Thursday, March 27, 2008

It's All Good Friday Gumbo

I am indirectly responsible for a terrible sin. The kind of sin even this heathen child can understand. A sin against family, against tradition, against the dignity of the departed.

A sin against gumbo.

Years ago, I worked for a publication that misprinted a fine woman's gumbo. She was reduced nearly to tears.

"Tomatoes in gumbo?! My gramma would kill me for such a thing."

My family's not gumbo folk, but I have an idea of what a mistake like this could mean. I wouldn't be surprised if a few of her cousins never spoke to her again, even after we printed a correction. You don't mess with gramma's gumbo.

My first experience with gumbo was on a chilly day in St. Paul, MN. It was made by Walter McFarland and I dare say it changed my life (I'm not exaggerating: it may have influenced by move to New Orleans for college). He's one of my dad's best friends, a charismatic bear of a man who's known in his family as Peewee. Three or four years running, on autumn days, he channeled his Louisiana-born grandma to make gumbo for 70 people or more. The pot was large enough to bathe a golden retriever. He stirred it with a paddle.

Sometimes it seems like everything in my parents' lives is a fund-raiser, and the gumbo parties were no exception. One year they collected checks for the late Senator Paul Wellstone, one of the few heroes of American politics. But it wasn't about the cause. It was about the gumbo, the communion of warm bowl in one hand, a spoon in the other, your mouth completing the circuit; an echo not only of the father, son, and holy ghost, but of that holy trinity of Creole cooking: green pepper, onion, and celery.

On Good Friday, I tried to recreate that mood. My roommates and I threw a gumbo party for a confirmed guest list that seemed to jump from twelve to thirtysomething overnight. The three-gallon pot that I borrowed from a friend was not going to be big enough (part of the sacred mystery of the gumbo pot is that it seems bottomless). A turkey roasting pan stood in as our second pot.

And since I was making two pots, I decided (on Friday morning, mind you) that the only thing to do was make two gumbos, one with a roux cooked to a nut brown color and the other thickened just with okra. (Both, by the way, would have just enough tomatoes to give the gumbo some color. I cut my teeth on Louisiana-style gumbo, and so, with apologies to that woman we wronged and every ancestor in her family tree, tomatoes in gumbo are right by me.)

The roux-based gumbo can best be described as a "kitchen sink" Creole gumbo. It's from Howard Mitcham's Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz (1997) and has shrimp, oysters (which I would omit to save money), crab (ok, imitation crab), chicken, stewing beef, country ham (or, in my case, turkey ham -- for no particular reason), and a hambone for flavor. The other was based on Eugene Walter's Chicken Gumbo, published in Gourmet in 1962. Instead of 1 link of chorizo, I put in about 3 of Andouille and declared it Chicken and Andouille Gumbo.

I cooked my butt off. I put on my custom NOLA mix -- the Meters, Rebirth Brass Band, Kermit Ruffins, Dr. John, Fredy Omar, and all those obscure gems on the "Big Ol' Box of New Orleans" -- and got into the zone. I communed.

And then I started to panic, when the clock struck noon and I'd only just finished shelling 5 pounds of shrimp (and making shrimp broth from the scraps) and realized I hadn't even begun the chopping. Oh, the chopping. The thing about gumbo is, there's a helluva lot of chopping.

The ideal gumbo, Walter taught me, must have a couple pieces of "something" in every spoonful: a shrimp, a meaty disc of Andouille sausage, a moist chunk of chicken. The only way you're gonna get all those pieces is by chopping them.

Mitcham's recipe actually calls for "assistant cooks." I was overwhelmed. I ran out for a six-pack of Abita Strawberry Harvest. If I was making 5 gallons of gumbo alone, I'd do it pleasantly buzzed.

And then, as if the lord Jesus himself sent them home to me, my roommates appeared. We cruised through the chopping in an hour or so, got everything going, and by 3 pm, both gumbos were doing their thing on the stove.

Guests started arriving early. By 7 pm, the appointed start time of the party, we already had a half a dozen people at our door with six-packs of Abita and bags of Zap's chips. This is the kind of thing that happens when gumbo is in the offing.

The party was so good, so full of bonhomie, spicy, steaming bowls, and cold bottles of beer, that I was already nostalgic for when it had only just begun. A perfect mix of people: new friends and old, and everyone, including my roommates and I, was strangers to at least a quarter of the other folks in the room.

The genius of gumbo is that it needs nothing more than rice, cornbread (as buttery as you dare), and my light brownies (not because you're watching your weight -- oh lawd no, this is a gumbo party -- but because they are that damn delicious.) And by the time your friends start knocking, all the hairy cooking is but a distant memory, and you're ready to let loose.

By midnight, it was, in my mind at least, official: the Good Friday Gumbo is a tradition, or it will be, when I hold the next one on April 10th, 2009. Save the date.

It's All Good Friday Creole Gumbo
Based on a recipe from Howard Mitcham, Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz.

4-5 pounds frozen shrimp
3-4 pounds artificial crab flakes (or frozen real crab meat)
2 pounds chicken pieces
1 pound stewing beef, diced small
1-2 meaty hambones
1 pound ham, diced
4 strips bacon
3 large onions, chopped
2 green peppers, chopped
6 scallions with their green leaves, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup chopped celery
1/4 cup chopped parsley
3 pounds fresh okra, sliced
32-ounce diced tomatoes, drained (or 4 large Creole tomatoes, peeled and diced)
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon thyme
2 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons salt (or more)
6 quarts stock
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons flour
3-4 cups uncooked rice for steaming

  1. The assistants should begin by cooking the chicken and shrimp. Place the chicken pieces in a pot, cover with water, and add a tsp. of salt. Boil for 30-40 minutes, until chicken is tender. Remove the chicken and reserve the cooking water for the big gumbo pot. Meanwhile, wash the shrimp and cover them with water in a pot, adding a tsp. of salt. Bring to a boil and cook for 5-7 minutes, until the shrimp are pink. When cool, peel the shrimp and set them aside. Take the shells and heads (if available), crush them thoroughly. Pour the shells into the shrimp water pot and boil vigorously for 15 minutes. Strain the liquid and reserve the shrimp broth for the big pot.
  1. The head cook should make the roux: melt the butter in a very large soup pot, add the flour, and, with the heat low, stir until it turns dark brown. (This will take about 10 minutes). Add the onions, green pepper. scallions, garlic, and celery and stir well. Adding more butter as necessary, cook the vegetables until they're limp and transparent, but don't brown them. Add the okra and keep cooking until the okra loses its gummy consistency (another 10 minutes or so.)
  1. Add the chicken cooking water and shrimp broth to the big pot. Add the imitation crab meat, the tomatoes, parsley, hambone, and all the flavoring elements except salt (if you’re using real crab meat, hold off until the end of cooking). The liquid should cover everything in the pot by about 2 inches, so add more liquid if necessary: any type of stock will do (or combination – it’s all good!). Bring the pot just to a boil, then lower the heat to medium-low, and cook for at least 1 ½ - 2 hours, being very careful not to let it scorch on the bottom. You can’t overcook it.
  1. About 30 minutes before you’d like to serve, start cooking your rice. If you’re using real crab meat, add it to the pot about 10 minutes before you’re serving. Taste the gumbo and add salt – it’ll need it. As Mitcham says, “A good gumbo must have plenty of salt in it if it’s to be savory as it should be. Keep adding the salt to the pot and stirring until it achieves this deep, rich savor. Don’t be timid! A bland gumbo is a disaster.) Serve the gumbo in large (possibly preheated) bowls: about ½ cup of rice and 1 cup of gumbo.

It's All Good Friday Chicken and Andouille Gumbo

Based on a recipe from Eugene Walter, published in Gourmet.

3-4 pounds of chicken, cut into serving pieces
2 tbsp. bacon fat or Canola oil
4 links of Andouille sausage, sliced
1/2 cup chopped ham
2 bunches of celery, chopped
2 onions, diced
1 green pepper, diced
1 pound fresh okra, sliced
2 cups cooked tomatoes
1 meaty hambone
2 bay leaves
Zest of 1 lemon
1/2 cup chopped parsley
A few good cranks of freshly ground black pepper
Dashes of Tabasco
Pinch of cayenne
Big pinch of salt
2 1/2 quarts chicken stock

  1. Brown the chicken pieces in the bacon fat or oil. Add Andouille sausage and ham. Add enough additional fat to cover the bottom of the pan. Add celery, onion, green pepper, and okra. Cook, stirring, until all the ingredients are nicely browned. Add cooked tomatoes, hambone, bay leaves, and lemon zest.
  2. Cover the pot and simmer the gumbo slowly for 30 minutes, without letting it boil. Add parsley, black pepper, Tabasco, cayenne, and salt. Taste and add more of any of the spices if desired.
  3. Add chicken stock, cover, and simmer for at least 1 1/2 hours, or as much as 4 (you can't really overcook gumbo, so long as you watch that the bottom of the pot doesn't scorch.) Correct the seasoning and serve with about ½ cup rice in every bowl.


Matt said...

Delicious. Great cornbread, too.

Dave, 'LunaPierCook' said...

I love gumbo, but have only made it once. Yours looks delicious!

nbm said...

which one was the more delicious? how did they differ?

Nora Leah Sherman said...

That's a great question. The Chicken and Andouille went faster, but there was a bit less of it.

My friend Shane, who was raised in part in Louisiana, said, w/o a shadow of doubt, that the seafood gumbo was better.

I agree; the more "stuff" in my gumbo, the better.

srhcb said...

I never made gumbo, but I recall listening to Dr John (The Night Tripper) on KAAY-AM radio's "Bleeker Street" program back in the late 60's!

I assume the song you listened to was "Gris Gris Gumbo Ya-Ya"?

Anonymous said...

Ahhh! Cornbread with Gumbo? Ya'll Yankees are funny.

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