How to Make Gumbo

A guide to reveling in Louisiana culture at home

My third gumbo, made with sausage, chicken and and an abundance of vegetables
My third gumbo, made with sausage, chicken and and an abundance of vegetables

Happy Mardi Gras! In honor of this drunken holiday I would like to share with you a tale of soup ... It wasn’t long ago that I became reacquainted with the flavors of my homeland. After being a vegetarian from ages 15 to 26, I had come into adulthood and learned how to cook in a manner devoid of Creole cuisine. Once freed from my culinary constraints, there was much research to be done.

A few facts about gumbo:

Butter melting into oil
Butter melting into oil

• Gumbo is thought to have originated in New Orleans in the 18th century, and is based on the French fish soup bouillabaisse.

• In becoming what it is today, gumbo was influenced by not only by the French, but also the Spanish, Africans and Native Americans.

• The word gumbo is from an African word gombo, which means okra.

Beginning the roux—at this point it’s still blonde in color.
Beginning the roux—at this point it’s still blonde in color.

Gumbo comes in many forms, and while some may say there are definite right or wrong ways to make it, the soup actually requires only a few basic things —a dark roux, celery, bell peppers and onions (the holy trinity), and okra or filé (pronounced fee-lay) powder—ground sassafras leaves native to the Choctaw.

Mid-way through making the roux—notice the wine within arm’s reach.
Mid-way through making the roux—notice the wine within arm’s reach.

Now, here’s how to make it:

Step one—prepare ingredients

Vegetables

2 cups onion, chopped

Finished!
Finished!

1 cup bell pepper, chopped

1 cup of celery, chopped

1/2 cup of scallion, thinly sliced

2 Tbs. fresh parsley, minced

1-2 Tbs. garlic, minced

A Mardi Gras booze cake. To make mix on high for at least five minutes: one box Duncan Hines yellow cake mix, three eggs, oil and water called for on the box, 1/2 cup sour cream, 1/2 cup booze (rum, cognac, bourbon, sherry will do). Bake according to instructions. Glaze with food coloring and booze-tinged icing—make it by using the simplest non-chocolate recipe you can find in   Joy of Cooking  , or by doctoring a pre-made icing.
A Mardi Gras booze cake. To make mix on high for at least five minutes: one box Duncan Hines yellow cake mix, three eggs, oil and water called for on the box, 1/2 cup sour cream, 1/2 cup booze (rum, cognac, bourbon, sherry will do). Bake according to instructions. Glaze with food coloring and booze-tinged icing—make it by using the simplest non-chocolate recipe you can find in Joy of Cooking , or by doctoring a pre-made icing.

Optional Vegetables

1-2 cups tomatoes, chopped

1-2 cups greens, chopped

2-3 cups okra (frozen works, but fresh is better), chopped

Meats

Or, let Justin Wilson of the ‘80s PBS show “Louisiana Cookin’ ” tell you how to make gumbo in his Cajun patois.

Now, it’s not out of the question to actually skip the meats all together in favor of a Lenten creation, though some, including most of the people to whom I’m related, would call that blasphemy. In any case, make your gumbo with just sausage, or just chicken, or just shrimp, but keep in mind that most traditional recipes do contain sausage.

1-1 1/2 lb. andouille (pronounced on-dewy) sausage (Polish, French works too), sliced 1/2 inch thick

1/2-2 lbs. chicken (I prefer to take chicken breast, bake or pan fry them briefly, then chop them into chunks, while others just throw whole raw chickens into the pot and let it cook from there—do whatever suits your fancy)

Feel free to add shrimp, oysters, crab or crawfish at the end of making gumbo. Frankly, I find shellfish dicey in New Mexico, so I abstain.

Spices

3 tsp. salt

1 tsp. black pepper

1/4 tsp. cayenne (or to taste)

2 tsp. dried thyme

3 whole bay leaves, crushed

Optional spices

I highly recommend using these.

1-2 tsp. oregano

3-8 cloves

Step two—make a roux

Roux

1/2 cup flour

1/4 cup vegetable or canola oil

1/4 cup butter

Some recipes use all oil or all butter, or a higher ratio of fat to flour—do whatever you want, just don’t burn it!

Once all of your ingredients are prepared, it’s time to make the roux. This takes about half an hour or more depending the temperature at which you make it. Since you’ll be at the stove for a while, get a stool, pour a glass of wine or open a beer. Once situated, in a large, heavy-bottomed pot (a heavy sauté pan works too if you can transfer the roux to a soup pot), melt your butter with the oil. Once melted, gradually add flour, constantly stirring the mixture with a whisk. Reduce the heat to low, and never stop stirring. Once you achieve a dark brown roux (the color of pecan shells, or even chocolate if you desire a smokier flavor), add all vegetables aside from the tomatoes and okra, and cook for 10 minutes, still stirring. Add 1 cup water, sausage, chicken, tomatoes, okra and spices. Stir, then gradually add about 6 or 7 cups of cold water—enough to cover the ingredients. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cook for about an hour. Before serving, add any shellfish, or filé (2-3 Tbs.), cooking for about ten more minutes.

Step three—serve

Gumbo is fine plain, on top of rice or potato salad. Serve with a green salad and crusty bread and it’s a meal.

I gar-on-tee!