It wasn’t until recently that I experienced gumbo for the first time. Apparently I was living under a rock. Or just in New England. It wasn’t as if I had never heard of gumbo. I had. I knew (basically) what gumbo was. But I had yet to sample even the tiniest amounts of gumbo. If you don’t know what gumbo is, think of it as stew. You make a deep, dark roux that has a delicious smokey quality to it. To that you add the holy trinity of onion, celery and bell pepper. Mix it all with stock and then add in your protein (in this case, andouille sausage and chicken). And okra. And shrimp. And whatever else you want. Let it simmer for a couple hours and serve it with some rice. Slop it up with a spoon. It’s a great dish for cold days and frigid nights. If I had a fireplace, I would eat a hot bowl of gumbo by it. So I just pop in the DVD of a fireplace and pretend.
Now that I’m basically married to a genuine Cajun, I’ve had the joy of dipping into all sorts of gumbos. I had a cup at Oak Alley Plantation (followed by a Mint Julep, naturally). That was quite delicious. I had a big bowl at Cafe Vermillion in Lafayette, LA…that was ALSO delicious. And then I had Lance’s mother’s gumbo. And his cousin Patty’s gumbo. Both were ridiculously delectable. I can see what it’s a staple of that cuisine. So, of course, I HAD to learn how to make it.
Rather than look up a recipe online, I decided to go right to the source, the matriarch of the Collins family, Phyllis and have her teach me.
I’ll be honest. I don’t know what I was expecting. I guess because everyone has such an opinion about their family’s own gumbo, there was this huge cloud of mystery surrounding gumbo. I was expecting it to be hard and overly complicated. But it’s not. In fact, it was pretty darn easy. And much like chili, it’s even better when you make it the day before you plan on serving it.
The hardest part is getting the roux right. Too light in color and the flavor won’t be there. Too dark and you’ve probably burned it and you’ll get a nasty taste. You could just skip all of that and just buy some roux in a jar at the store or online. But where’s the fun in that.
I’ve now made gumbo on my own a few times and have learned a few things. First, chop up all your vegetables. Once that roux gets going, you don’t want to stop stirring it. Then, when it’s just about there, you add in the onions to slow the cooking down since dropping them in will bring the temperature down. So stopping to chop is going to screw up your timeline and wreak havoc on your final product.
As for what the roux should look like when it’s right, think of Nutella. Dark brown, not black. Slightly pale. As for texture wise, it should be somewhat pasty.
The recipe I’m posting here isn’t exactly Phyllis’. It’s hers, but with a few of my own modifications because I wouldn’t be me without doing that.
Traditionally, okra is added to gumbos because the mucus-y filling that seeps out when they’re cooked helps to thicken up the soup. Another ingredient used to help thicken was Gumbo File. I don’t add either. Mostly because okra is a little hard to find up here. Every now and then there will be some in the grocery store, but it’s not always there. And I prefer it fried.
One of the reasons gumbo is so great, is that you can change it up. Use chicken stock. Use vegetable stock and add in lots of veggies. Use seafood stock and add in seafood. It’s sort of up to you. Depending on who you’re making this for, though, you may not want to stray to far from the traditional version. The last thing you want to hear is “That’s not how my mother makes it!” A knife through the heart. Of course, as much as I love hearing “That’s better than my Mom’s! Don’t tell her!” that would be quite a knife through her heart too.