Dancing Up a Gumbo (“For the love of food”)

The Creole trinity is the beginning: diced celery, onion and green pepper, the base of many a savoury dish. Real butter. Sauté them slowly, never browning just gently massaging them from time to time to encourage them to exude their juices to combine with the ingredients to come. Bay leaf, thyme, garlic, the first dose of red pepper flakes, then the crushed tomatoes and juice, perhaps a measure of tomato paste. In your court bouillion you have your chicken simmering. Some people use a whole chicken, some people use wings or breasts, but I prefer the thigh leg combo or at least the thighs. Skin on of course! You need that fat for lubrication, without it the gumbo won’t have the weight and flavour for authenticity. Who cares about health and calories at time like this? It’s gumbo! It’s all good.

And don’t forget to start your roux. An iron skillet is best. For me, that’s one passed down from my great-grandmother. More butter of course and flour in a measure more or less correct. You’ll know when you stir it together. It shouldn’t be too loose or tight. And it also must be cooked slow. You don’t want it to brown too quickly. You want an lazy light sizzle so that when you stir it every ten or fifteen minutes, the bottom layer has tanned just a bit. For sometimes nearly an hour the roux is cooked slowly and stirred until it is a rich dark and flavourful brown. So my mother has told me, some have a batch warming all day to used whenever needed.

Now for progression in the creation of your gumbo, you really need to be playing some Cajun music. Something with that to-die-for fiddle playing and a poignant voice than makes me want to move. You just can’t be still. You want to two-step, and maybe you have no partner in your kitchen, but you can romance your gumbo. My gumbo has never tasted as good if I don’t have the music on.

You waltz with your imaginary partner and slide over for a little more thyme, a little more garlic, a lot more cayenne pepper if you like it! You taste. It’s getting there. And so if you’re doing an okra gumbo, and yes okra is key to the fabric weave of the whole, you start slicing up your precious podded parts. If they’re larger pods, four inches or above they’re going to be less tender so you add those perhaps an hour before the gumbo will be finished. If they are the little tender ones, save until later. You don’t want their unique texture to be lost, the occasional little crunch of a seed even if they cooked into silkiness they impart their flavour and unique juice.

And so the music plays and it moves the heart and feet, and your mind goes to a different place. Looking down into the pot with its bubbling goodness, the aroma rising making your belly tremble with longing….you take a little taste here and there. You have a nice mellow sip of rum or some other apertif. It makes you smile and you do another skip of steps in your dance. You begin to think of hot pepper sauce.

Don’t drink too much yet though because you need your focus to clean the shrimp and other odd seafood you might be adding. Once I did an alligator gumbo. No, it doesn’t taste like chicken. The texture is far different but depending on the reptile you have to be careful to give it proper time in tenderize in the gravy.

If you are adding shrimp or other shellfish, save it ’til the last twenty minutes or so, or less. Now it’s about time to remove your chicken pieces from their broth. Cool then debone it. Save the broth to add in increments if the gumbo becomes too thick too soon, and for after adding the roux for the same reason. What kind of sausage do you like? Andoille? Smoked? Polish? Polish in a gumbo?! Your choice. I prefer Andoille if I add it at all, be aware if you use smoked sausage or a Polska Kielbasa that they have a higher fat content which will release into your gumbo.

Do you filé or let it lay? The leaves of sassafras are both for achieving a certain consistency but also for a subtle yet important flavour. If you do filé, it can be a question of when to add it, before or after you add the roux? I usually add it after the deep brown mixture has been scraped into the pot and bubbled up and stirred in, but that’s just me.

So you’ve added the chicken, your okra and as it nears the end, you add your shrimp watching it curl perfectly into pink-edged additions which I can’t personally eat, nor after this, taste the gumbo anymore for I’m allergic to shellfish, but it’s a crucial touch to many consumers.

You can taste it again though. And now it’s safe to consume more rum or wine or whatever else you’ve having like the “Cajun Cook” of the cooking program used to say: “It’s gone be good!” Correct your seasonings, adding salt and pepper to taste, Now you have a gumbo, and it’s not red and tomatoey (which is what’s called an etoufee, a similar but different dish), and it’s a luscious sienna. Turn up the music, switch the beautiful but mellow waltz for a sprightly two-step. Time to call your friends if they hadn’t started hanging out in the kitchen already. Share the gumbo love.