Saturday, August 10, 2013

Gumbo!

Is there a more quintessentially Southern dish than gumbo? USA Today this week ran a feature on Southern foods that tourists should not miss. Barbecue and fried green tomatoes made the list, but so did some questionable entries, like tamales. But they left out gumbo. Given that okra is difficult to grow north of the Mason Dixon line, you would think the traditional stew of meat, veggies and tomatoes would have made the cut.

"Gumbo" is thought to derive from the African word for okra, something like "quingombo." There is no doubt that the vegetable made its way into the Southern cook's repertoire via Africans who were brought here against their will in the 18th Century. It is a member of the hibiscus family, a fact revealed when the large, showy flowers open for a single day, typically as the weather gets really hot and muggy in late July or early August. Okra will not germinate in cool soil, so gardeners typically wait until Memorial Day to plant the BB-like seeds. Soaking them overnight helps to insure complete germination, and they will fairly leap from the ground within a few days of planting. They need little in the way of attention once they are about six inches tall. Irrigation is necessary only now and then, and too much fertilizer will result in large plants with few blooms.

Once the pods begin to appear, the plants will continue producing non-stop until the first hard frost. It is important to pick each pod as soon as they become large enough at 3-4 inches. Leaving pods to mature on the plant will reduce subsequent yield. Store the harvest at room temperature and use within three days. If dark spots begin to show, it is over the hill. Individual plants will bear from one to three usable pods every day.

Cooks who find themselves with an over-abundance of okra, a not uncommon condition, can easily preserve the harvest by freezing. Simply wipe whole pods with a kitchen cloth to remove any foreign matter, drop them into containers and freeze. Blanching is not necessary. Don't bother to cut or trim the pods. You can do that after you thaw them later. Okra also makes great pickles. Follow the recipe for raw pack dill pickles on our In The Kitchen page substituting okra for the cucumbers. Do not cut the okra, leave pods whole.

Some folks say they don't like okra because it has a slimy texture. This effect results from pectins and complex sugars within the pod, and can be avoided by several techniques. First, do not wash the pods, always wipe clean with a kitchen cloth or paper towels. Otherwise, the added water will activate the gummy contents as soon as you cut the pod open. Second, cooking okra in hot oil or in a dry skillet will prevent the juice from turning slimy. Third, acid also inactivates the slime components, so pickled okra loses this tendency. Tomatoes also reduce the effect.

What you want to avoid is dropping raw okra directly into a liquid that is neither scalding hot nor acidic, like soup stock. This will result in thickening the liquid, and is probably how the stew, gumbo, was originally thickened. French and Native American influences on gumbo, however, have led to different methods of thickening.

Native Americans no doubt introduced the use of dried young leaves of the sassafrass tree as a thickening agent. This is filé (pronounced FEEL-ay) powder. Gumbo thickened at the end of the cooking process by the addition of a bit of filé  powder is often called "filé gumbo."

The other thickening technique, and the most common in my experience, was contributed by the French. Cooking fat and flour together to produce a roux, as is done with many types of sauces and gravies, allows the cook to control not only the thickness of the gumbo, but also its flavor. Depending upon how long the roux is cooked, it gives a different character to the gumbo. Longer cooking produces a progressively darker roux that loses thickening power as it increases in robustness of flavor. This can provide many opportunities for experimentation and customization. Gumbo can truly be any cook's special, personal creation.

Here is a generalized recipe for gumbo that can be varied endlessly, depending upon what you have on hand and what is in season. You can substitute any protein for the shrimp and sausage, keeping the total amount to about one cup. Any type of stock will work, also. Keep the "trinity" of onions, green peppers and celery, however, for true Creole flavor, along with the tomatoes.


John’s Creole Style Gumbo
 
8 servings
 
1/2 pound small raw shrimp
1/2 pound Andouille sausage (can substitute kielbasa), cut in 1/4" rounds
1/4 cup vegetable oil or bacon drippings
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1/4 cup chopped onions
1/4 cup chopped green bell peppers
1/4 cup chopped celery
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup sliced okra
1/4 cup peeled, seeded and chopped fresh tomatoes
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon Creole Seasoning (recipe follows)
freshly ground black pepper
3 bay leaves
3 cups chicken  or seafood stock, fresh or canned
1/2 teaspoon Worchestershire sauce
hot sauce, such as Tabasco
3/4 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano
1 teaspoon shredded fresh basil leaves
 
cooked rice
chopped green onions
hard boiled eggs
 
Peel and devein the shrimp.  Refrigerate. In a heavy cast iron skillet, heat 1/4 cup of vegetable oil over medium high heat. Fry the Andouille sausage until it is lightly browned, remove with a slotted spoon, and drain on paper towels. Reserve. Pour the fat into a heatproof measuring cup, discarding all but 1/4 cup. Return the fat to the skillet, add the flour, and stir continuously with a wire whisk until the roux is the color of milk chocolate, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan and incorporating them into the roux. Take care not to splatter the roux on your skin! It is extremely hot. When the roux is the right color, add the onions, peppers and celery, turn off the heat, and continue stirring until the mixture stops sizzling. Set aside.
 
In a large stew pot, heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil until it ripples. Add the okra, and stir fry until most of the okra has brown spots. Add the tomatoes, garlic, Creole seasoning, a few grinds of pepper, and the bay leaves. Stir fry for one minute. Add the stock, Worchestershire sauce, a few drops of hot sauce, and the fresh herbs. Bring to a simmer, then add the reserved roux-vegetable mixture by spoonfuls, stirring with each addition. The stew should become slightly thickened. Return the stew to a gentle simmer. Add the reserved sausage and the shrimp, and cook just until the shrimp turn pink, about 2 or 3 minutes. Taste carefully and adjust the seasoning
 
Serve the gumbo over cooked rice, garnished with chopped green onions and hard-boiled eggs. Pass additional hot sauce. All you need is a salad for a complete meal.
 
Creole Seasoning Mix
 
1-1/2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
 
Combine all ingredients and store tightly sealed in a cool, dark place for up to one year.
 
 

 

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