New Orleans flavor in your own kitchen
The US has loads of interesting regional dishes. One of the best known is gumbo, a hearty stew-like dish with bottomless flavor. Gumbo originated in south Louisiana eons ago. Today it’s made with a wide variety of meat and seafoods, in both Cajun and Creole styles. It’s so popular (and the variations are so endless) that probably every family in Louisiana has their own unique recipe.
All gumbos are based on a long-cooked roux (the flour-and-fat mixture that also forms the basis for many gravies). When we make gravy, we usually cook the roux for only a few minutes. For gumbo, we need to cook it for at least half an hour, and usually more like 45 to 60 minutes. It’s a bit of work, yes. But the flavor payoff is worth it. And that flavor is the essence of gumbo.
Mardi Gras is coming up this Tuesday—and it’s the biggest celebration of the year in New Orleans. What better way to join in the festivities than by making a batch of gumbo for yourself? It’s like a party in a bowl.
Recipe: Chicken and Andouille Sausage Gumbo
There aren’t many rules for making gumbo, though one informal one says it should contain either meat or seafood—you shouldn’t mix the two proteins together. But there’s an exception to every rule, and it’s common in New Orleans to find gumbos that combine seafood and sausage.
In any case, we’re safe from the gumbo police because we’re not including seafood in this classic-style Chicken and Andouille Sausage Gumbo. Though I won’t tell if you decide to add some shrimp about ten minutes before you serve this dish (it’s a delicious addition).
To make gumbo, you need to know about two main principles of Louisiana cooking. The first is the “trinity”—the mix of onion, celery, and green pepper that appears in numerous Cajun and Creole recipes. Cooks differ on their preferred proportions, but I like to use 1½ parts onion to 1 part each of celery and green pepper.
The second thing you need to learn is how to make a Louisiana roux. This is an equal mix of fat and flour that’s cooked for a long time—at least half an hour, and often over an hour. The longer you cook it, the deeper brown it gets, and the better the flavor. And the better the gumbo! Although some cooks like to cook roux until it’s a dark mahogany, I suggest you cook it until it’s the shade of peanut butter. Less can go wrong this way, and the flavor is quite good. Besides, it’ll take less time.
Speaking of time, this is a dish that takes a while to make. I suggest you set aside about 2 hours for the initial prep work (which includes cooking the roux). You’ll probably need only about an hour and a half, but you don’t want to feel pressured. After the prep work is done, the gumbo will take at least 2 hours to cook, although you can extend the cooking time another hour or so if you wish.
This dish makes several quarts—which is enough to feed hordes (if you’re spending all that time making roux, you might as well cook up enough gumbo to make it worth your while). Leftovers freeze extremely well if stored in airtight containers.
For the Cajun/Creole Spice Mix:
You can substitute a commercial mix if you prefer; see Notes.
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- ½ teaspoon celery seed
- 6 bacon slices
- 3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs (see Notes for substitutions)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ~1½ pounds Andouille sausage (or substitute a smoked sausage like kielbasa; see Notes)
- 1½ cups diced onion (about 1 large or 2 medium; I generally use yellow onions)
- 1 cup diced celery (about 3 or 4 ribs)
- 1 cup diced green pepper (about 1 medium)
- 6 garlic cloves
- ~½ cup neutral oil (like canola; see Step 11 for exact amount)
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 8 cups chicken stock
- 1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
- water if needed (for Step 16)
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- ~2 teaspoons Cajun/Creole seasoning, divided (either homemade or a commercial one; see Notes)
- 1 pound frozen sliced okra (optional—or use fresh okra; see Notes)
- Cooked rice (if you plan on serving all the gumbo at one time, cook 2 cups of dry rice)
- Scallion rounds for garnish
- Chopped parsley for garnish
- Hot sauce (such as Tabasco or Crystal) for the table
- Prepare the Cajun spice mix. Combine all ingredients and mix well (I like to whirl them in a spice- or coffee-grinder). Place the Cajun mix in an airtight container and set aside (you’ll have more than you need for this recipe; see Notes).
- Cut the bacon slices across their width into strips of ½ inch or so. Place the bacon strips in a 6-quart Dutch oven or soup kettle. Turn the heat to medium and sauté the bacon until crisp and brown (10–15 minutes), stirring occasionally.
- Meanwhile, cut the boneless chicken thighs into pieces about 1 inch square. Season the chicken pieces with about 1 teaspoon of kosher salt, then set aside.
- Cut the Andouille sausage into chunks of about ½ inch, and set aside.
- Check on the bacon. It probably isn’t done yet—but if it is, delay Step 6 and proceed to Step 7.
- Prepare the “trinity” of onion, celery, and green pepper. Peel the onion(s) and cut into dice of about ½ inch. Wash, dry, trim, and peel the celery and cut into pieces of about ½ inch. Wash, dry, and core the green pepper. Cut into pieces of about ½ inch square.
- The bacon should be done at about this point. Remove the bacon from the Dutch oven/soup kettle (using a slotted spoon) and drain the bacon on a paper towel. Refrigerate the bacon (you’ll be adding it back to the gumbo later.)
- The Dutch oven/soup kettle should still have enough bacon fat to brown the chicken; if not, add a bit of neutral oil, like canola. Add the chicken pieces to the hot fat and sauté it. Turn the chicken after 4 or 5 minutes (when the first side is brown and no longer sticks to the pan) and continue browning. When the chicken pieces are totally browned, remove them and drain them on a paper towel. Once the chicken pieces reach room temperature, refrigerate them (you’ll be using the chicken later).
- Add the sausage to the Dutch oven/soup kettle, and sauté it until nicely browned (5 minutes or so). Remove the sausage and drain it on a paper towel. When the sausage reaches room temperature, refrigerate it (you’ll be using it later).
- While the chicken and sausage are browning, finish preparing the “trinity” (Step 6) if you haven’t already completed it. Also, peel the garlic and either mince it or cut it into thin slices.
- After you finish browning the chicken and sausage, pour the bacon fat from the Dutch oven into a measuring cup. Add neutral oil to the bacon fat until you have 1 cup. Pour the fact back into the Dutch oven, and heat it until it shimmers (a minute or two).
- When the oil is hot, add the flour all at once. With a whisk or a wooden spoon (preferably a flat-edged one), stir constantly for the first 2 or 3 minutes. Reduce the heat until the mixture bubbles nicely, then continue stirring every minute or two (stir often enough so you don’t scorch the flour; if you do, you’ll have to start over). Cook until the roux is the shade of peanut butter (usually about 35 to 45 minutes). It’s possible to cook the roux to an even darker shade; see Notes.
- When the roux is cooked, add the diced onions, celery, and green pepper. Cook the veggies until soft (at least 5 minutes, usually more like 10). About 2 minutes before the trinity is done, add the garlic.
- While the diced onions, celery, and green pepper are cooking, heat the chicken stock (in a separate pan) until it’s simmering.
- Once the diced onions, celery, and green pepper are cooked—and while stirring the roux/trinity mixture with a wooden spoon—add a large ladle of hot chicken stock to the pot. Stir vigorously to incorporate the stock. Continue adding stock by the ladleful until you’ve used it all.
- Add the diced tomatoes and stir to incorporate. If the gumbo seems too thick, you can add some water at this point.
- Add the Worcestershire sauce and 1 teaspoon of Cajun seasoning. Add the chicken (from Step 8), bring the mixture to a simmer, and set a timer for 1 hour.
- At the hour mark, add the okra slices (just add them frozen if you’re not using fresh okra) and the sausage from Step 9. Add more water if the mixture is too thick. Taste, and add salt and more Cajun seasoning if necessary.
- Continue cooking at a simmer for at least another hour (up to 3 hours total).
- About half an hour before serving, prepare rice (in the quantity you need) according to the package directions.
- Before serving the gumbo, add the reserved bacon pieces (from Step 7) and stir them into the gumbo (alternatively, you can nuke the bacon pieces in the microwave to warm them, then sprinkle them on top as a garnish). To serve the gumbo, add a scoop of rice to the center of a soup bowl. Ladle the gumbo around it, then garnish with sliced scallions and/or chopped parsley. I usually put hot sauce on the table (Tabasco and Crystal are two traditional Louisiana brands) that people can add if they want a spicier gumbo.
- What’s the difference between Cajun and Creole cuisine? Well, Cajun tends to be more “down home” country cooking, while Creole features more urban, fancified fare. Cajun food was developed by French settlers who left the Acadia region of Canada to settle in southern Louisiana. Creole food was developed by French settlers who migrated to Louisiana (particularly New Orleans) directly from France. Cajun recipes typically don’t include tomatoes in dishes like gumbo or jambalaya, while Creole recipes often do. But for most of us, both styles of food taste pretty similar, so call them what you will.
- If you don’t want to make your own Cajun/Creole spice mix, you can buy a commercial one like Tony Chachere’s. Be aware that most commercial blends (all of the ones I’ve seen, at least) contain a lot of salt.
- My recipe for Cajun seasoning makes more than you’ll be using for this recipe. Just store the extra in an airtight container and it should remain tasty for a couple of months (even longer if you stash it in the freezer).
- I like to use boneless chicken thighs when I make this dish because dark meat is more flavorful, and boneless cuts are convenient to use. However, bone-on meat is even more tasty, so use that if you wish. Just brown the chicken as directed in the recipe, and add it to the pot in Step 17. Then remove the chicken from the pot in Step 18 (when you add the okra and sausage). Let the chicken cool, then pull the meat from the bones. Chop the meat coarsely and return it to the cooking pot.
- If you’re not a fan of dark meat, you can substitute boneless chicken breasts. They won’t provide quite the same depth of flavor, but the gumbo will still be wonderful.
- Andouille is a spicy Louisiana sausage that’s flavored with garlic. It’s traditionally made with pork, although I’ve seen some good ones that include a bit of beef. In the US, several “name” brands are available nationwide—but none of them are worth buying, IMO. Instead, I recommend looking for locally made andouille. Even better, look for a brand that’s made in Louisiana (though this may not be an option in some parts of the country). If you can’t find a decent andouille, you can substitute good-quality kielbasa or another spicy smoked sausage.
- Some notes on roux: As discussed above, the longer you cook roux, the darker and more flavorful it becomes. Most people like roux when it reaches the “peanut butter” stage. It’s also easier to make this way, so I suggest going with “PB roux” the first time you make gumbo. But you may prefer the flavor of roux that’s been cooked longer, so feel free to experiment.
- You can make roux ahead of time, and then use it when you’re ready to cook the gumbo (just store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator).
- You can also make roux in the oven, though I haven’t tried doing it this way. Here’s a standard oven-based recipe: Heat the oil on the stove top, add the flour, then whisk madly for a couple of minutes. Remove the mixture from the heat, stirring to cool it a bit. Then place it in an oven that’s been preheated to 350 degrees F, and cook for 2 hours. Sounds easy—I definitely need to try this sometime.
- Unless you’re making gumbo during the summer months, the fresh okra you find in the market may not be very flavorful. So I generally use frozen okra. Its flavor is good, and you can buy it already sliced. If you don’t like okra, you can omit this ingredient altogether.
- If you’re thinking about skipping the okra, be aware that it helps thicken the gumbo. Without okra, you may need to cook the gumbo longer to achieve the consistency you prefer.
- You can also use filé powder to thicken the gumbo. Filé powder is made from the leaves of the sassafras tree that have been dried and ground. Many (though not all) supermarkets carry it, or you can order it online. To use filé powder, just place some in a small bowl and let diners sprinkle it on their gumbo at table. Start with just a little bit—that’s usually all you need (and it’s easy enough to add more later).
- Most people don’t use both okra and filé powder; it’s an either/or thing.
“I love Cajun food,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs. “Or Creole. Whatever.”
“I don’t totally understand the difference either,” I said. “As I realized last Mardi Gras, when we did Red Beans and Rice.”
“This spicy gumbo makes a girl thirsty though,” said Mrs K R. “We need a traditional New Orleans drink to accompany it.”
“How about pairing with a Vieux Carré?” I said.
“Vieux Carré?” said Mrs K R. “That means old square in French.”
“It’s the original name of New Orleans’ French Quarter,” I explained. “And also the name of a very tasty cocktail.”
“Oh, right,” said Mrs K R. “At first I thought you were asking me for a date.”
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