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The taming of the roux: How to make great gumbo for Fat Tuesday and beyond

Gumbo, like this version made with chicken, is simple to make and tasty. The flavor comes from the roux; the Creole trinity of chopped onion, celery and peppers; garlic and Creole spices, stock and bay leaves. Serve over rice, with crusty bread.
Gumbo, like this version made with chicken, is simple to make and tasty. The flavor comes from the roux; the Creole trinity of chopped onion, celery and peppers; garlic and Creole spices, stock and bay leaves. Serve over rice, with crusty bread. Herald-Leader

Winter and Mardi Gras are made for each other — right in the middle of the cold, and the bad weather comes something spicy and full of all the joy that great Cajun food can bring.

If Fat Tuesday on Feb. 9 puts you in mind of fixing gumbo, the quintessential dish of Southern Louisiana, but you don’t know how to pull it off, check out Gumbo, a Savor the South cookbook, this one by Dale Curry, former food editor at the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

What makes a good gumbo?

“A dark roux, and if you’re making seafood gumbo, very fresh seafood,” Curry said. “You may not have access to that. When I go out of town, unless it’s on a coast, I make chicken and sausage gumbo, which is very very good and my family’s favorite, and you can make it anywhere.”

Curry’s book has recipes for 16 gumbos, so you’re bound to find one you like. You can make gumbo with just about anything.

“I know people make it out of squirrel,” she said. “We usually make it out of chicken, oysters and crab. Duck gumbo is very, very popular, and also goose gumbo.”

Wild game gumbo is popular with hunters who make it at hunting camp, she said. Even alligator is widely used.

For a vegetarian friendly version try gumbo z’herbes, or greens gumbo, which can be made with meat but is often made without by Catholics for Lent. It’s often served on Holy Thursday, the day before Good Friday.

According to Curry, the number of different kinds of greens is said to predict the number of new friends you will make in the coming year and it’s best to aim for seven or nine and avoid an even number, which is bad luck.

“It’s a good vegetarian dish because you can put in the seasoning and spices, and the taste of all the greens, and you’ve got the seasoning vegetables, onion, celery, bell pepper, and those are things that are used to make gumbo anyway. That gives it a lot of backbone,” Curry said.

Like almost all gumbos, it starts with roux. If you’ve never made roux, it can be a bit intimidating. Before the late Chef Paul Prudhomme popularized Cajun cooking, Curry said, “people thought you had to stir it for 30 minutes to an hour on a low flame to make roux and I’ve seen people do that.”

But Prudhomme revolutionized things by making roux quickly, she said.

“It changed the way people cook. I do that because I don’t have the patience,” she said. “I use equal parts of oil and flour, and get it mixed very, very good and start stirring. I put it on a high heat to begin with, stirring constantly, and as it starts browning I turn it down a bit, and eventually get it down to a medium heat.”

How long you cook it will determine how intense the flavor is, but you have to be careful not to burn it.

“If you’re making chicken and andouille gumbo, it tastes best with a darker roux, about the color of mahogany, darker than peanut butter, which is medium roux,” Curry said.

The roux helps to thicken the gumbo as well as give it flavor.

The other ways of thickening gumbo are with okra and/or filé powder, which is ground sassafras. If your dish has those, then you probably won’t need roux, which can save you a bit of calories.

Curry’s book includes a recipe for roux-less gumbo made with file and okra. She says the key to using okra is to cook it beforehand to eliminate the extra moisture that turns it slimy.

Cooking is as much a part of the Louisiana culture as eating, Curry says, and every cook has their own variations on dishes that arose from the cultural gumbo of French, Spanish, Native American, Caribbean, African, Italian influences on the region.

One key ingredient in many Cajun or Creole dishes is bay. Curry cautions that you should either use ground bay or, if you use the whole leaf, take it out before serving. Curry offers this precaution after meeting a New Orleans doctor who said people who swallowed a whole bay leaf often end up in the hospital.

“He showed me X-rays. I think he had done a hundred different surgeries on people who swallowed the leaf,” Curry said. “So after that I’ve always made sure to say remove the bay leaf if it is whole.”

Gumbo z’Herbes

From Gumbo by Dale Curry

1 small ham bone or 1/2 pound smoked ham cubes

1 pint shucked oysters with their liquor

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 large onion, chopped

3 green onions, chopped

3 celery stalks, chopped

3 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 teaspoon Creole seasoning

3 bay leaves

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon sugar

2 cups cleaned and roughly chopped mustard greens

2 cups cleaned and roughly chopped turnip greens

2 cups cleaned and roughly chopped collard greens

4 cups spinach

1 bunch flat-leaf parsley

1/2 small cabbage, chopped or shredded

2 cups endive, torn in pieces

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Cooked long-grain white rice, for serving

If using a ham bone, simmer it in a large pot in 2 quarts of water, covered, for 2 hours or until the meat is about to fall off the bone. When cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the bone and set aside. Discard the bone and save the stock (you will need about 7 cups).

Strain the oysters, reserving their liquor, and check for shell fragments. You should have about 1/2 cup of liquor.

In a very large, heavy pot, combine the oil and flour and stir over high heat until the roux starts to brown. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring constantly, until the roux becomes the color of milk chocolate. Immediately add the onions and simmer until caramelized. Add the celery and garlic and simmer a minute more.

Stir in the reserved ham stock, oyster liquor (about 1/2 cup), Creole seasoning, bay leaves, thyme, sugar, reserved ham or ham cubes, and greens and season with salt and pepper. Simmer, covered, for about 1 hour. Add the oysters and cook until they curl, about 1 minute. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Turn off the heat and remove the bay leaves.

Serve in soup bowls over the rice.

Makes 8 servings

Chicken and Andouille Gumbo

From Gumbo by Dale Curry

2 pounds boneless chicken thighs, cut into bite-size chunks, or 1 whole chicken, cut into pieces

1 pound andouille sausage, cut into bite-size pieces

2 tablespoons plus 1/2 cup vegetable oil, divided

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

1 large onion, chopped

1 bunch green onions, chopped, white and green parts separated

1 green bell pepper, chopped

2 celery stalks, chopped

4 garlic cloves minced

6 cups chicken stock

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon Creole seasoning

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1/3 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

Cooked long-grain white rice, for serving

In a large, heavy pot, brown the chicken and andouille in 2 tablespoons of the oil. Remove the meat from the pot and set aside.

Add the remaining oil and the flour to the pot and stir constantly over high heat until the roux begins to brown. Reduce the heat to medium or medium-low and cook, stirring constantly, until the roux is the color of dark chocolate.

Add the onions, the white parts of the green onions, the bell pepper, the celery, and the garlic and sauté over low heat for about 5 minutes. Gradually stir in the chicken stock. Add the bay leaves and Creole seasoning and season with salt and pepper; cover and cook for about 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Add the green onion tops and parsley and remove the bay leaves. Serve in bowls over the rice with hot sauce and hot French bread.

Makes 6-8 servings

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