I’ve never been a fan of Cajun/Creole food.  I can’t tell you exactly why; I just know that I don’t like it.  I could say that all they do is dump absolutely everything they have into a pot and let it simmer all day, but that’s also a pretty fair description of French cassoulet, which I adore.  I don’t know.  I just don’t like it.

It might have something to do with the fact that I was in charge of making gumbo for Mardi Gras year after year.  We always had gallons of gumbo left over and the whole restaurant smelled of gumbo the entire time.  Maybe it’s just a case of familiarity breeding contempt.

In any event, it’s worth knowing how to make gumbo, because I can pretty much guarantee that, at some point in your life, somebody near you is going to holler out, “Hey, anybody here know how to make gumbo?”  If you know how to make a bad-ass gumbo, you won’t spend all year unemployed.  Come Mardi Gras time, gumbo kings are in great demand–much like haggis masters around New Year’s Eve.

To me, one of the frustrating things about gumbo is that it can turn up in any old damned shape or fashion.  It can have chicken, weird swamp poultry, fish, shellfish, sausage (never mind all the varieties of sausage), none of the above, or any configuration of the above.  The only real constant is that it’s a thick, spicy stewish thing with okra.  Beyond that, you can do whatever the hell you want.

Why okra, you ask?  Well, the word “gumbo” comes from an African word (I forget which language) for okra.  So there.  And stop asking so many questions.  Trust me.  If it ain’t got okra, it ain’t a proper gumbo.

The addition of filé powder–ground sassafrass leaves–is pretty common too.  Both the okra and the filé help thicken the stew, and some people add more filé at service time to help bolster the flavor (personally, I don’t think that filé adds much flavor, but then again my palate isn’t inclined to the delta region of the American South).

Traditionally, gumbo is served over white rice.

What’s the difference between gumbo and jambalaya?  I don’t know.  They’re both spicy, kitchen-sink stews.  Maybe jambalaya is just gumbo without the okra.  That wouldn’t surprise me.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m unequivocally dismissing gumbo.  I like it when I can make it my way, which is with chicken and sausage.

Stolen from thepragmaticchef.com

Got a story ’bout it.  Want to hear it?  Here I go.

3-4 lbs. chicken pieces

the following four “as needed”–I don’t know how much you’ll need, so I’m not making any predictions:

  1. flour
  2. onion powder
  3. salt
  4. cayenne pepper (which my friend Chef Philip called “Cajun pepper.”  Hm.)

1 c. oil

1/2 c. flour

6 oz. onion, medium dice

3 oz. celery, medium dice

6 oz. green bell pepper, medium dice*

1 tsp. minced garlic

5 oz. okra, sliced and blanched

1/2 gal. hot chicken stock

1 tsp. minced jalapeño

1/2 tsp. dried thyme

1 tsp. dried oregano

1/2 c. tomato paste

1/2 lb. andouille sausage (in a pinch, any sausage will do)

filé powder, if you are so inclined (no real harm in doing without)

cooked white rice

Season the flour with the onion powder, salt, and cayenne.  Exactly how you season it is up to you.  Dredge the chicken in the flour, and then pan-fry it in the oil until it’s done.  Put it off somewhere where it can drain.

Pour all but about four ounces of grease out of the pan (it ain’t rocket science–don’t bother measuring; just eye-ball it).  Add the four ounces of flour to the pan and let it cook for a good long time, until it’s very dark brown.  It’ll take quite a while, but stay there stirring it so that it doesn’t burn.  If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times:  brown is good, burned is bad.  There’s a difference.

Add the onion, celery, bell pepper, and garlic, and let them cook for a minute or so.  Then add the okra.  Add the stock, jalapeño, thyme, oregano, and tomato paste, and let the hail clanjamfrie (that’s Scottish for “the whole nine yards”) simmer, uncovered, for about half an hour.

While that’s happening, cut the chicken meat up into 1/2″ pieces.  Make sure there aren’t any boney bits or cartilage or anything unpleasant left behind.  Nobody likes biting into boney bits or cartilage.

Slice the sausage and sauté it.  Set it aside somewhere and let it drain.

Once the uncovered pot has simmered for thirty minutes or so, add the chicken pieces and the sliced sausage.  Taste it.  Think about what you’re tasting, and add whatever seasoning you think is appropriate.  Take your time.  Let it simmer for about another half-hour.

If you opt to use the filé powder, stir a teaspoon or two into each portion at service time.  Ladle it over a bowl of white rice.

*–Maybe that’s it.  I hate bell peppers.  Hate ’em!  Hate, hate, hate.  Hate ’em, I tells ya.  Hate!

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