Hands up, who likes okra? <cricket, cricket> I thought so. Me either. I mean, it looks like something the Star Trek crew would have spray-painted orange and pretended was exotic, alien fruit; it’s skin is hairy and kind of spiky; fresh okra seems to get limp and slimy after 10 minutes in the fridge; and let’s not even talk about the snot that oozes out once we slice it, hmm? Yet, despite my lack of love for the spiky green vegetable, to me, gumbo just isn’t gumbo without okra. And since I don’t really like okra any other way, when it arrives in our CSA bag, Tai starts licking his chops because he knows that gumbo is not far behind.
I’m not French. I’m not Canadian. I’m not from the South. As a born-and-bred northeastern Yankee with Irish, Scottish & Finnish heritage, I can lay no claims to “authenticity” in the fine art of gumbo-craft. I did, however, learn my mad roux skillz at the elbow of my Louisiana-bayou-born-and-bred friend Bobby Robicheaux, who used to brew up a big batch every year for his annual crawfish boil in Boston. And call me a country girl, but I like a deep, dark, chocolate-colored roux: it takes time, but lends so much depth of flavor to the gumbo. So, for me, gumbo = 1) okra, 2) deep, dark roux, 3) the Holy Trinity of onion, bell pepper and celery, and 4) time. Lots of time.
Gumbo takes time. There is lots of chopping, lots of stirring, lots of simmering. This is not a Tuesday night dinner recipe, it is a rainy, grey Saturday afternoon recipe (much like today, coincidentally). Gumbo takes time: but most things worth having do, don’t they? I’m sure there is some 30-minute gumbo recipe out there, and I’m equally sure it’s awful: some sort of thin, meat-and-vegetable stew posing as real gumbo. But gumbo takes time. The stirring, the tasting and adjusting, the love: it’s all palpable in the recipe. It’s as real as the meat and vegetables, as important as the okra or filé. This must be why most traditional gumbo recipes out there are huge (my version is approximately 1/6th the yield of gumbo du monde): because if you put that much love into a recipe, you want to share it with friends & loved ones. Lots of them.
So, do me a favor: make gumbo. Spend the day chopping and stirring, tasting and simmering. Add okra, or not; make a blond roux, a peanut butter roux, or no roux at all; add seafood, or chicken, or sausage, or all of the above. Make it yours. Then invite your favorite people to share it with you. Life is short: carpe gumbo.
Adapted (heavily) from Gumbo Du Monde by Chuck Taggart at Gumbo Pages
- 1 and 1/2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken meat, cut into 1-inch chunks (I used breasts, but most people prefer dark meat in a stew like this)
- 1 lb cured sausage, preferably andouille (I used linguica; hardly authentic, but it’s what I had)
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil (I used sunflower)
- 1/3 cup + 1 tbsp whole wheat pastry flour (or AP flour)
- 1/3 cup vegetable oil (I used 2 tbsp of the sausage grease, then filled the remainder of the measuring cup with local sunflower oil)
- 4 cups chicken stock, homemade (storebought stock will yield a flat, overly salty gumbo: I think homemade stock is vital here)
- 1 large onion, diced
- 3 ribs celery, with leaves if possible, sliced
- 2 bell peppers, any color, diced
- 1 bunch scallions, white & light green parts sliced (reserve dark green for garnish)
- 1 small head garlic (about 6 – 8 cloves), peeled & minced
- 1 red jalapeno, with seeds & ribs, minced
- 1/2 lb okra, sliced
- 3 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
- 2 tsp Cajun seasoning (a mix of paprika, salt, celery, sugar, garlic, black pepper, onion, oregano, red pepper, caraway, dill, turmeric, cumin, bay, mace, cardamom, basil, marjoram, rosemary, and thyme)
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1/2 tsp celery salt
- 1/2 tsp dried basil
- 1/2 tsp dried oregano
- 1/4 tsp dried thyme
- 1 dried bay leaf
- salt & freshly ground black pepper
- long grain white rice, cooked
- sliced green scallion and/or fresh parsley, for garnish
- filé powder (homemade if you are a gumbo bad-ass!)
- Brown meat. In a large skillet, brown the sausages over medium-high heat (add the oil for lean, cured sausages to aid in browning). Remove sausage to a clean plate. Liberally sprinkle chicken pieces with salt, pepper and Cajun spice. Brown lightly in the sausage grease (add oil if needed), without crowding the pan; cook in batches if necessary. Do not cook all the way through; remove to the sausage plate when lightly browned on the outside. Strain sausage grease into a clean bowl.
- Make roux. In a large, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven, cook the flour and vegetable oil (using any leftover sausage grease as part of the oil) over medium to medium-low heat, stirring constantly. Continue to cook, stirring constantly, until roux becomes smooth, silky and a deep chocolate brown, about 30 minutes (or longer at lower heat). Monitor the roux carefully as you stir: if you smell the flour burning, lower the heat; if you see black flecks in the roux, it is burnt, throw it out and start over. When the roux reaches the right color, add the onion, bell pepper and celery to the roux, turn off the heat, and keep stirring until the roux cools down.
- Assemble & cook the gumbo. To the roux & vegetables, add stock, meat (with any juices accumulated on the plate), white & pale green scallions, garlic, jalapeno and spices. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for about 45 minutes. Add the okra and cook for another 30 minutes, partially covered. Add fresh parsley (add any seafood now if using). Taste and adjust seasonings. Remove cover and simmer an additional 15 minutes or longer to thicken the sauce. Taste and adjust seasonings one more time.
- Serve hot over rice, garnished with scallions, parsley and a dusting of filé powder.
- Practically endless. Use a blond roux, or no roux at all, omit okra and sub in filé powder, add seafood, lose the chicken, make gumbo z’herbes. Make it yours.
Like all stews, gumbo thickens and improves over time. Store for up to 1 week refrigerated.
Okra is in season in late summer to early Fall. With frozen okra & peppers, you could make this dish all year long.