The Background Story
If the military teaches you anything it’s “be flexible with holidays.” We haven’t had a typical “gather-round-the-table” family Thanksgiving in….three years? We’re one-out-of-four for “normal Christmases” so far. Learning to accept Army life, smile, focus on the positives, and create a special day regardless of crazy schedules, missing family, or absent traditions is crucial if we don’t want to spend every holiday in a “but it’s not what I planned on” sulk.
Making-do with holidays leads to really lovely surprises.
Last year Carl spent several weeks training in the-middle-of-nowhere Louisiana before deploying. The unit gave him Thanksgiving Day off, but wouldn’t let him leave to fly home. Instead, I flew out to meet him on Thanksgiving morning. It wasn’t going to be a “real” Thanksgiving – no turkey or gravy or cranberries or potatoes or rolls or beans or stuffing or pies. No backyard football. No hikes in the woods. No relatives. No walking down to my grandparents’ stables with the dogs. No board games by the fire. No parents or siblings.
Instead, we drove to a little town called Natchitoches (used to film the main street in Steel Magnolias if you’ve seen it) in the middle-of-nowhere Louisiana. We checked into a hotel by the highway, then ventured out into the gray chilly drizzle in search of somewhere…anywhere…serving food on Thanksgiving Day in the small-town South.
We figured we’d be lucky to find an open McDonalds, but we also didn’t care. There’s nothing like a long separation and a husband heading off to a war zone to remind you of the people and blessings you’re really thankful for.
Eventually we found a small crowded bar on the north edge of town. I ordered my first ever Chicken and Andouille Sausage Gumbo, thinking momentarily of brown turkeys roasting over pans of drippings, then forgetting the thought while staring happily across the table at my in-real-life-instead-of-a-thousand-miles-away husband. Sometimes letting go of expectations and welcoming whatever comes your way opens the door to wonderful things. The food arrived. I took my first bite of “non-Thanksgiving dinner”. I met bliss on a plate.
After the weekend, I flew home. Carl deployed the next day. It’s almost a year later. He’s home again. And I started craving that same delicious meal.
While I’ll often try a new recipe for a single dish if the ingredients and technique look promising, I’ll usually do some extra searching and research before trying a whole new cuisine or ethnic foods. I’ve found that often the first recipe that shows up in cookbook or internet searches is the “Americanized” version – the kind with the right “look” but most spices and herbs removed to give it more of a bland standardized flavor. Boring. Gumbo, while made in America, is Cajun food, it’s own unique spicy cuisine created by French refugees with help from the indigenous indian population and others in Louisiana.
I’ll usually take a multi-point approach for research: check my own cookbooks, check online recipes, ask a friend a friend for recommendations if I happen to have one who cooks that ethnic cuisine a lot, and possibly check cookbooks out from the library. Of course, I don’t do this all the time, or even every month. I do it when I want to learn a new skill set, a foundation for cooking without recipes the next time.
For this recipe, I found a gumbo recipe in Joy of Cooking, asked a friend, and browsed through well-rated gumbo recipes on Epicurious.com over a lunch break. Epicurious is one of my favorite sites thanks to helpful comments from experienced cooks. If you have a hundred experienced home cooks reviewing a recipe they’ll usually come up to a general consensus on the necessary tweaks (“Way too oniony, cut in half” or “much more flavorful if you sauté the vegetables in a splash of wine first” or “bake at a higher temperature for a better crust”). You also get good clues if the recipe accurately achieves correct ethnic or regional flavors (“Vietnamese food just like my Vietnamese mother used to make”, “An outrage. Completely misses the flavor of real gumbo. I’ve lived in New Orleans for 50 years…”, “I’m Ethiopian, and to be authentic you really need to add X spice.”).
In this case, my friend also pointed to me to a video by Alton Brown of Good Eats which you can view on youtube (Part 1, Part 2). Once you’re past the corny beginnings, Brown’s kitchen advice is always extremely helpful because he teaches the principles and science behind what he’s doing. His shows don’t just cover one recipe or meal. They build foundational skills for all sorts of basic and specialized cuisines.
After reviewing the recipes for common ingredients and techniques, as well as any defining differences, I combined them into something like this:
Chicken and Sausage Gumbo
2 tsp. ground red pepper (results in spicy Cajun stew – if you can’t handle spice, cut by half)
1.5 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground black pepper
1 tsp. garlic powder
½ cup flour
2 – 3 Lb BLSL chicken breasts cut into 1 – 2 inch chunks
~3 Tbsp. vegetable oil
½ cup vegetable oil
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 cup finely chopped onions
½ cup finely chopped celery
½ cup finely chopped green bell pepper
2 tbsp. minced garlic
8 cups chicken broth
½ – 1 tsp. fresh or dried thyme
2 bay leaves
1 Lb smoked, Andouille, or chorizo sausage chopped into ¼ to ½ inch pieces
Combine first five ingredients (red pepper, salt, black pepper, garlic powder, flour) in a bag. Shake to mix. Add cut up chicken pieces and shake until completely coated.
Heat 3 tbsp. vegetable in large oil heavy pot or casserole over medium high heat. Add chicken pieces and brown on all sides. Remove and set aside.
Reduce heat to medium. Add ½ cup vegetable oil to pot. [This much oil made me uneasy at first, but it’s standard in gumbo]. Scrape up browned bits. Whisk in flour. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, to make a roux. The mixture will go from white, to a light tan, to brown. After about half an hour it will achieve a reddish-brown, similar to brick. Do not leave unattended or roux will burn, and ruin the flavor of the whole dish.
Once “brick” color is achieved, add in the onions, celery, peppers, and garlic, stirring frequently about 7 minutes until soft.
Carefully pour in chicken broth. Add the thyme and bay leaves, and return the browned chicken to the pot. Simmer gently, covered, for an hour. Remove the cover. Simmer another 15 minutes. Fish out the chicken pieces with a slotted spoon and dice or shred into ½ inch chunks. Return to the pot along with the diced sausage. Cook another 15 minutes. Taste – add salt and pepper if needed, but the soup will probably not require much additional flavoring.
Serve over brown or white rice. Enjoy!
1) Proportion of vegetables: Brown mentioned that Cajun dishes like this work off a 2-1-1 proportion principle from French cooking. In French cooking two parts onion to one part carrot to one part celery is the base for many dishes. The Cajun cooks (originally French Canadians who fled to then-Spanish Louisiana from persecution in Nova Scotia) adapted the vegetables but use the same proportions. That made sense, so I followed it loosely – most recipes I looked at had the same vegetables but widely varying proportions.
2) Proportion of roux: The roux should be made with equal parts oil and flour. Brown weighs his for accuracy. I just went with a half-cup of each, the one-to-one proportion I saw in several recipes.
3) Seasonings: The blander Americanized recipes left out several of the herbs and seasonings for a gummy flavorless stew. The others consistently included a good amount of garlic, significant amounts of ground red pepper, thyme, and bay leaves among other flavors.
4) Sausage: I couldn’t find Andouille around here so I had to go with regular smoked sausage. Brown explained that Andouille is made from ham, rather than just ground regular meats, so I’m very curious to try it some time for the extra flavor.
5) Roux: Oh my goodness. A roux is a true labor of love, and a true test of patience. My biggest failing in cooking is impatience: I turn up burners too high, cut baked goods before they’re cooled, and take meats out of the oven before they’re done. I’d always thought of a roux as the light tan mixture you get after stirring flour and fat together over heat for five or so minutes. However, except for the Joy of Cooking recipe which said 5 – 7 minutes, most of the recipes I read stated that the roux would take a long time (up to 40 minutes) with nearly continuous stirring at medium heat, and would need to turn from white, to blonde, to brown, to “brick”: a red-brown at which point it would be ready. Mine took half an hour of frequent stirring at medium heat, but it was definitely worth it. Nutty. Savory. Perfect. Brown suggests skipping this hands-on time-intensive step by popping the roux mixture in a 350 degree oven for an hour and a half to achieve the same result. I wanted to try it the traditional way first, but the oven route might be a great option next time, or for any busy mothers who don’t want to stir hot oil with a screaming toddler at their feet.
6) Thickening: The most authentic recipes seem to use File powder or Okra for thickening. I didn’t have either. However, since I slow-simmered the dish for a good hour and half due to a late work evening, it still boiled down just enough to be thick soup without reaching gravy consistency. File is supposed to add its own unique flavor, so maybe next time.
7) Length of time. The recipes varied widely here. Some said cook for about two hours. Some said half an hour. Like I said above, mine went for an hour and half and turned out beautifully. Don’t know if it really matters though.
8 ) There are many other versions of gumbo: with duck, with seafood… Personally, I think it would be good with leftover Thanksgiving turkey. That might become a tradition for our home.
Updated to correct my sources. The cooking show host was Alton Brown, not Bittman.