It’s wintertime in New Orleans. It’s a shorter season here than in New York and the average temperature is certainly warmer but when it gets cold here it is COLD. The uninsulated houses are basically large shoeboxes on stilts, impossible to heat. My 100+ year old windows are drafty and my floor feels like an ice skating rink underfoot. It never, ever got as cold in my Brooklyn apartment as it has been in my New Orleans house for the past month. As an antidote to the damp chill that is seeping into our bones I am making gumbo. And baking pecan corn muffins. And making sweet potato green curry soup and roasting a duck. Any excuse to turn the oven on and keep myself over a hot stove is welcome.
I first learned to make gumbo in New York City when I was a cook under Chef Brent Sims at the Green Table restaurant in Chelsea. Brent is a Southern boy who went to culinary school in Thibodaux and earned his stripes at Peristyle in the French Quarter. When he taught us cooks to make the gumbo roux we could not believe how dark we were supposed to let it go. My French-trained colleague was certain it was burned. Brent taught us to have all the peppers and onion and celery, the trinity, chopped and ready to go before you started the roux, which you must stir constantly, watching, smelling until it is the color of chocolate and smells like popcorn and then to quickly add in the vegetable to stop the roux from cooking. Like a lot of things in cooking that you brown, like nuts, pastries or a carmelized piece of meat, a roux tastes best right before it crosses the very fine line that separates the world of the brown from the world of the burned. If your roux goes too far and burns there’s really nothing to do but to start all over again. But that’s not really a big deal, it’s just flour and oil, after all.
I’ve made gumbo twice in the past 2 weeks, once with a friend visiting from Brooklyn and again tonight as a weekday dinner for my family. My friend Janet and I closely followed a recipe by Tom Fitzmorris for Chicken Andouille Gumbo. Tonight I made duck and duck and pork sausage gumbo, with a homemade duck stock because that’s what I had in my house. Gumbo is like that, it’s not an exact science, there’s lot of different styles and everyone makes it differently. Use what you have, make it work. The basic formula is roux (but how dark and how much is based on your preference), chopped trinity, stock, meat or seafood (which ones you use is your choice), okra (if you like) or filé (if you prefer). Eat it with rice, or as I prefer it, with a scoop of potato salad.
Yield : Serves 6 to 10
2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken cut into bite-size pieces (dark or white meat or both)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup flour
1 large onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped (or green or both)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
flat-leaf parsley, chopped
12 cups chicken stock or water
salt to taste
black pepper to taste
1 tsp Crystal
2 bay leaves
1/4 tsp dried thyme
1 lb. andouille or other smoked sausage
2 green onions, chopped
2-3 cups cooked long grain rice
filé powder (if you like)
Brown the chicken in 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large kettle or Dutch oven over fairly high heat. Keep turning the pieces until they brown on the outside; they should not cook through. Remove the chicken and reserve. Add the flour and remaining oil to the pot and make as dark a roux as you can. Avoid burning it. When the roux is milk chocolate-ly brown, reduce the heat and add the onion, bell pepper, garlic, and parsley, and sauté until the onions are translucent and have begun to brown.
Return the chicken to the pot, along with the chicken stock or water, salt, pepper, Crystal, bay leaves, and thyme. Bring to a simmer and cook for about an hour. Slice the andouille into 1-inch-thick disks. Roast in oven to render the fat. Add the sausage to the gumbo pot. Cook the gumbo, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is tender, for 1-2 hours. Serve over rice with a pinch or two of filé at the table.