Do the holidays really end after New Year's for most people? Must be fucking nice. Because in my world, the ever-increasing number of discrete gatherings-precipitated by divorces/remarriages, younger cousins/siblings becoming grown-ups and starting their own families, and a chance cluster of January birthdays-means I'm cooking all the time, for a shitload of people, from November straight through till February. I don't mean to sound bitter-I mean it's in the name of love and family and togetherness or whatever the fuck-but practically speaking, I've been at it long enough to have learned to bang out a jail-sized main course with minimal effort. My answer: a huge-ass pot of soup.
But the soup has to live up to the "specialness" of these dozens of occasions. So what's a special soup? Well, obviously it has to taste very good, but it should also be a treat, hard to acquire in everyday life due either to geography or because it's a pain to make-ideally both. And then it has to be substantial enough to act as a main course on its own. And I'm not sure if I thought it out this way when I first decided to make it, but the thing I came up with about 10 years ago was gumbo. In case you didn't know, gumbo is one of, if not the, greatest American soup. And it's impossible to find a decent one within a hundred miles of Baltimore. Although it is a complex dish, much of the heavy lifting can be done in advance, leaving just a final assembly that takes less than an hour.
So what is gumbo? Seems like a straightforward enough question, right? WRONG. Like with most highly regional dishes (from Louisiana in this case), there's no correct response, or many correct responses, but never a single correct answer. The only qualities that seem to be shared by most permutations of gumbo are that it is roux-based and that the Cajun version of mirepoix, known as "the holy trinity" (onion, celery, and green pepper), is used. Pretty much everything else is up for debate.
Maybe the biggest point of contention is okra versus filé powder: The former is a vegetable that produces a mucus-like, protein-filled slime that supposedly thickens the gumbo, while the latter is ground-up sassafras leaves that serve the same function and also contribute flavor. Gumbo filé powder is becoming more common in area supermarkets, and Safeway carries it for sure.
A Louisiana-native friend of mine who makes a mean gumbo has a family that's famous for its recipe for season salt, but some folks consider season salt anathema. Others consider it a necessity (the Tony Chachere brand in particular-also getting more common in grocery stores here). Same goes for hot sauce and Worcestershire too. Confused yet? Oh, and there are never tomatoes in gumbo, people. Like, ever.
Last year I encountered the rice-versus-potato salad thing. Yes, it really is a thing. I was at the fairly well-regarded Stanley Restaurant in the French Quarter in New Orleans, and one of the side options for gumbo was potato salad. And by side, I mean a scoop of it right in the middle of the gumbo. Our server was like, "Oh yeah, here in New Orleans this is how you do it, nobody from here eats gumbo with rice." I'd never heard of the potato salad thing before that moment, but potato salad totally supplanting rice? Sounded a bit bullshitty to me, and indeed the potato salad was cold (probably necessitated by health code) and way too mustardy. But I could kinda see it as a starch upgrade instead of or in addition to rice. In fact, I served it that way this past Christmas, to favorable reception. Crazy, huh?
All of this is to say, you can go a lot of ways with gumbo. What follows is my way, which is, of course, very special.
Roux The thing that gives gumbo much of its identity is the roux. In French cuisine, a roux is butter and flour cooked together and used as a thickener for sauce. Creole dishes often use a butter-based roux (French influence at play), but in gumbo the roux is simply flour mixed with neutral oil, something like canola or corn, or sometimes bacon fat.
Aside from thickening, roux greatly influences flavor via how long the flour has been cooked. This can be measured by color: a shorter cook time equals light color and mild flavor, while longer yields a darker hue and deeper, richer, nuttier flavors. It's said that some cooks can differentiate among 20 or more shades of roux, from blond to peanut butter, all the way to a "black" roux, which is just shy of burnt. I like a "brick" roux, which is dark rust in color.
Since the roux will be doing most of the thickening, and if you think of a large soup pot as being full of sauce, you will need quite a bit of roux. The general rule of thumb is slightly more flour to oil, about 1 1/2 cups flour to 1 cup of oil, which is enough roux for about 2 gallons of gumbo, or 15-20 servings.
The most common way to make a roux, which can be made days or weeks in advance, is on the stovetop, which requires constant stirring to prevent scorching. A much easier way is to bake it.
INGREDIENTS 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup neutral vegetable oil
DIRECTIONS Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Combine oil and flour in a loaf pan (no need to mix yet) and bake for 10 minutes.
Stir roux, making sure flour and oil are completely combined. Continue to bake, stirring once more at the 25-minute mark, for a total of 40 minutes, then allow to completely cool.
Store covered and refrigerated for up to 2 weeks until needed.
Trinity This is the aromatic base for Cajun cooking, which differs from a French mirepoix in that carrots are replaced with green bell peppers. And it's the peppers that really give the final product that distinct but difficult-to-place backdrop of flavor. I like to mix in a few hotter peppers to lend heat to my gumbo. I've stored chopped trinity for a week in a tightly sealed container with no noticeable deterioration in quality.
INGREDIENTS 3 large green bell peppers, seeded and de-ribbed (keep trimmings for stock)
1/2 bunch celery, root end trimmed off (wash and keep for stock)
2 large onions, peeled and trimmed (keep peel and trimmings for stock)
3 serrano peppers
DIRECTIONS Cut bell peppers, celery, and onions into a medium dice (about 1/2-inch squares). Cut stems off serrano peppers, then cut lengthwise and across into small semicircles. Put everything into a large mixing bowl and combine until well mixed-it should total about 8 cups.
Store in sealed containers or ziplock bags until needed.
Protein One of the numerous rules governing gumbo prescribes strict separation of poultry and seafood, but I always mix the two, plus I add sausage.
Andouille sausage (highly spiced and smoked pork) is nothing short of mandatory as far as I'm concerned-if you can't even turn up the mass-produced stuff (Aidells, for example), just make something else, seriously. Chicken-based sausage and Johnsonville brand are so far away from the real thing as to not count at all. Most grocery stores will have sausage labeled "andouille," but make sure it's not a company that also makes brats or kielbasa, and make sure it is pork and not chicken or turkey. Also watch out for uncooked or fresh andouille, as this is a different product altogether than the smoked variety. Whole Foods is a good bet for finding decent andouille.
Chicken is cheap and it provides bulk protein as well as stock, while shrimp and/or oysters are at least a half-assed stab toward "special occasion" splurging.
Pre-cooking the chicken a day before not only saves time and cleanup on the day of, but storing it in its own broth overnight also ensures moist, flavorful meat. In addition, it's easy to skim excess fat and scum off of cold broth. Otherwise wasted onion skins (make sure they're washed) contribute color and perhaps some flavor to the cooking liquid. Shrimp shells definitely add both.
INGREDIENTS 4-5 pounds chicken, either a whole roaster or combination of parts (not wings)
3 pounds 21/25 shrimp, shell on
5 cloves garlic, no need to peel
Any scraps from onions, peppers, and celery
DIRECTIONS Put garlic and scraps into pot.
Peel shrimp, put shells into pot. Devein the shrimp if necessary, and store cleaned shrimp in the refrigerator in a sealed container or ziplock bag.
If using a whole chicken, remove gizzard packet from cavity. Place whole chicken or chicken pieces into a large pot. Cover with water, add 1 tablespoon of salt, and bring to a simmer.
Reduce to a bare simmer, cover and cook for 1 hour.
Allow to cool, then remove chicken to a large bowl or container. Pick meat from bones, discarding bones.
Strain broth over chicken meat. Cover chicken and broth, and refrigerate until needed.
Gumbo INGREDIENTS 8 cups trinity
10 cloves garlic, minced finely
2 cups roux (it will have separated a bit, bring to room temp and stir slowly to remix)
3 pounds chicken or however much is left, strained from broth
8 cups stock or water or combination
2 pounds andouille sausage, cut into 1/2-inch slices
1 pound cleaned shrimp
1 tablespoon (or to taste) season salt, preferably Tony Chachere (I know it's labeled as "Creole"-just go with it)
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 cans smoked oysters, or 1 pint fresh shucked (optional)
gumbo filé powder (garnish)
chopped scallions or parsley (garnish)
DIRECTIONS Add a little oil to a large stockpot (large enough for at least 10 quarts). Heat over medium-high until the oil is hot.
Add the trinity, half the garlic, and 1 teaspoon of salt, and mix vigorously. Cook for about 5 minutes, or until onions become translucent.
Add all but 1/2 cup of the roux and stir for a minute. Raise heat to high and slowly add all stock, mixing continuously.
Add chicken and sausage, and bring to a bare simmer, then reduce heat to low. Season to taste with season salt and sauces, and cook for 2-3 minutes. If the gumbo seems too thin, add the remaining roux and mix thoroughly, making sure roux is dissolved completely; if too thick, add a bit more stock or water.
Add remaining garlic and cook at a bare simmer for 15 minutes, or until celery is tender.
Add shrimp, oysters, and thyme, stir thoroughly and cook for 2-3 minutes.
Turn off heat, and add more season salt or sauces as necessary. Sprinkle about 1 tablespoon of filé powder onto gumbo and mix thoroughly.
Serve with cooked medium-grain rice (I like to scoop some rice onto the center of a bowl of gumbo, rather than ladle gumbo over rice) and top with additional filé powder and chopped scallions.
Makes 2 gallons of gumbo.
Potato Salad INGEDIENTS 5 pounds of potatoes
8 strips of cooked bacon, chopped
1/2 cup of mayonnaise
salt and pepper
DIRECTIONS Cover whole potatoes with cold water, add 2 tablespoons salt.
Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer. The potatoes are done when you stick a knife all the way into the center of one and it pulls out easily.
Drain potatoes and allow them to cool, then cut into a rough dice.
Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl, season to taste. If serving with gumbo, make sure the potato salad is at least room temperature, preferably warmed, and not cold.