The Tao of Gumbo

It was Willie Wallace–a jovial man with the presence of Jove–who started me out on the gumbo thing.

Willie was 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 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.

I think I was the one to mention a gumbo–mea culpa–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 tried to bluff my way through, but it was all of about ten seconds before Carol and Willie both started howling, Out of this incident grew a determination to learn how to make a distinguished gumbo. I think I’ve succeeded, too. This recipe makes lots and lots

Thanks, Willie.

To begin the gumbo, make about a half cup of roux ( I use a “beer bottle” roux) 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. though you’ll find disagreement on this point, chicken stock in various strengths–full for chicken and sausage, weak for seafood–works just fine,  dammit. 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 a pound of frozen okra–thawed, sliced and rinsed okra.

At this point, add about three heaping tablespoons of dried basil, fresh or dried chopped parsley, a bunch of chopped green onions, two tablespoons of leaf thyme, and a tablespoon each of oregano, black pepper, white pepper, and a teaspoon of cayenne. Blend this very well and adjust your liquid. Leave on low heat for an hour or so, then off the heat and cover.

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 until just done. Add to the gumbo mixture along with two dozen poached oysters.

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,

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. In either case, blanch the sausage first so it won’t get too greasy.

This is my gumbo. It’s a good one because it follows precepts; know the rules before you break them. With presence of mind, you will find your own gumbo.