Maybe it’s because the fog’s rolling in, or maybe it’s because I’ve been watching two many second lines on Treme, but I recently developed a hankering for hot, steamy gumbo. And a hankering for gumbo ain’t exactly easy to fix. You see, gumbo pots aren’t that prevalent around these parts, and when the dish does appear, it is often served in expensive, gimmicky restaurants. Just not worth it.
So I had to make gumbo. Not that that’s a hard thing for me. It takes time, sure, but I had a day off, and even relished the idea of hanging around the stovetop for a few hours. Few things will stop me from making my favourite foods…and gumbo is one of them.
You see, I have a thing for New Orleans. A big thing. There’s a famous quote that goes:
“Times are not good here. The city is crumbling into ashes. It has been buried under taxes and frauds and maladministrations so that it has become a study for archaeologists…but it is better to live here in sackcloth and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio.”
It’s always made sense to me. The city is an amazing cultural stew to which the whole North American continent is indebted, the world really. And gumbo, besides being delicious, is just like that New Orleans stew, comprised of different ingredients melded together to create something beautiful and new. Like so many of the world’s great dishes, it was created by poor people, with what they had.
I call this version of gumbo “Everything But the Kitchen Sink” because I did just that. I used what I had. Purists might balk at the fact that I omitted okra (I didn’t have it and wasn’t able to go shopping.) Others will have a fit when they discover that I disrupted the “holy trinity” of Creole and Cajun Cuisine (onions, celery and green bell peppers). I used multicoloured peppers…the horror! Again, they’re what I had, and quite frankly, I prefer the taste of red, orange and yellow peppers anyway. Omissions were made and less conventional ingredients put in their place. But the spirit remains the same. You see, Gumbo’s not a dish that merits an exact recipe. It’s about honing flavour, taking tastes over and over again, and adding ingredient in small increments until the taste is perfect. So here’s my version of gumbo, or at least today’s version of gumbo..which celebrates my fridge, my coast (and the seafood that comes from it), all with a little help from the spirit of New Orleans.
West Coast “Everything But the Kitchen Sink” Seafood Gumbo
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 large Andouille sausages, sliced crosswise (the spiced and smoked Louisiana kind, not the French kind. But if you can’t find Andouille, use other sausage and add liquid smoke or smoke flavoured salt, along with extra spices)
Leftover fish (I used salmon (hence the “west coast” and some sort of white fish, about 3 large handfuls), cut into large cubes
3 cups chopped onions, chopped
1.5 cup chopped celery, chopped
1.5 cup chopped bell peppers, chopped
A few pinches of salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1tsp chili powder
pinch of oregano
pinch of thyme
1/4 tsp ground red pepper
1 tsp paprika
9 cups stock or water mixed with stock (probably seafood stock is best, but I used chicken since it was all I had. It tasted fine!)
Cooked Rice, to serve on the side
First things first. The most important factor for gumbo, and also its most defining aspect is the roux: the mixture of fat and flour that is not only a thickener, but the stew’s base flavour ingredient. It’s what differentiates gumbo from jambalaya, for example, a very similarly flavoured dish, which has no roux, and has the rice cooked in with it. A gumbo roux needs to be stir constantly and cooked over a slow heat for a long time it develops a dark colour and a nutty smell. If it burns, the whole process needs to start over again. Ideally you should cook it in a heavy bottomed stewing pot. For my roux, I mix the oil and flour, and stir over medium-low heat until it looks like cafe-au-lait. Some dedicated gumbo makes go even further, aiming for a chocolate colour. Depending how high the temperature and how often you stir, the roux can be accomplished in about 30 minutes. Mine took just over an hour, stirring slightly less often, because I kept it on quite low (so I could do other tasks at the same time).
Once the roux is ready, add the onions, celery and peppers.
Cook the vegetables until they wilt, about 7 minutes. Add the sausages, salt, pepper, spices and herbs, and cook for another couple of minutes. Add the stock and stir. Let cook over medium heat for at least an hour and half. Taste frequently, and add more herbs and spices as you wish (I probably used more both than listed, due to additions half way through.) If you want to add okra, as I often do, chop it into chunks and throw the pieces in at the end, cooking them for just as long as it takes to looks their “gooey” internal texture.
Once your rice is cooked and your gumbo flavouring correct, add fish chunks. Cook for about two more minutes, just until fish is done (you don’t want to overcook it!) Serve with rice.