The Tao of Gumbo

Willie Wallace, a jovial man with the attributes of Jove himself: strength, intelligence, and an overwhelmingly benign presence, has been around Oxford for a long, long time.

It was Willie who started me out on the gumbo thing. Willie is from somewhere down on the Coast, where of course he grew up eating gumbo, whereas in north Mississippi the only gumbo I’d had was out of a red-and-white can. Willie was a big supporter of the Bean Blossom Bistro and he spent a lot of time there helping out. I remember vividly the day when Willie was hunkered down in a corner peeling potatoes, and Carol and I were talking about soups. Well, I think I was the one to mention a gumbo, and I started talking about how I’d make it and Willie looked up at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “So how did you say you did your roux?” Well, I think I tried to bluff my way through not knowing what a roux was for all of ten seconds before Carol and Willie both just started laughing, and I finally just had to admit I didn’t know what the hell a roux was, so they told me, and out of this embarrassing incident came a determination to learn how to make a distinguished gumbo. I think I’ve succeeded, too. Thanks, Willie.

Like a lot of other folks, I’m really serious about my gumbo. A good gumbo takes time to prepare, and it also takes some presence of mind. The roux itself takes a considerable amount of attention and some practice despite aversions you may have heard to the contrary. A roux is a mixture of butter or some other fatty substance and flour cooked together for varying amounts of time, depending upon its final use. There are three types of roux: a brown roux, a blond roux, and a white roux. Each is used as a thickening ingredient in sauces, brown roux in brown sauces, blond roux for a host of other uses, and a white roux for a cheese or cream sauce.

Now, these are the classical precepts for a roux, and when the French settled Louisiana in the early 18th century, the cooks they brought with them followed these rules in their kitchens. But somewhere along the way the roux used in Louisiana came to be cooked far longer than the Continental kinds. Some authorities believe this came about because of the dalliances of Creole apprentices in the early restaurants of New Orleans, but however it came about, the brown roux of classical French cuisine, described as being a “good light brown color,” ended up being nearly black in the Louisiana version. This deep, rich roux gave whatever it was added to a depth and resonance hitherto unknown in French cookery, is the basis for many of the most robust recipes in the formidable New Orleans arsenal of cookery.

This good dark roux is the same sort I use in my gumbo. I call it a beer-bottle roux because it is about the same color as a brown beer bottle. To make a roux for gumbo, I take a quarter cup of olive oil and a quarter cup of vegetable oil (bacon drippings are even better) and bring to a moderate heat in a heavy cast-iron skillet with high sides (a Dutch oven is perfect). Stir in about a 1/2 cup of plain flour. With a wooden spoon or a wire whisk, stir the flour briskly as it browns. Add a little more flour to the mixture as it cooks until all the oil is absorbed. Stir continually, scraping the bottom frequently, until the roux is a rich, dark, almost mahogany color. If you scorch the roux, start over again. You can make this roux ahead of time and store it in the refrigerator for use in soups and stews and sauces for beef or game and for étouffés.

To begin the gumbo, while the roux is hot, toss in about three chopped white onions, two chopped bell peppers, and a half a bunch of celery chopped, leaves and all. Stir until the mixture has cooled slightly and the vegetables are coated. Then add a quart of warm stock. Chicken stock in various strengths–full for chicken and sausage, weak for seafood–works just fine, though some purists will disagree. Stir this mixture vigorously until the roux has been assimilated and the mixture begins to thicken. Transfer to a heavy six to eight quart pot, add another quart of the stock and put the pot over a low flame with a buster and stir frequently. After this mixture has begun to thicken, add another quart of stock, three tablespoons of minced garlic, and another chopped onion. Let this mixture cook until the onions begin falling apart. Then add one pound canned diced tomatoes and two pounds of frozen sliced okra which has been rinsed under running water to reduce the mucilage, else the gumbo may become ropy.

At this point, add about four heaping tablespoons of dried basil and fresh chopped parsley, a bunch of chopped green onions, three tablespoons of leaf thyme, a tablespoon of oregano (more if you want, but be quite careful because it will make your gumbo bitter), a tablespoon of black pepper, a tablespoon of white pepper, and a teaspoon of cayenne. Blend this very well and begin tasting. You may very want to add more garlic, and you certainly will want to add some salt. Some people like to put a few dashes of Tabasco sauce and a little lemon juice in at this point, but I add this at the end. Also adjust your liquid, adding more if needed. Cook on low heat for an hour or so, then turn off the heat and let the flavors set.

Now you’re ready to add your seafood. Take about two pounds of small shrimp (20-25 ct.), and sauté with olive oil and garlic (I tend to have a heavy hand with the garlic; use your own discretion). Add the shrimp to the gumbo mixture. Take about a dozen small (3-5 oz.) catfish fillets (you can use any non-oily fish, but where I come from catfish is good and plentiful). Cut them into one inch chunks and poach them in a little of your stock water until just done. Add to the gumbo mixture. Then poach two dozen oysters in their liquor until their edges just curl and add them to the mixture.

Bring back up to heat, being extremely careful not to scorch the bottom of the pot. I can’t emphasize the importance of using a flame buster. If the gumbo seems too thick, add a little more liquid. Adjust your salt and pepper. Serve over rice with a bare sprinkling of filé powder, good hot crusty bread, and melon. To make a chicken gumbo, use a full-flavored chicken stock, omit the tomatoes and add a tablespoon of sage to the spice mixture. You can add sausage to either the seafood or the chicken gumbo, but I prefer it in the chicken, just be sure to blanch the sausage first to leech the fat out before you add it to the gumbo mixture, else the sausage fat will overpower the other tastes.

This is my gumbo. It’s a good one because it follows precepts, and you must know the rules before you break them. In time, you will find your own gumbo, and discover that it, too, takes a certain presence of mind.

The Filé File

Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) wears the crown in the laurel family’s royal culinary heritage, but two of its close American cousins can claim coronets at the very least. The first of these is the red or swamp bay (Persea borbonia) that grows all along the Gulf Coast. Before the advent of imported bay, swamp bay brought the essence of laurel to our regional cuisine, but is largely neglected now. The American cousin of L. nobilis that deserves senior status is sassafras.

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is the most widely-known laurel my part of the world, that being the American South. Heather Sullivan, curator of the herbarium at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, said, “Both older and younger trees have the aromatic oils that are associated with this family, which you can generate by either scratching the bark on the younger trees or cutting the bark of the older trees. In March, sassafras bear tiny yellow flowers grouped in clusters, and appear before the leaves emerge. When the tree is in leaf, sassafras is one of the easiest trees to identify, as it usually has three different leaf shapes:  a mitten, a glove and a solid leaf, which are spicy and aromatic when crushed.”

Sullivan said that a large sassafras might reach two feet in diameter and 80 feet in height. “The tree has not had much use in modern landscaping,” she said, “which is unfortunate, because the fall color is a party of reds, oranges, yellows and browns.” She also adds that sassafras “is familiar to many older residents in the state,” (thanks, Heather), but given my hillbilly ancestry, I find it appropriate that sassafras became familiar to me very early in my life as an ingredient for a tea that was used as a spring tonic. According to The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery (a must-have for any Southern kitchen library), roots and twigs gathered in the spring are washed, pounded to a pulp and boiled, then strained and sweetened. A little later on, I found out about sassafras beer (call it fate), and even later found out that it’s an ingredient of sarsaparilla, too.

Now, a quick caveat of sorts; sassafras oil, derived from the roots and bark, is a main source of safrole, a phenylpropene also found in cinnamon, black pepper, nutmeg and basil, that was banned by the FDA because of its carcinogenicity in lab rats. Safrole is also classified as a List I chemical by the USDEA because of its role in the manufacture of MDMA (ecstasy). But you know what? I wouldn’t worry about it too much; it’s been proven that safrole is about as dangerous as the limonene found in orange juice and the caffeic acid found in tomatoes, and I’m damn sure not going to give up eating tomatoes on account of lab rats. I still don’t drink orange juice, but that’s because of an Anita’s rant. I grew up listening to Hank Williams, and while I knew all about lost highways early on, it took me many years to discover that the filé gumbo he sings about is made with powdered sassafras leaves, which is exactly what filé is. The word “filé” is the past participle of the French filer, meaning “to spin thread”, and that’s precisely what filé does when added to a hot pot of gumbo, binding the liquid, thickening it and adding the essence of bay. Of course you’re also going to have a few L. nobilis leaves in there as well (preferably fresh, of course; it does grow here in central Mississippi with shelter from the very coldest conditions)but sassafras adds a pungency all its own, robust and heady.

Given that sassafras is the definitive American laurel, you should not be surprised to learn that filé was used as a thickening/seasoning agent in potages long before gumbo came along. In Spirit of the Harvest: North American Indian Cooking by Beverly Cox and Martin Jacobs, the authors cite an article in the 1929 edition of The Picayune Carole Cookbook explaining that filé was first manufactured by the Choctaws in Louisiana. “The Indians used sassafras for many medicinal purposes, and the Creoles, quite quick to discover and apply, found the possibilities of the powdered sassafras, or filé, and originated the well-known dish, Gumbo Filé.” They also add that though the Picayune was on the right track when crediting the Choctaw with filé, “it might have gone a bit further in crediting them with the invention of gumbo and the general use of powdered sassafras in cooking.” After all, “if the Choctaw had not set the precedent, it is doubtful that even the intrepid Creoles would have used a medicine to thicken their stews.”

Even after the rest of us got here and cultivated okra, filé remained an essential element of what came to be known as gumbos. Both filé and okra render a liquid thicker by means of strands of gelatinous (if not to say mucilaginous) substances I can’t even begin to describe, and for this very reason, they should be used sparingly together. Okra takes to stewing, but filé does not. If you’re using filé as a primary thickening agent, use a little in the last few minutes, and then offer a small bowl around the table for dusting. Filé is available in most supermarkets, but look at the label. If it doesn’t say “sassafras”, don’t buy it. A far better option is to make your own, which is easily done by finding a tree and gathering young leaves, preferably under a full moon and in the nude, of course. Dry them, crush them and then put them through a fine sieve. Store as you would any powdery substance. You know the drill.

 

Good Luck Gumbo

Our freedom of worship brought many people to this country, and among the earliest were Jews who had endured centuries of barely tolerable hardships. Many Sephardic Jews settled in South Carolina, Georgia and Maryland well before the Civil War, and they brought with them their tradition of eating black-eyed peas at Rosh Hashana. In time, this custom spread to their New World neighbors who were already familiar with the bean (yes, a black-eyed pea is a bean) but doubtless confused as to why the Jews celebrated New Year so early and didn’t use a ham bone in their peas like everyone else did. Still, the tradition caught on and endured, one of the more evident examples of the South’s many-layered and multifaceted culinary heritage. This combination of peas and okra in a thickened, richly-seasoned stock with aromatic vegetables and tomatoes makes a comforting New Year dish.

Make a dark roux (the color of a beer bottle) with 3 tablespoons flour and 3 tablespoons vegetable oil. While the roux is still hot, add one large chopped onion, a chopped bell pepper, and about three stalks (with leaves) chopped celery stalks. Stir well, add 3 cloves minced garlic. Slowly add about a quart and a half of chicken broth. To this, add about six cups pre-cooked black-eyed peas (you can use dried, but I prefer the “fresh frozen” because, well, they’re just prettier; sue me), a 12-ounce sack of frozen sliced okra that has been rinsed in a strainer so it’s not so ropy, and a 14-ounce can of diced tomatoes, with juice. Stir in about a pound of cubed or sliced andouille or smoked sausage, or you can use ham if you like. Add a bay leaf, about 2 tablespoons of an Italian herbal mix, and let cook on low heat for about an hour. Adjust seasonings for the table, adding salt if necessary and pepper to taste. Serve over rice.

About Roux

Here in the deep Mid-South, our cooking is heavily influenced by the distinctive Creole and Cajun cooking of Louisiana. One of the basic building blocks of these cuisines is the roux, a blend of starch, usually flour, and a liquid fat that’s cooked to varying degrees and used to thicken stews and soups, sauces and gravies. Roux are used in most “Continental” (i.e. European) cuisines as well, and the word itself comes from the French for “red” (rouge).

Starch has been used in kitchens to thicken liquids even before kitchens existed, but anyone who has tried to mix raw flour into a soup to thicken it knows it will just bubble and clump into a wet paste that takes forever to blend. When you combine flour with oil, the starch granules become coated with the fat and blend into stock or milk. Heating the flour in the oil cooks out the raw, pasty flour flavor, and though roux means “red”, roux are cooked for varying lengths of time to different colors for different uses.

Plain flour is most often used for a roux, and it’s the best for general use; save that corn starch for Asian dishes (more about that later). The best rule of thumb is one-part flour to one-part oil in a paste. As to what kind of oil, that depends on what you’re cooking. Generally speaking, if you’re making a white roux, use butter (not margarine, dear hearts). Since butter will burn at higher temperatures, use vegetable oil for darker roux as in most meat dishes and seafood, adding a little olive oil (particularly in a gumbo roux) for added flavor. Use lard or bacon drippings for that authentic down-home flavor you need in biscuit gravy.

Most roux are made in a sauce pan on the stove top. Yes, I know you can make a roux in the oven, or even in the microwave, but the stove top gives you much more control over the product. Cooking a roux on the stove top requires constant care and concentration. A lot of people call roux “Cajun napalm” for good reason; it will stick to your skin and burn, so when you’re cooking roux, avoid any distractions, use long-handled utensils, and for heaven’s sake, keep your children under control or out of the kitchen. Use a skillet with flared sides; cast iron is perfect. Never use a non-stick surface. Some people heat the oil first, some mix the oil and flour together before adding it to the pan, and some keep a mixture of oil/butter and flour in the refrigerator to make a roux on the fly.

Do it your way, but unless you’ve had a lot of practice, don’t use a high heat to make a roux. Cook the roux slowly, and scrape the bottom of the pan to achieve an even color throughout the mixture. If black specks appear, you’ve burned the roux, and you have to throw it away and start over. Never, never, never use a scorched roux; your gumbo, etouffee, or what have you will smell (and taste) like an ashtray.

Just like a slice of bread, a roux will toast; the longer you cook the flour, the darker the “toast”. It smells like popcorn cooking; at least, it does to me. Those of you who grill a lot may be familiar with the Maillard reaction, the reactions of proteins and sugars under heat that give meats and vegetables that roasted flavor. The same process is at work here. Cooking roux to different degrees of browning render different flavor and colors. They also thicken to a greater or lesser degree; the longer you cook a roux, the less it will thicken. You’ll find you will need to add more roux to thicken a dark dish such as a gumbo or an etouffee.

For white sauces—béchamel and other dairy sauce variations—cook the roux only long enough for it to stop bubbling, not long enough for it to brown at all. When making a white roux for soups and gravies it’s better to use slightly more butter, but for a thicker, stiffer sauce such as one you might use to hold a casserole together, use more flour. As a general rule, you’ll use lighter roux for dishes involving poultry or fish, darker roux for beef or game as well as most gumbos with the exception of a file gumbo, which traditionally doesn’t involve a roux at all. With experience, you’ll learn to customize your roux to your cooking.

photo by Vicky Wasick