – possibly with a bit of quality bacon thrown in for added smokiness. It’s not a traditional choice, but between us non-cajuns and non-creoles, it’s a pretty good substitution indeed!
To go with the sausage, you’ll need another form of protein. I’m not really sure why two proteins are called for, but I’m a man, who am I to argue. I personally developed a hefty crush on chicken gumbo while in Louisiana but if you wanna go completely authentic, seafood is very, very traditional in Louisiana (New Orleans in particular) and a pretty good bet if you live in a place of the world where seafood is plentiful and fresh. Try jumbo shrimp, langoustine or crawfish if available – and if you do, use a shellfish or fish stock as your gumbo liquid base.
If land creatures are more your scene, try chicken… Or, you can go ahead and be a goofball and do what I did when I wanted to recreate this Southern classic for my friends which would be to hail the half-crazy country cooking roots of the dish and go with a protein that’s, well, a little different. After all, anything that crawls, slithers walks or swims, right?
Playing by the rules: Okay, so while some argue that anything goes in gumbo, there are apparently some basic guidelines and conventions on the matter of gumbo ingredients. Apparently, chicken, duck, squirrel(?), rabbit or alligator are the traditional allowed meats for gumbo while seafood gumbos are usually made using shrimp, crab and sometimes oysters. aside from sausage and the odd slice of ham, pork or beef are seldom used in gumbo. New Orleans, typically, is the only place in the creole world that mixes seafood and sausage in gumbos.
Recreating gumbo at home: Johan vs. the rabbit
One of the first things I wanted to do upon my return from the States was to recreate some of the culinary impressions of the Southern US for my friends, gumbo in particular. I wanted to do so with respect for the origins of the dishes, but me being the kind of guy I am, I also wanted to, well, jazz it up a little.
Granted, very good gumbo can be made from the likes of chicken, but if you’re gonna do something strange and slightly exotic, why not go, well, strange and exotic and, I dunno, maybe get one of the slightly less obvious official critters for meat gumbo? Why not get yourself a rabbit?
To the modern Dane, a more obvious question might well be “why get yourself a rabbit?”, but stick with me there’s a strange kind of logic behind my actions: See, while uncommon (heck, make that rare!) in modern Danish culinary tradition, rabbits in a food-not-pets-kind-of-way are hugely popular in France; one of the countries that lend a fair bit of culinary inspiration for gumbo! That, to someone like me, should be reason enough. But aside from that, rabbits are also firm fleshed, meaty and exceptionally tasty when properly prepared.
The only problem with rabbit is that unless you live in France, they’re sorta hard to come by! Your best shot is probably a specialty butcher’s store, a large restaurant supply outlet, or that there big world wide web. I searched around a bit and eventually came across an amazing (and amazingly popular) Danish startup skagenfood.dk which offers fresh fish, meats and an increasing range of culinary curiosities delivered fresh to your doorstep at regular intervals. One of such curiosities happened to be rabbit so a while ago, I jumped the chance and ordered a rabbit sampler pack off their website.
The bulky pack when delivered included a selection of rabbit legs, rabbit back, rabbit sausages, paté and, la piece de la resistance: a whole rabbit, skinned and ready to go. Well, almost ready to go, as it turned out. When I’d first received the goods, I’d stashed them pretty haphazardly in the freezer and it wasn’t till I evacuated, defrosted and unwrapped the whole rabbit late one night that I realized it was just that… A whole rabbit! Head on, innards still in place, dead eyes peeking at you. A pretty far cry from those fuzzy, little things my niece plays with from time to time!
Now, this was the time where my kitchen crew, had they been around, would have probably scrambled, but not I! How often, after all, can you say you got to butcher a rabbit? So, I grabbed my trusty, old and far too rarely used cleaver and set to work:
First thing to go was the head which I must admit made it into the trash rather quickly. It probably could have been used for stock and flavor, but I wasn’t too sure that mental image would go well with my diners. Next, the legs were removed with a few swift cuts and some sickening crunching sounds. Finally, the back was separated from the rib cage and cut into chunks using a surprising amount of brute force and a bit of pounding. And finally, Bugs (as my friend Mikael subsequently dubbed him) was an ex-bunny.
He was a good bunny, I’m sure (unlike Yorick, I did not know him well), but he was now also very much an ex-bunny on his way to becoming a good meal. The animal lovers out there will be happy to know that he put up a fight to the end. This is my thumb after the fight, that bastard bid back. My knife skills are pretty good after ten years, but apparently my cleaver skills still need a bit of work.
Still, I came out on top and all that was now left to do was to make gumbo out of poor Bugs… And a few of his rabbit friends! As the attentive reader will remember, sausage is another important ingredient in gumbo and since I got a bit of well-seasoned rabbit sausage from skagenfood.dk along with ol’ Bugs, what could be more natural than to use it in my rabbit gumbo? Nothing! My thoughts exactly!
That being said, though, if you’re not lucky enough to have one or more rabbits lying around, you should feel more than welcome to use chicken. A whole one please. The procedure for cutting up a chicken is much the same (hopefully without the blood) and the results are pretty similar. After all, rabbit tastes like chicken, right? No, not at all, but they’ve got somewhat of the same texture and they’re both light meats.
More strange takes on original recipes? Sometimes I like to shake things up a bit. This leads to some pretty interesting takes on otherwise traditional dishes. Like my pulled pork BBQ chili con carne.
And just like that, with our proteins all picked out, it’s almost time to make gumbo, but first… The plot thickens!
Okra-phobia: My mom said you’d know what to do with these!
Remember how we talked about earlier that a gumbo needs to be thick but that roux is used in gumbo not as a thickener but primarily as a flavoring agent? Well, other than this being strange news to many home chefs, this also means that once we’ve gotten all our roux, stock, vegetables and proteins in the pot, we’ll have a pretty thin stew. And what are we to do about that? Well, we’ve hinted it at it earlier: we’ll use an additional thickener from the cajun/creole kitchen to set things straight!
And on that subject, the choices are few, but the debate heated: Many gumbo purists will tell you that the only suitable thickener for gumbo is filé powder, the dried ground leaves from the sassafras tree. They say so because filé, in addition to acting as a thickener, adds a distinct earthy flavor to the pot which you just can’t get from anywhere else. The problem with filé, though, is that its availability is pretty much like it’s taste: you just can’t get it from anywhere else than the Southern US (or, well, probably online if you’re in the States). If you’re anywhere else in the world, filé is at the very least pretty hard to come, quite possibly impossible to come by, by and you may have to do without.
Luckily, though, there is one more almost equally authentic gumbo thickener that is widely available outside of the US: Okra! Okra are the edible green seed pods of the plant by the same name. Aside from being a certified health food high in fiber, vitamin c, calcium and potassium, Okra are also mucilaginous, meaning when cooked they’ll expel a soluble fiber in the form of a characteristic “goo” or “slime” which will emulsify with the liquid in the dish and act as a thickener on top of adding flavor. How clever is that?
Best of all, okra is available at most ethnic markets or green grocers around the world, usually pretty cheaply because many people have a strange case of okra-phobia towards this beautiful, “slimy”, little pod. They just can’t handle the slime part. But that’s alright, they don’t have to look at us cooking it.
Better yet, sometimes it’s available for free because your name is Johan and you just happen to know a sweet girl by the name of Malene whose mother happened to have been growing okra not knowing what to do with them and passed a few on to her daughter telling her to “get Johan to figure out what to do with these”… Right as Johan was plotting to cook up gumbo for said daughter as a surprise. How lucky is that?!
Ahem, I digress. If you’re not that lucky, go talk to your local green grocer, he’ll probably be able to hook you up if they’re in season anywhere around the world. Or check out the freezer section of a diverse market, they’re usually available here all year round. Regardless of your method of choice, okra is certainly more readily available than filé powder in most places of the world, so they’re what I’ll use for my gumbo.
Which, having covered the subjects of roux, protein, aromatics and thickeners, we should now be able to throw together a basic recipe for.
Bringing it all together. The great creole melting pot
Whew, long read? Still here? Good! Now, my friends, the good news is that knowing and procuring the ingredients for a proper gumbo may well be the hardest bit of the equation! After all this, actually cooking gumbo is the easy part. I mean, if you can chop things (preferably without injuring yourself like I did!), brown meat, and stir a pot for half an hour while paying reasonably close attention then, my friend, you, too, can make gumbo! That’s really all there is to it. Really.
You brown your sausage (and bacon if you’re so inclined), you then brown your rabbit or other protein, you add a little flour and a little more oil to the pot and you stir regularly for about 20-30 minutes to create a flavorful, brown, roux, then you add vegetables, stock, meat, okra and spices… Then you simmer until your gumbo is done and the entire house smells wonderful. It’s really that simple and you only need one pot.
No, really, it’s that simple. Here, I’ll show you in a little more detail:
- About five tablespoons of flour
- Cooking oil
- One onion chopped
- Two stalks of celery chopped
- One large green pepper de-seeded and chopped
- Two cloves of garlic chopped
- 10 okra pods stems and tips removed, cut into half centimeter rounds
- One rabbit dismembered (or one whole, large chicken done equally wrong)
- 150 grams of sausage cut into large chunks - preferably Andouille though other smoked, spicy variety will do just fine (I used spicy rabbit sausage)
- 100 grams of quality bacon optional
- 1 liter of home-made dark chicken stock or quality store-bought low-sodium variety
- One tablespoon of dried thyme
- One teaspoon of dried oregano
- One teaspoon of dried basil
- One tablespoon of smoked Paprika hot
- One teaspoon of Cayenne
- 2-3 bay leaves
- A splash or more of your favorite hot sauce
- A splash of Worcestershire sauce
- 50 grams of concentrated tomato paste
- One can 400 grams of crushed tomatoes, drained
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Season rabbit (or chicken) generously with salt and pepper and set aside.
- Put a large cast iron pot over medium heat, add a little splash of oil, then add sausage (and bacon if using).
- Cook sausage for a few minutes, stirring regularly until evenly browned and fat has rendered out.
- Evacuate sausage (and bacon if using) from pot, but keep the fat in the pot. Then add rabbit (or chicken) and brown for a few minutes on each side. Do NOT crowd the pan, do this in batches if needed.
- When evenly browned, remove the rabbit from pot and set aside
- Reduce heat to medium-low and add about five tablespoons of flour to the pot. Stir and add enough additional oil to form a thick but still liquid roux. You need about a 1:1 ratio between flour and fat.
- Cook the roux over medium-low heat for 20-30 minutes, stirring often until roux turns brown to dark brown in color and a nutty smell fills the kitchen air.
- When roux is nicely brown, add onion, celery and bell pepper, stir and cook for a couple of minutes.
- Add the garlic and cook for another thirty seconds.
- While stirring constantly and vigorously, slowly pour in the chicken stock to form a sauce.
- Bring sauce to a boil, then reduce the heat to a low boil and add rabbit back in along with the tomato paste, crushed tomatoes, bay leaves and all of the dried spices.
- If gumbo is very thick at this point, add more chicken stock for a slightly runny consistency.
- Stir to combine, place lid on pot and cook for 45 minutes.
- After 45 minutes, remove the lid, evacuate the rabbit and set aside.
- Add okra to the pot, and cook the gumbo uncovered while the rabbit cools enough to handle, about 30 minutes. You can cook for longer if you so desire, it'll only intensify the flavor.
- When rabbit is cool enough to handle, gently pull the meat from the bones using your fingers or a knife and fork. Split the meat into bite-sized chunks and throw it back into the gumbo along with the sausage.
- Add a splash (or more) of your favorite hot sauce along with a dash of Worcestershire sauce and stir everything well and thoroughly together, and cook about 5-10 minutes until rabbit is well heated through.
- Taste for seasoning and serve over rice with a garnish of spring onion and a couple of beers on the side.
Thoughts on my first gumbo
Having up until now only had true, authentic Louisiana gumbos, I’ll admit to being a little nervous about creating my own version for friends. Especially because one of the friends I was putting it together for was Zascha who joined me for my Dixieland expedition.
Would it be any good? Would it even taste remotely like true Louisiana gumbo? What would my friends think of the experience? Well, my friends were pretty thrilled to say the least. As was I, to be honest. The gumbo look and feel was there, as was much of the flavor. It was a little thick maybe, owing to my inexperience with the thickeners used, and it lacked al little of that Southern charm and, well, BAM! But for a first try from a scrawny, pale boy from Northern Europe, it was a pretty solid effort, I think. And definitely one to build on.
Admittedly, this recipe makes a pretty standard and very simple gumbo with room for improvement and experiments. As these kind of basic recipes should be. Gumbo, while taking the shape and form of a hot mess, is a work of art and one that takes years of tweaking and experiments to get just right every time. But hey, I’m up for the challenge. I know I will experiment on and improve upon this recipe, and I hope you will, too! There’s a world of flavor out there to be explored!
What’s your favorite regional food?