I come from a long line of gumbo cooks, none of whom used published recipes for making this soup/stew blend, but all convinced their respective recipes were far the most superior. The matriarch and font of all gumbo knowledge was a maternal great aunt who lived on the Alabama Gulf Coast.
Her legendary gumbo was always made from seafood, including fish caught from the gulf and crabs from crabbing expeditions she led to tidal estuaries near her home.
The key gumbo ingredients of tomato, okra, bell pepper and green onions came from her garden. The filé, a lemony-flavored thickening agent made from dried sassafras leaves, came from New Orleans. She was a gumbo purist, teaching those around her about exotic ingredients like filé (fi-lay) and roux (rue).
I thought of the matriarch of gumbo this past week when I came across a recipe for Gochujang Gumbo. It turns out gochujang (pronounced gouch-chu-jan,go-shoe-a-jan or co-ju-jan, depending on which online pronunciation one cares to embrace) is a Korean hot chili bean paste.
I find this ingredient insulting to gumbo. Further, this recipe does not include roux, a major building block for the foundation of a superior gumbo. I question whether this recipe should even be called gumbo.
The word “gumbo” originated in southern Louisiana. It first appeared in print in 1805 and is thought to be a French variation of the African word for okra. All true gumbos include okra. They start with the Cajun/Creole mirepoix of green onion, celery and bell pepper and, most importantly, roux.
Aside from these basics, meat variations are infinite. The rural Canadian French Acadians known as Cajuns use more exotic game in their gumbo, while urban New Orleanian Creoles more often use seafood.
The key flavor element in every gumbo, regardless of origin, is roux. There is basically one recipe for roux, and that is to use equal amounts of fat and plain flour. There are infinitely many ways to make roux, provided you stick to the flour to fat ratio.
Making roux is tricky. I prefer my roux to reach a milk chocolate color without burning. Some gumbo cooks prefer dark chocolate-colored roux, but I find this especially difficult to accomplish without starting a kitchen fire.
Achieving the desired color of roux can be accomplished by stove top cooking over low temperature while stirring constantly. Frank Brigtsen, chef/owner of Brigtsen’s in New Orleans, once came to a cooking class I attended with a black iron skillet of roux that he had cooked long and slow in his oven overnight.
More recently, I have been making roux in the microwave. The matriarch of gumbo is surely turning over in her grave at this point. Though this method saves time, I recommend wearing heavy welding gloves, as the combination of flour and fat reaches very high temperatures.
If using the microwave method, set the power on the lowest possible setting. Place flour and butter in a microwave proof container. Cover with plastic wrap. Cook for a minute at a time, removing the container each time to check for desired color. Carefully remove plastic wrap and stir thoroughly.
Repeat this process, stirring and cooking, until the mixture reaches milk-chocolate color. As the mixture gets closer to the desired color, allow it to rest between cooks. It gets so hot it continues cooking after it is removed from the microwave.
Spoiler alert here. Don’t use bacon grease with the microwave method. I found bacon grease heats up much more quickly and had a near catastrophe after just one minute of microwave cooking.
The late celebrated Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme referred to cooked roux as “Cajun napalm,” so be careful when handling.
The good news is roux can be made ahead of time. It will last in the refrigerator for several days and it can also be frozen.
If interested in making the matriarch’s gumbo, here is the recipe, more or less.
THE MATRIARCH’S GUMBO
¼ cup flour and ¼ cup butter for roux
Additional ½ stick butter for sautéing vegetables
1 cup chopped green onion
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped green bell pepper
2 pounds okra, sliced to approximate ¼ inch thickness
Salt, black pepper and cayenne to taste
1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
2 (32 ounce) cartons chicken stock
1 tablespoon dried thyme
3 bay leaves
2 pounds of assorted fresh seafood (I use shrimp, gulf fish and crawfish tails)
2 tablespoons filé
Make roux according to preferred method, cooking until it becomes milk chocolate in color, then set aside. You are going for a rich, non-burned, brown color.
In a very large pot, melt ½ stick butter. Add green onion, celery and bell pepper. Sauté until soft but not browned. Season with salt and pepper.
Add okra and continue to sauté over low heat for approximately 5 minutes.
Add roux to vegetables, and stir to coat vegetables with roux.
Immediately add crushed tomatoes. Continue stirring over low heat until smooth.
Add stock. Add additional salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper to taste. Add thyme and bay leaves. Simmer at least three hours until vegetables and okra are tender.
Twenty minutes before serving, add seafood in the amount and combination desired to hot gumbo. About 5 minutes before serving, remove from heat and stir filé into mixture.
Serve over steamed rice, and make sure Crystal hot sauce is on the table for those who like their gumbo spicier.
Pat Kettles writes about food, wine and spirits every other Wednesday. Contact her at email@example.com.