Last week, we prepared a lovely smoked goose stock, our foundation for gumbo. Yes, we could have shortcut the process and used store-bought “manufactured” stock, but that would be cheating. Processed stock lacks the depth and richness resulting from hours of extracting flavors from herbs, vegetables and the marrow, fat and residual meat from a goose carcass.
The preface to many historic Creole and Cajun recipes: “First you make a roux,” the bedrock of gumbo, etouffee and many other Louisiana dishes. Simply put, roux is fried flour. That’s where the simplicity ends. However, before we get to the roux, there’s some work to be done.
Gumbo’s building blocks
My stock recipe yielded about six quarts. For the gumbo I made preparing this article, I used four quarts and froze the other two. Although the process of making gumbo is fairly standard, the types and melange of spices and ingredients are as varied as the Louisiana flora and fauna.
Key to success in any kitchen endeavor is thorough preparation. A well-prepared mise en place removes stress, an unwanted ingredient in any epicurean creation.
Dice two large onions, three stalks of celery, and seed and dice two green bell peppers and one tomato. Most Cajun and Creole dishes begin with these aromatics. If you want to play Picasso, substitute a red bell pepper for one of the green peppers for a dash of color. Mince three large cloves of garlic. Fresh okra’s a rarity in Colorado, so I’ve learned to live without it.
Pick leaves from a couple of sprigs of fresh thyme. Since I use California laurel leaves that are large and somewhat pungent, I use only one bay leaf. Grind a couple of tablespoons of black pepper and measure a bit of Kosher salt. A tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce provides a je ne sais quoi that would definitely be missing otherwise.
For spice, measure an eighth of a teaspoon of cayenne pepper, one teaspoon ground cumin and one-quarter teaspoon each of ground allspice, sweet paprika and ground coriander. Some recipes call for Cajun spice mixes that include onion and garlic powders, but I’m not a fan of store-bought spice blends.
A half-pound of andouille sausage will supplement the goose meat and add rich flavor. Andouille is a course, double-smoked pork sausage that’s a crucial ingredient in many south Louisiana recipes. Although it’s cooked, I slice the sausage, place on a sheet pan and bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes to render some of the fat. Since my goose was picked clean at Christmas, I ordered more smoked goose breast from Schiltz Foods and used about four cups of rough chopped meat.
As I mentioned last week, Jacob’s, located in LaPlace, Louisiana, “The Andouille Capital of the World,” is an excellent source for andouille; that is if you happen to live less than a day’s drive from the store. Shipping to Colorado costs more than the sausage, so I use Aidells Cajun Style Andouille. It’s a reasonable, good quality substitute with ingredients one can actually pronounce.
Alchemy of flour and oil
We should pay tribute to the alchemist who took flour and fried it in hot fat centuries ago. Although I don’t know what fat they used, today’s cooks choose from clarified butter, rendered duck or chicken fat, or oil, depending on the dish. I use canola oil. For four quarts of stock, a cup each of oil and flour works great. Humble, personable native icon of epicurean Louisiana, Chef John Folse, advocates using fresh flour properly stored and less than six months old.
There really isn’t a gluten free option for a thickener if you want the real deal in your bowl. Chef John Besh believes “only a flour-based roux yields that traditional flavor” of gumbo. Make soup, not gumbo, if gluten’s a problem.
Before you begin making the roux, take care of all calls and walk the dog, because there’s no stopping once you’ve started.
My 13.25-quart gargantuan Le Creuset Dutch oven is my go-to pot for a large batch of gumbo. It’s heavy and can easily overheat, but it’s fun to use and heats evenly. Key here is choosing a pot with a heavy bottom, but never a nonstick pan. With my mise en place complete, pot resting on high heat, my whisk and trusty 30 year-old wooden spatula in hand, I’m ready to go.
Chef Besh heats oil before whisking in flour. He believes it hastens the process and produces a deeper dark chocolate color. I concur.
“Dancing oil” — formation of surface ripples — indicates it’s time to add the flour. Sprinkle flour over the oil, whisking constantly until it’s completely dissolved. Lower the heat to medium and continue stirring. At this point, I switch to my wooden spatula that I find moves the roux around better than a whisk, preventing hot spots.
Initially, the flour will bubble and then settle down, releasing a fragrant nutty aroma as it begins to cook. It’s a smell from my childhood. For duck or goose gumbo, a dark chocolate-colored (black) roux is best. For seafood and chicken, the color should be akin to milk chocolate.
Although this is fun, it can also be dangerous. Hot flour and oil splashing on tender skin — like fingers and forearms, not to mention foreheads — creates pretty nasty burns. Take care to keep the roux in the pot, not in the air. Hot roux “spits” if you’re not careful, so it’s important to keep stirring not just to keep the roux from burning, but to keep the roux from burning you. It’s not a bad idea to have some Aloe Vera gel nearby.
Continue stirring until the roux is glossy and dark. For assembling the gumbo, I’ll share another great tip from Chef Besh. Instead of dumping prepped onions, peppers, celery and garlic into the roux at once, resist the temptation and first add onions and stir, cooking for about 5 to 10 minutes. As the hot roux cocoons the onions, a tantalizing, nutty aroma emerges. This technique allows onions to caramelize without interference from water that cooking vegetables exude.
Next, reduce the heat and add remaining vegetables, herbs and spices. Continue stirring while cooking for another few minutes. Now comes another critical point — adding stock.
After recently breaking my roux, I turned to Chef Folse for some troubleshooting advice. If flour separates and floats instead of mixing with the added stock, it’s broken. To avoid this, add liquid in one-quart intervals, stirring constantly to allow the roux to absorb the stock before adding more.
Chef Folse warned of another common mistake cooks make: adding cold stock to hot roux. The coagulation of fat as it rises traps flour particulars. To repair, he advises bringing the liquid to a boil, then briskly whisking to blend the mixture back into suspension. Problem solved.
Once you’ve successfully crossed that bridge, add andouille, goose meat, Worcestershire sauce, and balance salt and pepper. A few dashes of Tabasco will add some kick. Stir, bring to a boil then simmer for about an hour while the flavors meld. Don’t forget to remove the bay leaf and skim any fat that floats to the surface.
Note that you’ll find many recipes that call for a different ordering of ingredient additions at this stage, but this is what I do. You’ll discover over time how gumbo can become your personal, signature dish.
To serve your painstakingly made gumbo, scoop a small amount of hot, steaming rice into a bowl, ladle gumbo over the rice and garnish with sliced green onions. My favorite finishing touch is a sprinkle of fresh, pungent file (“FEE-lay”) made from dried sassafras leaves, preferably homemade. Gumbo with a salad and hot crusty bread makes for a delicious meal anytime of the year.
If you’d like to know more about preparing gumbo using other meats, pairing it with the perfect wine and reading more personal experiences, visit my website at www.winefamilies.com.