Confessions of a Gumbo Junkie

I could feel the urge building over the last few weeks, and then this Sunday, it finally happened. I woke up with a raging gumbo-ner. I just had to make my favorite New Orleans meal.

Gumbo is not something to be taken casually. It is not one of those “one pot” dinners that you can “whip up”. To do it up right, you really need to dedicate the whole day to preparing one meal. Sure, there are “quick and easy gumbo” recipes online, but making gumbo is like making love – it should be done slowly and deliberately, building up in delicate stages until everything comes together for the climax.

I actually saw one of those “1-hour gumbo” recipes that called for using bullion cubes instead of making the stock from scratch! If you told someone that in the French Quarter, you would probably find yourself in a knife fight.

So Sunday morning, with New Orleans scheduled to play in the NFL playoffs, I decided to go all out, and go for the gumbo. Let me say upfront, this is the way that I make gumbo, at this time. There are many, many ways to make gumbo. I do not claim it is the best way, or that it is better than your way. But after experimenting with different recipes, this is the way that I like to make it – and even so, it is still evolving. My particular gumbo generally uses sausage, chicken, shrimp and fish. When we lived in the States, I also included some alligator, but I have yet to find an alligator meat tienda in Ecuador. If you know of one, hook a brother up.

Luckily, almost everything you need for good gumbo is available in Ecuador, and I always make sure sure to mule in the things that are harder to find, like the spices and okra. The okra of course is very important – technically, you can’t really call it “gumbo” if it doesn’t have okra in it.

The best gumbo is made with the freshest ingredients, so at 10am I was on a bus on my way to La Libertad to do some shopping.

Fresh ingredients for the best gumbo

I picked up some onions, carrots, tomatoes, green peppers, a red pepper, and some green onions. The only vegetable not readily available at the mercado is celery, which I reluctantly picked up at the SuperMaxi earlier. Now, off to the chicken stalls!

Chicken selection, always important to get the feet!

Of course I could have picked up the chicken in the SuperMaxi too, but what fun is that? Besides, for the stock I wanted the feet and the other little goodies you get when you go for the fresh ones.

With the chicken taken care of, now it is off to the mercado de los mariscos, the fish market – my favorite place. I wandered up and down the aisles for a while, admiring the selection. It was surprisingly busy for a Sunday morning, but I suppose a lot of people were planning their family meals. Sadly, I couldn’t help but notice I was the only gringo in the place. In fact, I didn’t see another expat anywhere in the market area. I think it is a shame that more expats don’t take advantage of what La Libertad offers.

I settled on some great looking flounder filets for the fish. I bought just over 6 pounds (planned on freezing some for future meals) for $18. Then the main event – picking out some nice shrimp with the heads still attached! Very important for preparing the stock. I found some nice ones for $3 a pound, and bought 5 pounds.

These guys are coming home with me

Now I’m all set – after of course grabbing a bottle of vodka and some Bloody Mary mix. Can’t have gumbo without Bloody Marys, I think that’s a law in Louisiana. So jump on a bus back to Salinas, and sit with shrimp and fish juice leaking out of my carry-bag and down my legs. I’m home by noon, and ready to get serious.

First, I set up the bread machine to make the dough for my French bread. Like the Bloody Marys, I don’t believe serving gumbo without warm, fresh bread is a felony, but I’m pretty sure it’s at least a misdemeanor. Not taking any chances.

Ready, set, dough!

Next, I took my large frying pan and cooked up some bacon. This gives me some bacon grease to add a little flavor to what will eventually be my roux, and as an important side benefit, I can make BLT’s for lunch.

I set the pan aside for later and enjoyed said BLT, and then at about 1pm, I turned on the first playoff game of the day and was ready to get into the actual gumbo event. Time to start preparing the stock, so that means first of all tearing the heads and shells off of that five pounds of shrimp. Into the stock pot they go!

Shrimp washed, and ready for beheading

 

Shrimp heads and shells ready for some heat.

On some advice I read from a Nawlins chef, I did things a little differently this time. Before adding anything else to the stock pot, I started up the stove and cooked the heads a bit, turning them until they were red. This is supposed to release some oils to flavor the stock. I also added a touch of achiote oil, because Ecuador. Once they were a pretty shade of red, I added some Old Bay seasoning, and some veggie cuttings – the butt end and tops of the celery, the onion skins and ends, carrot peals, and unused parts of the peppers.

Then in another departure, I also added the chicken feet, gizzards, neck parts, etc. from my fresh hen, and cooked it covered for a few minutes until everything had time to sweat a bit. Here’s what it looked like when it was ready for water.

Colorful ingredients for the stock. Very important part of your gumbo prep.

With the stock off to a good start, it is time to get going on the second crucial part of the gumbo ritual – the roux. Turning to my fry pan with the bacon grease I saved, I added a little more vegetable oil (and a dash of achiote), and started frying up the chicken, which I had cut into smaller pieces. Once the chicken was all fried, it goes in a pan and into the oven, pre-heated to 375F. This will keep it warm and cook it a little more. Meanwhile, I’m left with a pan with a nice, flavored oil to form the base of the roux.

Fryin’ up the chicken, and flavoring the oil for the roux

I cut the flame down a bit on the oil – if it is too hot, it will boil over when you add the flour. I carefully stir in the flour with a wooden spoon, taking care to scrape all the little flavor bits off the bottom of the pan in the process. When it has a nice, creamy and thick consistency, the whole pan goes in the oven next to the chicken. Then it is just a matter of stirring it once and a while until it is the right shade of chocolate brown.

By this time, it is about 3pm. The stock has been boiling for about an hour, and I add a little more water to it once and while. It will need to boil about another hour before I judge it ready, but it is looking and smelling great! In fact, the whole house now smells wonderful.

Nothing smells so good as a boiling pot of shrimp stock!

Meanwhile, I haven’t been neglecting the bread. The dough cycle finished, and I’ve punched it down and let it rise twice. Now it’s time to take it out, divide it into two balls, and then roll them each flat and form them into two loaves. I make the diagonal slits across them to handle the expansion, cover them, and put them near the stove to rise one more time.

Now, after about four hours of working on this project, it is time to get the actual gumbo pot ready. First I heat up some oil in the bottom of the large pot, then toss in the sliced sausage to cook them up a little and release their flavor. Another concession to Ecuador – we rarely find andouille sausage, but I find we can make do with a spicy chorizo.

Simmering sausages

Next into the pot, some chopped veggies. In addition to the Holy Trinity of New Orleans cooking – celery, onions, and green peppers – I also add diced carrots, chopped garlic, and about half of a large red bell pepper.

It’s beginning to look a lot like gumbo

Time to add some Zatarain’s gumbo spices and some filé (both muled in from the US), and stir until the onions are translucent. Then I add diced tomatoes, and a small packet of tomato paste. Things are starting to happen fast at this point, as the different parts of the meal come together. The chicken and roux (remember them? They’re in the oven) come out now. While the roux cools a little, I pull the chicken off the bones – actually, at  this point it practically falls off – and cut it into smaller pieces. The stock has been boiling down for two and a half hours, and it is time to strain out all of the solids, leaving me more than a gallon of smooth, delicious stock.

The roux gets emptied into the gumbo pot, along with about half of the stock. I stir it around, and while it is thickening and simmering, I need to take care of a few other things.

First, the bread needs to go in the oven. Then, I still have to de-vein the shrimp, and coat them in a little more cajun spice to sit for a few minutes. The fish needs to be prepped too, so I take four or five of those filets, cut them into bite sized pieces, and mix them with a little spice as well. Time to add the rest of the stock to the pot, and bring it to boil.

Finally, almost 6 hours after starting, we are approaching final assembly. I sauté the shrimp in a big pan with a can of chopped okra (muled in), add it to the pot, then do the same with the fish. Just takes a few minutes for each, and now we have all of the parts together at last. I keep an eye on it, stirring often, while the bread is baking. Also time to start the trusty rice cooker.

Five minutes before the bread is done, it comes out of the oven so I can brush the loaves with a mix of egg whites and a touch of water, then back in the oven until they are golden. Just enough time to chop the green onions.

By now it is after 6pm, and we are ready to plate. The bread has been sliced and put in a serving basket, the optional hot sauce is on the table, Bloody Marys mixed and set out for Rita, our guests and me, and the bowls of gumbo are ready to be served. We do it classic style; put a mound of rice in the center of the bowl, ladle in the gumbo around it, and garnish with the chopped green onions.

Gumbo Time!

The results? I have to say this was one of the best batches of gumbo I’ve ever made. The many flavors blended well, with no particular part of it standing out above the others. I credit it to the freshness of the ingredients, and the stock that really turned out superbly. The four of us enjoyed several bowls each before watching New Orleans blow a lead in the NFL playoff game, and Rita and I served leftovers to another pair of guests Monday for lunch. They had just arrived from a visit to New Orleans, and had two helpings each, so I take that as a complement. Still plenty left over, and since it freezes well, I’ll be putting some away for the future tomorrow.

So there you have it – I admit that a lot of work, a lot of chopping, and a lot of cleanup went into this all-day effort, but it really is a labor of love. If it seems like to much investment for too little return to you, well, I am sorry to say you probably have never had really good gumbo!

Laissez le bon temps rouler!

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2 Comments

  • Jo Alice Mospan says:

    Loved this article Jim. I, also, make gumbo but unfortunately have to leave out the shrimp since Mike is allergic to them. And I am really surprised that okra is not grown there!

    • Jim Santos says:

      Thanks – they can grow okra here, in fact some expats grow it in their gardens. But it hasn’t caught on as a cash crop, and canned okra isn’t available in the stores. I have some seeds I brought from the states, but we don’t really have a good place to grow it in our condo.

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