2012 is going very well so far. In addition to some very good personal developments in my life, the blog is getting off to a rapid start. This momentum continues to build thanks to my dear friend, Angela McComb, who I’ve mentioned in an earlier post under her moniker Maully Millions (check out her blog, Creativity in Captivity!)
Today, she contributes even further by gracing the blog in guest post format with her wit, salty language, and a treasured family recipe for gumbo, something I am convinced I must do on my own at some point in the near future.
Without further ado, I’ll let her words and pictures speak on her behalf!*
*The following words, photos and opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of Cast Iron Therapy. But they probably do.
My paternal grandmother was the best cook in the world. She made the most amazing food, and taught me how to measure ingredients in the palm of my hand. Gram originally hailed from an unpronounceable and unspellable city in northern Louisiana, and the area definitely influenced her cooking. She liked things spicy. And hot. Or preferably spicy and hot. When my parents were still together, she taught my mom how to make this fabulous gumbo recipe. We’re pretty sure she pulled it out of a magazine sometime in the 1970’s, hence the demands for margarine (actually, “Oleo”), not butter. She passed away when I was 10, and my mom and I started cooking her gumbo for family holidays when I was a teenager, as a way of honoring her. And because her gumbo is freaking delicious.
Gram once told me that the Cajuns descended from the Acadians up in Canada, and that the farther south they traveled the shorter their name got and the smaller their lobsters, turning into crawdads. They had to stop in Louisiana before both disappeared all together.
People often ask me what I put in my Gram’s gumbo, and then look at me blankly when I say, “Everything.” Seriously. Crab, shrimp, bacon, that magical combination known as the Holy Trinity (similar to mirepoix for the Francophages), okra, tomatoes, and a good handful of spices. That’s what gumbo is - a stewed concoction of sundry items, slow cooked until everything blends together to make a cohesive, delectable whole, then served over rice so you don’t die from the hole burned in your gullet.
It’s a chore to prepare. Gumbo is a party food: it takes hours to prepare, and will feed an army once done. You can prepare it solo, but it is incredibly helpful to have a second set of hands, particularly in the activity-heavy first hour or two of preparation. This recipe is for a Cajun gumbo (as opposed to Creole), and uses roux, okra, and if necessary, filé for additional thickening. Even the most well-stocked pantry may not have all of the spices, so make sure to double- and triple-check your shopping list. If you’re starting from bare cupboards, this may require quite the outlay. Check your local co-operative grocery store for their bulk bin spices. You’ll save a bundle that way, and you wont be stuck with several jars of barely used spices that will never get touched again. You’ll also want to beg, borrow or steal a good, large Dutch oven if you don’t already own one. Enameled cast iron is best, at least 6 quarts, but a heavy-bottomed stock pot will do in a pinch. You’ll need a small cast iron pan as well. If you don’t have that piece of equipment, I’m really not sure we can be friends anymore. Finally, you’ll also need a large, deep-sided sauté pan.
Required pans, plus chopped bacon and roux.
The first step in the preparation of amazing-delicious gumbo is to cut an assload of vegetable and clean the crab. I prefer to do this the day before, because I don’t hate myself. Stick the onions in the freezer and do them last, that way the tears you cry will be from the pain in your hands rather than the lachrymatory agents released by the little fuckers. The celery (de-strung, of course), bell peppers and onions should all be diced fine. My husband, Max, was drafted into acting as my sous chef for this experience, and he did a mighty fine job of chopping the celery and peppers. I did a less stellar job doing the onions. You can save the garlic, green onion and parsley for chopping up the next day, since they’re pretty fast and easy (like your sister).
With marriage comes indentured servitude.
You should also clean the crab the day before. I will not provide instructions on doing this as that’s a whole post on its own, it’s really gross, and I forgot to take pictures. Basically it involves breaking apart a previously cooked crab and removing its yummy meaty bits, while avoiding its gross non-meaty bits. You could skip this step entirely by using imitation crab, but that’s lame and I suggest you don’t go that route.
On the day of, give yourself about 4-5 hours to make the gumbo, or 6-plus if you’re doing everything that day.
Start with the roux, which is a French flour and fat combo that is used to thicken soups and stews, and provides a slightly nutty flavor. Put a stick of butter and a cup of flour in a small cast iron skillet, and cook over the lowest heat setting until it turns a “dark mahogany”. The recipe claims it will take 45 minutes, but in my experience it takes for-fucking-ever. Go by color rather than time for a successful roux. It’ll get very dark and liquidy, but don’t burn it. Stir more often than you think it probably needs, and you should be golden.
In the bottom of your Dutch oven (or Dutch oven substitute), fry up the bacon. I like to chop it into 1 inch sections before frying, to save the effort of crumbling later, but this is really up to preference. Here, I used a 12 ounce package apple-wood smoked bacon, which is considerably more than the 5 to 6 slices suggested by the recipe. I did that because we’ll use the bacon fat to fry the veggies, and because this bacon was a little less fatty than usual. And also because bacon is fucking awesome, and if a dish is good with a little bacon, it will be amaze-balls with a lot of bacon. Anyway, fry up the bacon until crispy, remove from the fat, and save it. I’m serious. It may be hard to keep your hands off of it, but don’t eat the bacon. It has to go back into the gumbo later, so you’re really just robbing your future self of bacony-awesomeness.
Don’t forget to stir the roux. Don’t worry, it isn’t done yet.
This is the point at which you should start sautéing your thawed okra in a deep sauté pan, with butter. Or, if you’re me, this is the point where you inevitably let loose a string of invectives because you forgot to pull the goddamned okra out of the freezer the night before and it is still solid as a mother fucking rock. No worries. Stick it in deep-sided sauté pan, add the butter, and put a lid on it on low to medium heat. It can thaw as it sautés. Just don’t let it burn.
Okra may look weird and slimy, but it is delicious.
And speaking of burning, stir the roux. It still isn’t done.
Now, in your Dutch oven which has been generously bacon fatted, add vegetables in the following order, giving each a few minutes to enjoy the fat bath before adding the next: bell pepper, celery, onions (both kinds), garlic, and finally parsley.
All the veggies, sans parsley.
Add the thawed-sautéed okra to the mix, and stir the sucker up, admiring the pretty contrast of greens and reds and thinking to yourself that breakfast would have been a good idea before you started.
Now you can also add the cooked bacon, the cans of tomato, tomato paste, chicken broth, bullion cubes, optional white wine, and enough water to fill the pot (no more than 3 quarts). DO NOT use that nasty-ass cooking wine or my grandmother’s ghost will rise from the grave to punch you in the face. You should only use wine you’d be willing to drink for cooking. Even that Two-Buck Chuck from Trader Joe’s is better than “cooking wine”. While we’re at it, if you are using the optional white wine, you should pour yourself a glass. Its 2 o’clock somewhere!
Bacon and tomato products being added to the mix.
Topping the pot off with water.
You could add the roux at this point, if it were done. It isn’t. Stir it some more.
Now you can add the seasonings, adjusting for taste. What I’ve given you is actually a reduced version for my wuss-mouthed friends, and is less than half as spicy as my Gram’s original recipe. The seasonings that shouldn’t be adjusted are: 3 teaspoons of salt, 2 whole bay leaves, ¼ tsp dried thyme, ½ tsp ground allspice, 1 tsp sweet basil, 1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce. And yes, I know that 3 teaspoons of salt equals 1 tablespoon of salt, and it seems like a lot, but you’re putting it into what is essentially a very large pot of vegetables with meaty bits. It really does need that much salt.
For the “spicy” seasonings, start off by adding the following: 3 shakes of Tabasco* sauce ; 1 tsp. crushed, dried red peppers; ½ tsp. cayenne pepper; ½ tsp. white pepper; ½ tsp. black pepper. Stir really well, let it cook together for about 5 minutes, then taste it. If this isn’t spicy enough for you, you can add a few more shakes of Tabasco, and a ¼ teaspoon of each of the peppers until it is spicy enough. Go slow, and don’t get cocky. Remember, you can always add more later, but you can’t take it out once its in.
Yay! The roux is finally done! Look at that beautiful, mahogany coloring! The liquidy texture! Isn’t it a glorious thing?
You may need a second set of hands to help wrangle the cast iron pan while you scrape every last tidbit of floury-buttery goodness into the pot. Stir it all together. You should notice the gumbo becoming thicker, less “brothy”. Set the heat to the lowest setting possible while still maintaining a simmer, and let that bad boy go.
With the roux added in, but not fully incorporated.
This is a good time to make breakfast, lunch or just finish off that bottle of white wine. My preferred choice for gumbo-day noshing is eggs and bacon. Don’t forget to stir the gumbo every ten to fifteen minutes for the next few hours, making sure to scrape the bottom and sides of the pan.
Breakfast of eggs and auxiliary bacon. Now aren’t you glad you didn’t eat all of the gumbo bacon earlier?
The recipe says to simmer for one hour, but this will result in a soupy, sub-par gumbo. For superior, authentic product, you really need to go at least three hours. The hard part is already over, now it’s just a matter of monitoring the gumbo and stirring every so often so it doesn’t burn. Also, make sure none of your treacherous house-companions stick their filthy fingers in to steal a sample of proto-ambrosia. This may be a challenge, depending on the cunning and low moral character of the people with whom you live.
Unapproved sampling may result in amputation of offending hand.
Start the rice about 30 minutes before meal time. Or, my favored option, make someone else make the rice. Add the crab and shrimp to the pot, and let them mingle for about 15 minutes, or until everything is nice and hot.
Peeled, deveined shrimp and fresh crab.
Turn off the heat, and check the thickness of your broth. If it is still soupy, sprinkle a bit of filé on top, stir it up, and check again. If you’ve followed my instructions, you probably wont need it. Let everything sit for about 10 minutes.
Serve the gumbo in a bowl, over rice. If feeding fewer than 15 people, there will probably be leftovers (lucky you!).
(Gram’s recipe, with some adjustments and clarifications, appears below)
margarine (not butter) butter
½ cup flour
2 white onions
1 bell pepper
1-3 large buds garlic
5-6 green onions
2 cups celery pieces
1 cup fresh parsley (or ½ cup dried)
5-6 slices bacon
4 cups okra (fresh, frozen or canned)
3 Tablespoons margarine butter
2 1-lb. cans diced tomatoes
1 small can tomato paste
2 cans chicken broth
2 chicken bullion cubes
1 cup white wine (optional)
1 Tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
3 teaspoons salt
5 shakes Tabasco sauce*
2 crushed or whole bay leaves
¼ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon crushed, dried red pepper
1 teaspoon sweet basil
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon white pepper
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 lb. crab meat
1 lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined
cooked white rice
- Make roux. Mix margarine with flour in small heavy cast iron skillet. Cook over very low heat, stirring frequently, until roux is the color of dark mahogany, about 45 minutes. Roux must get very dark, but do not burn. Roux should be liquidy.
- Chop onions, pepper, garlic, green onions, celery and parsley.
- Fry bacon, crumble and save.
- In bacon fat, fry vegetables in order: bell pepper, celery, onions, garlic, parsley.
- Chop okra and sauté in margarine. Add to vegetables in skillet.
- In large (6 quart or larger) Dutch oven, add vegetables, bacon, roux (when its ready), tomatoes, tomato paste, chicken broth, bullion cubes, white wine, and up to 3 quarts of water (so it isn’t too tomato consistency).
- Add seasonings, adjusting to taste. Simmer at least 1 hour.
- Add crab meat and shrimp during the last 15 minutes.
- Heat until hot. Turn off heat, add filé powder (if needed for thickness) and stir. Let sit 10 minutes, then serve over cooked white rice.
*Not Tapatio. Not Sriracha. Tabasco only and forever.**
**Disclaimer: Tabasco Sauce is made on Avery Island, in southern Louisiana. My maiden name is Avery, but I bear no known relation to the people who named the island or who make the only sauce that should ever be used in my Gram’s gumbo.