A story in a bowl
Published: Thursday, October 18, 2012
Updated: Thursday, October 18, 2012 23:10
Cajun food is a test of patience and taste buds. You don’t need a family-secret recipe or awesome culinary skills if you know what to wait to for.
Since I am a first generation Filipino, I can’t say that the recipe I’m sharing has been passed down to me or that I have perfected it. In fact, my mom always used sticky rice for jambalaya and it was awful, so she stopped trying to make it. She also tried to make gumbo, but finally resigned to Zatarain’s. She no longer makes Cajun food for the same reason I don’t make Mexican food: I can buy better than what I make.
But, Cajun food doesn’t intimidate me and it shouldn’t intimidate you either. You just have to know what to look for, what to smell and what to taste. It is a very sensual experience, which is probably why Louisianans are proud of their gumbo. With etouffee and jambalaya, it is pretty straightforward, but with gumbo, there’s room for expression. Spicy characters probably put more Tabasco sauce and crazy characters put crazy meats. If chicken soup is for the soul, then gumbo is for your story.
All stories have characters, a plot and an end, so here is the outline for your next story:
2 cups flour
1 cup vegetable oil (try to find corn oil)
2 cups chopped onions (~1 large onion)
1 cup chopped green bell pepper (~1 whole bell pepper)
1 cup chopped celery
3 large garlic cloves finely diced
3 bay leaves
5 chicken breast halves cut up into bite size pieces (with-bone is preferred)
3 cups andouille chopped (any lean smoked sausage will work)
Tony Chachere's Original Creole Seasoning or whatever seasoning you prefer, but seasoning is a must!
3 Quarts chicken stock (this will provide most of your sodium)
1/4 cup chopped green onion
Pour the oil into a large heavy pot (cast iron is preferred) followed by the flour, set the heat to medium-high and continuously stir. It will go from beige to tan to peanut butter to finally milk chocolate; the amount of time will depend on how hot the pot is. A rich brown color will translate to a richer flavor. It will smell burnt, but that’s okay (assuming you’ve been stirring continuously and something isn’t actually burning).
Once it reaches the color of milk chocolate, quickly pat yourself on the back for you have made a roux and then add the onions, bell pepper, celery and garlic. You’ve just made one of the most important parts of Cajun food (a roux) and now you’re using another important part of Cajun cuisine: the Holy Trinity. Yes, surprisingly, celery is considered a seasoning vegetable, along with onions, bell peppers and garlic, even though it has no taste when it’s raw. Continue to stir and cook the mixture until the vegetables are soft and translucent.
Now, slowly add the heated chicken stock one cup at a time and stir well in between cups. You don’t want clumps of roux in the final product.
Once the base comes to a slow boil, turn down the heat to simmer and add the bay leaves, Andouille, Tony’s and other seasonings such as Tabasco or parsley. For a kosher version, I left out the Andouille and added garlic salt and thyme instead. Allow this to simmer uncovered for 1 hour. During this time, you can get the fixings ready for dessert such as bread pudding.
After an hour, add chicken and simmer for yet another hour, stirring every 15 minutes. Remember, Cajun food is a test of patience, but it’s also a test of taste buds, so be sure to check the taste throughout the process. Trust your taste buds and your friends’ noses. I purposely made the recipe light on salt to allow people to fix their individual bowlful, but you are in charge of the overall flavor. Salt does not always equal flavor. While waiting during the final hour, cook the white long grain rice to go with your gumbo.
Serve as much or as little rice as you want to go with a healthy bowlful of gumbo. Sprinkle chopped green onions to add extra flavor and always have warm French bread to sop the bowl clean. It takes hours to make, but maybe 5 minutes to enjoy the first bowl and another 5 for the next.
(Recipe adapted from this gumbo website.)
Just like the Louisianans who tell tall tales while eating their Cajun stew, you can add or leave out bits and pieces to make your gumbo as wild or as tame as you want. Gumbo isn’t quick n’ easy to make, but it’s worth the wait and just like a good story, people always want more.