Far before I moved to the Gulf Coast in 2006, I was obsessed with Cajun and Creole food. I’d cooked up plenty of Zatarain’s from a box and topped everything with Tabasco. But, let’s be honest, good Cajun food requires time, energy, and an understanding of the food culture that you cannot get outside of the Gulf.
But even if the Cajun restaurant in your non-Southern city is crap (And it is. It is crap.), that shouldn’t stop you from all the culinary wonders of Louisiana!
The real trick to good gumbo is time and a strong stirring hand. To make a good roux–the mixture of oil and flour that forms the base of a gumbo–you need to stir it continuously for at least 20 minutes.
To make, over very low heat combine equal parts oil (a neutral-flavored oil like vegetable or canola or butter) and equal parts all-purpose flour in your soup pot. Using a wooden spoon, stir continuously over the lowest heat for at least 20 minutes until the roux is a dark peanut-butter color. This is best done with a friend/partner/child who you can trade off with.
NOTE: The longer you go, the better it will taste. There are some real Cajun restaurants in Lafayette that can get it so dark that it’s almost black. However, there is a point of no return. If the roux burns, you’ll have to start all over. This will make you want to cry. I know.
All Cajun and Creole food starts with The Trinity–onions, celery, and green bell pepper. This is the basis for every standard, be it gumbo, jambalaya, or red beans and rice.
You’ll want to dice all three of these along with some garlic to add to the roux once it’s finished cooking. (If you’re cooking this alone, chop your veg BEFORE you start the roux, so you don’t have to step away from it.)
When you’re happy with the color of your roux, add in your vegetables and saute until cooked through. (You may need to turn up the temperature some to make this happen.)
Add your Cajun seasoning mix (I prefer Tony’s, which I always have on hand), two bay leaves, and any additional cayenne that you would like at this point. (If you don’t have seasoning mix, that’s fine. You can make your own.) Give it a few more stirs to incorporate.
At this point, it’s time to add your stock or broth. The choice on what you use here is entirely up to you. For a seafood gumbo, I will either use a seafood or chicken stock. With a more meat-forward dish, I may use chicken or beef. If you’re doing a vegan iteration, then obviously veggie stock is fine. Gumbo is forgiving. Use what you have.
Add enough to cover the vegetables and then about three inches more. It’ll thicken significantly as it cooks in with the roux. Bring to a boil and then return to medium heat.
Gumbo has lots of iterations. Chicken. Seafood. Gumbo Z’Herbes. It’s really just meant to be a base to add whatever is around, like much of the cooking of the region. Most incorporate some sort of smoked sausage (andouille is the traditional) and another meat.
If you’re doing any sort of meat, while the stock is coming to a boil, chop it into bite-sized pieces and saute. (Save any seafood for the end.) When it’s just browned, add the meat (and any juices) to your gumbo pot.
If you’re doing a vegan iteration, roughly chop you greens and add them directly to the gumbo pot.
Continue to cook your gumbo on medium until everything is cooked through.
While the word gumbo is derived from a West African word for okra, not all gumbos include okra. Traditionally okra works as a thickener for the soup, which is added near the end of the cooking process. If you don’t have okra (and frozen is fine here), many folks use file (pronounced fee-lay), a sassafrass powder, which works to naturally flavor and thicken the soup.
While it’s heresy in most parts of Louisiana to say this, I enjoy both okra AND file in my gumbos. I think the texture of the gumbo and the flavor of the file both add their own notes without over-thickening the final product.
If using okra, roughly chop however much you want to incorporate. Add it to the pot after you’ve added your meat. (Traditionally Gumbo Z’Herbes, the vegan iteration, does not use okra, only file.) Continue to cook at a low boil for about ten minutes.
You will need EITHER okra OR file, though, for this to be a true gumbo.
While all of this is happening, put some long-grain white rice on to cook. I usually will add a bay leaf or two to the rice along with a few pinches of salt. (Since buying a ton of green garlic this spring, I also add a garlic stalk, but that’s just extra.)
You’ll serve this underneath your final gumbo.
The Final Product
Once your okra and meat have cooked through and the consistency is one that you’re happy with, you can add a few pinches of file to the gumbo for flavor. This is also the time to add your seafood. If using shrimp, crab, shellfish, or fish, add at the very end and cook until pink or shells have opened, depending, usually no more than 3 minutes.
Taste your gumbo and adjust for salt and heat. I usually add a generous amount of hot sauce at this point. If you want to add more Tony’s, go for it, though be aware that it’s very salt-forward so don’t add that AND salt.
To plate, add put your rice on the bottom of a wide bowl. Top with gumbo. Sprinkle that with some diced green onions and parsley plus a little shake of file if using. Serve with extra hot sauce (Crystal is king).
You’ve done it! You’ve also probably spent the last hour and a half in the kitchen doing this, so I hope that you’ve also enjoyed a few beverages of your choosing and are ready to get your Cajun on!