In fact, though, gumbo is a forgiving dish. The Cajuns of southern Louisiana have a long history of cooking with whatever foods are in season or available, and the seemingly endless number of gumbo recipes reflect this. The basic structure is simple and adaptable to what you have on hand and your schedule for the day.
How simple is a gumbo? This simple:
- Make a brown roux.
- Cook the "holy trinity" and the okra (optional) in the roux.
- Add stock.
- Add bay leaves, thyme sprigs, garlic (optional), cayenne (optional), and vegetable (optional).
- Cook until time to eat and vegetables are well cooked.
- Add filé powder.
- Serve on hot rice.
If you are making a nonvegetarian gumbo, there is one additional step: Cook the creature(s) or creature parts and add them at the appropriate time. Duck, turkey, andouille (a hard smoked pork sausage common in Louisiana), tasso (a ham-like smoked pork cut), chicken, and similar meats can stew for a long time, whereas quail, shrimp, crab, and fish should be cooked and added at the last minute.
Now for a few notes on each step.
1. Make a brown roux. You probably learned to make a white sauce in your high school Home Ec class. A brown roux is very similar. For a roux for one pot of gumbo, heat 1/2 cup of oil in a cooking pot with a very heavy bottom and then gradually whisk in 1/2 cup of white flour. Whisk constantly until the mixture is the color of peanut butter and smells like roasted nuts. This step is the only tricky part of making gumbo: If you keep the heat too high, you may burn the flour and have to start over. If you keep the heat too low, it will take forever for the roux to darken sufficiently. For a more extended discussion of roux and other ways to make a dark roux, see the instructions at the "Gumbo Cooking" blog, the instructions for Magic Roux Powder, and three roux recipes from restauranteur Alex Patout.
2. Cook the "holy trinity" and the okra (optional) in the roux. The "holy trinity" of southern Louisiana cooking consists of onions, green peppers, and celery, all chopped. You can use equal volumes of each or adjust the proportions to your own taste. You should have 3 to 5 cups total of the "holy trinity" and another 2 to 3 cups of chopped okra, if you are using it. Cook for about 5 minutes or until the veggies have softened.
3. Add stock. For most gumbos, the best stock is a chicken stock or a "no chicken" chicken stock. A vegetable stock without tomatoes also works. Add stock 1 cup at a time to the pot, stirring until the mixture thickens to the consistency of a thick sauce. Keep adding stock in this manner until the mixture has the consistency of a thick stew. Five or six cups of stock should do it.
4. Add bay leaves, thyme sprigs, garlic (optional), cayenne (optional), and vegetable (optional). Again, the quantity of herbs depends on your own taste. It is fine to use dried bay leaves and thyme if you don't have fresh. If you are not using okra in your gumbo, you probably will want to add 2 to 3 cups of a chopped vegetable now.
5. Cook until time to eat and vegetables are well cooked. You can let your gumbo simmer at your convenience for one to four hours. The gumbo will be brownish and the vegetables very soft and nearly indistinguishable from each other.
6. Add filé powder. About a teaspoon for a pot of gumbo is good. Filé powder is the dried and ground leaves of sassafras. You may find it in your regular grocery store with the herbs or with the ethnic foods. Be sure to read the ingredient list to make sure your filé powder contains sassafras and nothing else. Or you may need to try a gourmet grocery store or an upscale health-food store. If you have used okra in your gumbo, you don't need filé powder; each ingredient serves to thicken the gumbo, so most recipes call for one or the other. However, I personally like the flavor of filé and use it even with okra. If you are not a vegetarian, you can add some Worcestershire sauce now.
7. Serve on hot rice. Use converted rice if you can find it. It may be shelved with the regular rice or with the ethnic foods. Converted rice looks, cooks, and tastes much like white rice, but it provides better nutrition and the grains stay nicely separate. Cook 1/2 cup of raw rice per person. You can serve your gumbo over the rice or serve them side by side. Garnish with flat-leaf parsley if you like.
In a few days, once my New Orleans friends are home from Hurricane Isaac and have electricity again, I will post a recipe of my own for cactus leaf gumbo.
In the meantime, you now know enough to make your own authentic gumbo!
If you prefer to follow a recipe, the New Orleans Times-Picayune has five pages of links to recipes for gumbo and other southern Louisiana stews, starting here.
(sassafras art in the public domain)