Sunday, November 14, 2010

Elsie's Gumbo

I spent my last year of high school in southeastern Louisiana.  This area is an amazing microcosm unlike any other part of our nation.  It's an island of cultures and traditions rarely practiced outside it's geography.  Folks there talk differently, cook differently, and rely heavily on the bounties of nature.  People there shrimp, crab, fish, and hunt recreationally.  This provides an interesting mix of ingredients for cooking.

I met my first wife in Louisana.  I spent a lot of time in her mother Elsie's kitchen.  Elsie grew up in a family with many children in a small town in bayou country called Raceland.  Her family spoke french in their home.  Their life was not easy, but they knew how to use the land and water to provide a significant portion of their sustenance.

Elsie's cooking talents were born of this simple life.  She would send Jan and I to the grocery store with a three item list.  With these three items and whatever was in the house, she would craft a delicious and satisfying meal.  After we had eaten her creation my tongue would be smacking my face.

Everyone knows that gumbo is a staple of Cajun cooking.  When I was in Louisiana I was exposed to two types of Gumbo, chicken and sausage gumbo and seafood gumbo.  Chicken gumbo frequently contains okra.  If fresh okra is used it is sliced and stewed down with canned tomatoes.  Elsie said that the acid in the tomato broke down the sliminess of the okra.  Otherwise tomato is not a common ingredient in gumbo.  The preferred sausage is andouille, but smoked sausage is often substituted, and it's saves a Cajun a buck.  Seafood gumbo is likely to have shrimp, crabmeat and oysters but not fish. 

I've eaten soups that people call gumbo, but they aren't what I experienced in my time in Lousiana.  This is usually because the the gumbo was not started with a roux. The foundation of Cajun gumbo is the roux.  The classic French roux is flour and clarified butter.  But we are talking about southern Louisiana which is definitely not dairy country.  Furthermore, with these people just trying to get by, cooking oil is much cheaper.  The Cajun version of the roux is 2 parts flour and 1 part cooking oil.  It is slow cooked in a frying pan or soup pot until it is toasted and brown.  This provides an intensely flavored base for the soup.  Elsie told me that you usually use a darker roux for chicken gumbo than you do for seafood gumbo.

I started my gumbo by smoking 4 chicken thighs on my charcoal grill with hickory chips.  Elsie would have boiled her chicken and saved the water for the soup.  Grilling the chicken is a great way to add more flavor to the dish.

Of course the most important step in making gumbo is to make the roux.  I used about 1/3 cup of oil and 2/3 cup of flour.  I usually start off with medium low heat, but as it cooks I turn the heat down.  You have to stir this very frequently because the flour settles to the bottom of the pan and browns.  It takes about 30 minutes before it's done, depending on the level of color and flavor you want.

Here's an image of the flour and cooking oil blended together before cooking.
While the roux is browning and you are stirring frequently, it's time to chop up some onion, celery, garlic, green onion, and parsley.  Bell pepper is commonly used too.  Elsie called these seasonings.  Once your roux is brown and toasted you can add all of the seasonings and sliced sausage to the roux.  Notice how dark the roux got.

After softening the seasonings in the roux I added the smoked chicken that I had shreaded.  I also added a can of cut okra.  The next part is very important.  I was taught not to put hot water in the pot with your roux.  It is said that it seperates from the broth and you end up with a nasty oil slick.  After adding several cups of cold water I seasoned with some dried oregano and basil, fresh cracked pepper, and about a 1/4 cup of hot sauce. I simmered that for about an hour or so.  

Louisiana Gumbo is always served over rice.  Rice is a major staple in Louisiana.  Any dish with a sauce, including all soups and stews, is commonly served over rice.  Standard long grain rice is the preference. 

Gumbo is a special meal in Louisiana.  It is served at parties and family get togethers.  It's something that's commonly made for a Sunday dinner because it's a bit of work.  I've even had turkey dinner for Thanksgiving that included a pot of Gumbo. 

I'm so glad that I got spend time cooking with Elsie.  She taught me so much about making delicious food.  I'm eating the gumbo I made right now.  I think Elsie would approve.

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