by Kate Heyhoe
Sports fans must be in pigskin heaven right now. Not only does the Super Bowl kick off February 3, but it happens in New Orleans—just before Mardi Gras on February 12. What better food to please the crowd than bowls full of gumbo, platters of jambalaya, and bottles of dead-red Louisiana hot sauce. Don't forget the cornbread.
The main thing to remember about Louisiana recipes is not to get too serious about them. Ingredients are always interchangeable. If you don't have rabbit, use chicken. Don't like okra? Leave it out and use filé powder instead.
As a cuisine, Louisiana food developed from some seven distinct cultures, and there are about as many recipes for gumbo in Louisiana as there are stars in the sky and shrimp in the sea. But what makes gumbo distinctive from other stews or soups?
Gumbo is a mixture of many ingredients, usually various proteins and assorted vegetables, although a predominantly greens version called Gumbo Z'Herbes is especially popular during Lent. Gumbo is, as Ti Adelaide Martin (of the famous Brennan restaurant clan) describes it in Commander's Kitchen, "a serious soup," made from whatever the cook has at hand. Nothing in the Louisiana kitchen goes to waste, from bones and shells for stock to bits of vegetables for texture and flavor to bread for croutons and bread pudding.
Gumbo is believed to have originated from bouillabaisse, but the main difference between the two (and other soups or stews) is the roux—the cooked flour mixture used for thickening and flavoring gumbo. Two ingredients also used for thickening are okra (known as gombo in an African dialect) and filé powder. Filé powder is ground up dried sassafras leaves, introduced by the Chocktaw Indians to the backwoods Cajuns. At Commander's Palace, filé powder is added to gumbos with game, and okra is used for seafood gumbos.
Rules of the Gumbo Game
Feel free to break any of these rules if you see fit. When it comes to Creole and Cajun cooking, if it tastes good, that's the way to make it.
Use okra or filé powder as a thickener, but never use both, or the gumbo will be too thick and the flavors will compete.
Add filé powder at the end of cooking. Boiling it turns the mixture stringy.
The late Chef Jamie Shannon of Commander's Palace made a dark roux by combining 1 cup hot oil with 1 cup flour, stirring constantly over high heat until dark and nutty, the color of milk chocolate. Adding the flour in thirds keeps the moisture in the flour from causing the oil to spill over (use a deep pot) and keeps the oil at a hot temperature. For extra flavor, diced onion, celery, bell pepper and minced garlic are gradually stirred in off the heat after the roux turns the desired color.
Never let the flour burn. If it does, the roux will taste bitter. Throw out the mix and start again. Constant stirring, scraping the sides and bottom of the pot, helps prevent stuck particles from burning.
Roux can be light or dark or in between. For gumbo, you want a dark roux, which means long-cooking of the flour-fat mixture without burning it. Use a light roux for white sauces, cooking the mixture just long enough to lose its floury taste, and it turns blond or golden.
Use whatever fat you like, but preferably one with a high smoking point when making a dark roux. Fat can be melted lard, duck or chicken fat, vegetable, corn or canola oil, butter or whatever pleases you. Some of New Orleans most famous traditional chefs cook with fats dismissed by the new generation of CIA chefs. Lea Chase used peanut oil (fine if you don't have an allergy to peanuts), Henry Carr combines olive oil and butter, and Austin Leslie's gumbo contains margarine.
Hoppin' John Martin Taylor bakes his roux. "Since the slightest burned speck of flour will destroy the delicate nutty flavor," he says of roux in The New Southern Cook, "it is much easier to bake it, which frees you to start chopping the 'Holy Trinity,' as Cajuns call the onions, peppers and celery that add zest to gumbo." Mix equal parts flour and melted fat (vegetable oil, lard, duck fat or any combination). Spread on a sheet pan and bake at 350 degrees F. until a rich mahogany color, stirring every 10 to 15 minutes to prevent scorching.
Coastal gumbos focus on shrimp, crab, and oysters. Inland areas cook up fowl, sausage and game. But don't be surprised to find sausage in shrimp gumbo, or crab in a quail gumbo. Remember, whatever's in the kitchen is good for the pot.
Finally, don't skimp on the stock. The stock is the only gumbo ingredient as important as the roux, and it pays to make it from scratch, using meaty bones, roasted vegetables and/or fresh seafood and shells. Some gumbos don't call for stock as a separate ingredient. Instead, they combine all the flavorings together, add water, and make the stock as part of the recipe.
"Gumbo Ya-Ya" means everybody talking at once. What could be a more perfect dish to kick off the Super Bowl (or any party) with a krew of family and friends?
Mardi Gras Recipes:
Caipirinha (Brazilian Cocktail)
Country Mardi Gras Gumbo
John Ryan's Mixed Meat Gumbo
Seafood Gumbo, without a roux
Shrimp Gumbo File
New Orleans Shrimp Creole
Oyster Chowder (from Commander's Palace)
Mardi Gras King Cake
Beignets with Blueberry Sauce (from Commander's Palace)
Copyright © 2002, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created February 2002
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