The endless possibilities of gumbo are due to the different combinations of ingredients that are possible to include, but one thing they all have in common is that it’s a favorite heart-warming, comfort food of choice for most Cajuns. No two individuals will fix a gumbo exactly the same and most will argue to the death that no one makes it better than their Momma! I will try to breakdown the different parts of gumbo and explain a few possible variations to give you the basis for your gumbo attempt while sharing my favorite recipe for chicken and andouille gumbo. Fear not! It may look complicated, but in actuality, a gumbo is pretty hard to screw up.
Roux (pronounced “rue”)
Even down to the basic building blocks of the dish, there is often debate on the type of roux that should be used and how dark to make it. You can make a classic roux or an oil free roux just depending on your preference. All roux is a 1:1 flour to oil (or omit the oil for the oil free version) mixture that is slowly toasted over a low heat stirring constantly until the desired color is achieved. The darker the coloring, the richer,deeper,nuttier the flavor, so I personally prefer my roux very dark, almost the color of a rich chocolate. Constant stirring is very important to getting the entire roux a uniform color without burning it. Start over if even the slightest hint of burnt roux is present. Roux can also be done in the microwave to save time, just be sure to heat in small increments stirring between each. Roux is the basis of many Cajun dishes and it’s flavor can be easily varied by using different oils and flours. If at any point your roux becomes even slightly burnt, do NOT attempt to salvage it in any way. A even slightly burnt roux will mess up the flavoring of the entire dish.
**Warning: Never, ever, EVER let hot roux get onto your skin unless you want to experience what we call Cajun napalm! Seriously, Madea’s hot grits has nothing on a hot pot of roux,**
The Flavor of “The Trinity”
Chopped onions, bell pepper, and celery often make up “The Trinity”. This, like a roux, is often a staple in the beginning of the majority of Cajun food. I personally am a garlic feign so I add garlic to it (usually in obnoxious amounts) and I often leave out the celery out of personal preference. Adding the chopped Trinity into the piping hot roux once the desired color is achieved helps break down the veggies quicker and also tempers the roux down so that it doesn’t continue to cook and potentially burn. You want to be sure to cook down these veggies until tender before added the liquids.
(There is also the option of adding chopped tomato at this point, but then you are diving into the argument of “Creole” vs Cajun gumbo. I’m not a fan of the “Creole” gumbo, so you will never find tomatoes in my gumbo.)
The meat choices for gumbo are incredibly unlimited. Basically anything you can catch, shoot, or raise on a farm is considered fair game (well except fish, I’m sure it can be done, but those are better saved for a grill or a Cajun courtbillion).
A few favorite combinations include but not ever limited to are:
Andouille or smoked sausage with chicken, turkey, and/or duck
Shrimp and crab (some add okra to this too)
I usually brown all of my meats (with the exception of seafood obviously) in my pot before cooking my roux and place it aside while the roux and Trinity cook down. It is added back in once all the liquid has been incorporated into the roux so that they simmer in the stock allowing the flavors to incorporate into the gumbo. Be aware that some seafood may overcook if simmered for too long, so add accordingly.
The Liquids and Seasonings
Only liquids that are hot should be added to the roux and Trinity mixture. I repeat ONLY HOT LIQUIDS! If cold liquid is added the oil/flour mix will separate and cause a “curdled” appearance and preventing the gumbo from properly thickening. The liquid of choice to add is completely up to you, but be sure that it compliments the ingredients. I typically use a half flavor complimentary stock/half water mixture. Add a large ladle full at a time, being sure to fully incorporate the current hot liquid before adding the next ladle full. Continue to add liquids until desired consistency is reached.
Once the liquid is fully incorporated and your meats have been added, add your seasonings of choice which can vary from a General Cajun seasoning like Tonys to herbs and peppers. Just be sure to remember not to over season or salt the gumbo at this point because as it cooks down the flavors will greatly intensify. I almost always add a few dried bay leaves in there during the simmering process also to add a subtle depth of flavor.
Once everything is added I continue to cook it down for no less than an hour, but I recommend letting it cook for several hours or simmering slowly overnight in a crockpot.
Finishing It Off
A completed gumbo can be topped with a medley of things such as gumbo file (powdered, dried sassafras…my favorite), green onions, paprika, pepper, etc.
Most gumbo is served over rice, but I was brought up to also always have a healthy serving of potato salad along with it (often served right in the bowl). The potato salad we use is of the mustard variety, consisting of minced boiled eggs and potatoes blended together with mayo and mustard and optionally pickle relish and chopped onions. A slice of bread also works wonders as a accompaniment to soak up the juice.
The SINGLE Most Important Part
I know, I know. By this point you’re thinking, “Seriously, Sarah? More to remember?!” Yes!
The single most important part of having a any Cajun dish be the best it can be is to share it with others. Having said this, on a recent adventure to visit some friends up in Pennsylvania, I froze my favorite andouille and packed it in my suitcase so that I could share a taste of Louisiana with them. This is the recipe for the gumbo I shared with them one day after a long day on the snow catching a few perch on a frozen lake and glassing for elk. Doesn’t get any better than that does it?
Chicken and Andouille Gumbo
(Caution: I never actually measure when I cook so these are rough estimates, and I made a huge batch so that they had plenty left overs so feel free to cut down on portions)
2lbs of andouille sliced and halved
2 large chicken breasts diced
8 oz of olive oil
8oz of all purpose flour
2 large onions
2 green bell peppers
3 cloves of garlic
10 cups of half chicken stock and half water mixture
seasonings: Tonys, Louisiana hot sauce, cayenne pepper, bay leaves, gumbo file powder, salt and pepper
Rice, bread, and/or potato salad to finish it off
Brown the meats, then place them aside as you prepare the roux and the Trinity as I have previously mentioned. Slowly incorporate the stock and water until you get the desired consistency, then reincorporate the meats. Season and let simmer for a few hours. Serve with rice, bread, and/or potato salad.