Gumbo.

This is a process. There cannot be a #RecipeUpTop. There can, however, be a shopping list:

  • 1 whole chicken;
  • 1 medium yellow onion;
  • 1 red or green bell pepper;
  • 3 stalks of celery;
  • 3 bay leaves;
  • 4 tablespoons butter or veg oil;
  • 4 tablespoons flour;
  • Okra (to taste);
  • Andouille (or smoked sausage) (optional) (to taste);
  • Seafood (optional) (to taste);
  • Salt (to taste);
  • Cayenne (yes, to taste);
  • Filé Powder (optional) (to taste);

The Details

My mother was fond of telling me that my first “solid” food, after the bottle, was gumbo. Does feeding an infant a spicy broth full of shellfish fly in the face of every sentiment of modern pediatric medicine? Yes. Is gumbo the best “welcome to earth” initiation to food possible? Also, yes.

Gumbo is perfect. I’d suggest it’s not even really a single food, but rather a whole category of food. And its history is beautiful and tragic and complicated and inevitable. Its story is about the best and worst of human nature, and frankly I’m ill equipped to speak on the subject. I just think it’s important to acknowledge the foundations of this miraculous creation.

What I can say is I love the stuff, and want to make it for my family, and, well, this is how I do it. Word of caution: this is a day-long affair, so clear the books. But, it’s sooooo totally worth it.

Step one: get that chicken out.

Like so much here at the 10Chickens fort, this dish starts with a whole chicken. We’re going to break this down into the following cuts: (2) boneless, skinless breasts; (2) boneless, skinless thighs; (2) boneless, skinless legs; (2) wing clusters; (1) carcass; and all the the skin.

The legs, thighs, and breasts are going in the final product, so cut those down to bite-size.

The wings and skin can go in the fridge for now.

The carcass and the leg and thigh bones go into a big cast iron skillet (or a sheet pan), and roast in the oven at 450F for about an hour:

Why? Well, this process is all about layering deep, complicated flavors from cheap ingredients, and we’re going to wring every last molecule of tasty out of it. These parts, once roasted, are going in a pot with the skin and wings to make stock. See, there’s a method to the madness here.

Anyway, after an hour, the transformation:

This is flavor dynamite. Like I said, get it in a pot with the skin and wings, cover with water, and simmer for at least an hour (but longer if you can). NOTE: you can speed this up with a pressure cooker, which is what I do. In the meantime:

Step two: the cauldron.

This is where the magic happens. You might recognize it from our many posts about deep-frying things, but really this is the peak application. If you don’t have one, you can use a big saucepot, but beware of sticking. Get it over medium heat, slice up your sausage, and let it render:

The aim is to brown the sausage and render some of the fat. It should only take about ten (10) minutes:

Browning means extra flavor, and that fat is going to be put to good use. Evacuate the sausage to a waiting bowl, add your bite-size chicken to the cauldron, and crank the heat to high:

Get some good color on this, but don’t worry about cooking it through. The real goal here is getting some caramelized chicken flavors in the pot:

Evacuate the chicken to the sausage bowl and kill the heat. We have chopping to do.

Step three: The Holy Trinity and the Roux. Dice the onion, celery, and pepper into uniform(ish) cuts:

This trifecta of aromatic cooking is the backbone of a LOT of Cajun and Creole cooking, much like the mirepoix is to French cuisine. Here, the carrot is swapped out for bell pepper (usually green, but hey, I had red on hand). Once they’re diced, it’s time to roux.

We’ve covered roux before in our pot roast recipe, but quick refresher: it’s a thickening mixture of equal parts fat (butter or oil) and flour, cooked to various stages of doneness depending on your end goal. Lightly cooked, or blonde roux, has a lot of thickening power, but doesn’t taste like much. It’s great for white gravy on chicken-fried steak, for example. Dark, or brick roux doesn’t thicken a whole lot, but is FULL of nutty, smoky flavor. We’re going to have other thickeners at play later, so we want the same brick roux we used in that pot roast post.

Once your roux is brick, kill the the heat, add the trinity, and stir until incorporated:

If I could jar this and sell it, I would. This is the fundamental component of gumbo; the helium and hydrogen needed for our culinary supernova. If those funny prank cans of exploding snakes were flavor… well, you get the idea. And, it can hang out until your stock is done. Speaking of:

Step four: Baby gumbo. Add the stock to the cauldron, along with the browned sausage and chicken, and kick on the heat:

Doesn’t look like much, I know. But bring it up to a simmer, and:

That’s starting to look suspiciously like food. Cut your okra into wheels, and in she goes:

At this point, your gumbo is an infant. It needs time to grow up. To learn the ways of the world.

You may also note we haven’t added a single grain of salt or granule of cayenne (the only two real seasonings in this recipe). Well, here’s the thing: this is going to change a LOT while it cooks. It’ll thicken, and reduce, and meld, and marry. Just let it happen, and we’ll season when it’s a little older. Besides, there’s salt in that sausage anyway.

Speaking of, let this simmer BUT NOT BOIL for about another hour. Then we start the final countdown, Michael.

Step five: gumbo. Give it a stir, and a taste, then decide what you need for salt and cayenne. Add it, let it cook for five (5) minutes, and taste again. Do this as long as it takes, until you can’t put it in your mouth without making a noise.

Now we’re ready for filé powder. It’s basically ground sassafras leaves, and acts as our third thickener, but also a subtle flavorant. And look, if you don’t have any on hand, that’s fine. There aren’t any rules here; I just find it gives gumbo that little special “umph” that I miss when it’s not there.

Anyway, make some rice because we’re almost done.

If you’re using seafood (which I am today), toss it in at the very end and cook it until just done. I’m using United States wild-caught shrimp today, because the market happened to have some, but this is totally a personal decision. Use what you have and what you like:

Serve it over rice (or not), with a lot of Tabasco and a big napkin to blot your forehead.

Now that you’ve got the basics, branch out. Use shellfish stock instead of chicken; go oysters and turkey instead of shrimp and chicken; fry the okra into crispy cornmeal croutons. One day, I’ll close the loop on my heritage and do this with lobster, but in the meantime I’ll settle for spreading the gospel of gumbo.

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