In the simmering heat of New Orleans, one would think the last thing on my mind would be a hot, thick stew. One would be wrong. Wandering the sun-bleached graves of New Orleans’s past, bouncing past brass bands at every corner along Jackson Square, sipping boozy drinks that under any other circumstances would be considered crimes against humanity – it ignites a fever in you, a fever for spice and history and flavor and community. Gumbo is a kind of talisman in Louisiana. Born of a conflict of cultures, of poverty and slavery and the rough need of the oppressed, gumbo is the perfect comfort food. Everyone (and everyone’s mother) has his or her own version, so the flavor has the ability to transport you to a place of security and tender nostalgia. The meal requires attention and, traditionally, the contributions of several people, making it a manifestation of the kind of community that supports its members in both spiritual and material ways. When everyone brings something – spicy andouille, chicken, fatty slices of bacon – the result is rich in flavor and meaning.
Gumbo is the great equalizer. Rich or poor, black, white, or Native American; traditional or modern cooks, gumbo appeals to a diverse swathe of the American population. Classic “peasant food” at its best, gumbo is ubiquitous in Louisiana from the fanciest restaurant to that weird hole-in-the-wall that might be the greatest but might also subject you to serious intestinal distress. For a dish this universally popular, it’s not hard to trace its unique charm back to a diverse multicultural origin. A true example of the melting pot principle, gumbo combines rice from the East, okra from West Africa, sausage from Germany, and filé powder from the Choctaw nation, all stirred together with French techniques native to the Creole population of 1700s southern Louisiana.
Wandering the sweltering French Quarter in the afternoon (carefully avoiding the chaos of Bourbon St.), we were enchanted by the sight of wrought iron balconies like cobwebs along the facades to either side, the promise of hot, sugary beignets, and the occasional alien snippets of French, drawling and curiously swallowed. While that exact dreamscape is hard to replicate here (especially with the unseasonably cool weather we have been having), nothing was stopping us from recreating part of the experience in a giant pot of gumbo.
One of the things I admire most about my better (culinary) half is her fearless approach to a roux. Maybe it’s the New Orleans spirit that runs in her blood, but the girl knows how to coax that butter-flour mixture to a deep, chocolate-y brown. Where others (me) cower at the thought of burning the fickle contents, she stirs with confidence and lets the roux darken in its own sweet time. With her hand on the aged wooden spoon, I am confident too. I ready the chopped veggies and the chicken stock base, the meats having been cooked – all separately, to maximize the number of dishes you’ll have to wash later. A lot of pot-scraping is required (don’t worry, things are supposed to stick a little) but the delirious pleasure you’ll feel when you smell the gently-steaming stew will make up for the work. We really do recommend going to NOLA for a big bottle of Joe’s Stuff, but if you’re steadfastly adventure-averse, you can use any Cajun spice available in your local grocery. Just don’t be shy with it!
After hours of quiet simmering, the gumbo was ready. We tucked in, dreaming of mangrove swamps and candle-lit dining tables and the swell of the Mississippi as she winds her way through New Orleans.
FWE Chicken, Shrimp and Andouille Sausage Gumbo
- 1/3 pound bacon, diced
- 2-3 pounds chicken breast, we used boneless & skinless to get nice shredded strips of chicken
- 1-2 pounds andouille sausage
- 1/2 cup peanut or other vegetable oil
- 1 cup flour
- 2 green peppers, diced
- 4 celery stalks, diced
- 1 large onion, diced
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 quart chicken stock
- 1 quart water
- 1/4 cup cajun spice mix (we used Joe’s Stuff from the New Orleans Cooking School, but you could use Zataran’s or any mix you find)
- 1 pound sliced okra (the frozen bags work great)
- 1 pound shrimp, peeled and de-veined
- 3 green onions, chopped
- 1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped
Cook the diced bacon until crispy in a large stew pot set over medium heat. Remove the bacon and set aside; you’ll add it back in when you serve your gumbo.
Once the bacon is cooked, set the chicken breasts in the bacon fat to crisp. Salt the side that is not on the pan. Cook the chicken, without moving, for at least 4-5 minutes before trying to turn the chicken over. Brown the other side of the chicken.
Remove the browned chicken and set aside. Brown the sausages in the fat, remove and set aside.
Add 1/2 cup peanut oil to the pot. Let this heat up a minute or two, then stir in 1 cup flour. Stir this almost constantly for the first few minutes, then every couple minutes or so thereafter. Turn the heat to medium-low and cook this roux until it is in between the color of milk to dark chocolate (see the above picture of the stages of our roux). This whole process can take 30 minutes.
While you are stirring and cooking the roux, bring the chicken stock and water to a boil in a separate pot.
Add to the roux the onion, green pepper and celery and mix well. Let this cook, stirring often, for about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, stir again and cook for another 2 minutes. Mix in the tomato paste.
Using a large ladle, add the hot chicken stock to the gumbo. It will sizzle and seize up as the roux absorbs the liquid. Keep adding more stock, stirring all the time and scraping the bottom of the pot, to incorporate all the stock and all the roux. You might not need all 2 quarts, but add enough to make the gumbo slightly more watery than you want it to be at the end — remember you are going to cook this down for several hours. Stir in the Cajun spice mix, taste the gumbo, and add more if you want.
Lower the heat to medium-low and add back the chicken breasts. Simmer this gently, stirring from time to time, until the meat wants to fall off the bones of the chicken, about 90 minutes. Remove the chicken and let it cool a bit.
While the chicken is cooling, cut the andouille sausage into thick discs and drop them in the gumbo. Add the okra. Using a fork, shred the chicken breasts. Add it back to the gumbo. At this point you can cook the gumbo for another hour, or up to several more hours, depending on how cooked down you want the final stew to be. Before you want to eat, add the shrimp to the gumbo and let cook just until the shrimp is no longer raw, a few minutes.
When ready to eat, serve over rice sprinkled with the green onion and parsley. Enjoy!