Sunday, August 01, 2010

Chicken and Sausage Gumbo -- using fresh summer produce

Gumbo, that thick, luscious, chunk-filled stew of meat or seafood and vegetables, is a fusion of multiple Louisiana cooking traditions. Although considered by outsiders as somehow "French," the stew, in fact, most closely resembles dishes from West Africa, and even draws its name from a West African word for okra.

The seasoning is predominantly Spanish-Caribbean. The flour-fat mixture cooked to a red-brown is a French dark "roux." And if filé [FEE-lay] powder (dried, ground sassafras leaf) is added at the end of the cooking (especially used with seafood gumbo) Choctaw Indian tradition is involved.

So why West African? Who do you think got the job of cooking in old Louisiana? The early cooks were slaves, and perhaps as an irony of history, the French-Louisiana culinary centerpiece of gumbo is primarily an African dish.

Cooking-wise, the roux is the heart of gumbo making. It's the most difficult part and the only really French part of gumbo. It's a dark roux, a mixture of flour and fat or oil slowly cooked down until richly brown. I use olive oil, but other oils, margarine (yuck), or lard or bacon grease will do also. Lard and bacon grease are actually more traditional than the oils.

I use a "Cajun" spice mixture, one of the few pre-mixed seasonings I employ. My personal favorite is "Louisiana" brand (Louisiana Fish Fry Products, Ltd, Baton Rouge, LA). It contains no MSG. Tony Cachere brand is also good. The mixes contain salt (don't bother with the "lite" unless you must avoid salt), and are the only salt used in the gumbo -- with enough spice mix added to the desired level of saltiness. The spices then take care of themselves.

Serve gumbo in wide shallow bowls over a spoonful or two of cooked rice.

The recipe serves 8 to 10.

Chicken and Sausage Gumbo

3/4 cup flour
1/2 cup olive or canola oil (original was bacon grease or lard)
1 very large or 2 medium-large onions, coarsely chopped
4 large sticks celery, split lengthwise into thirds and cut 1/4-inch wide
1 very large red or green bell pepper, cored and cut in 1/2-inch squares
2 cups water or unseasoned chicken broth
5 teaspoons "Louisiana" brand Cajun seasoning
3 very large tomatoes, cored and coarsely cut up (seeds can be removed, if desired)
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thigh (or breast) cut in 3/4-inch pieces
1 pound andouille or kielbasa sausage, split lengthwise into quarters then cut in 1/2-inch lengths
1/2 pound fresh okra, trimmed and cut 1/2-inch long (or 12 ounces frozen)
Cooked, unsalted rice for serving

In heavy pot over low-medium heat fry flour and oil to make roux. Stir frequently, scraping bottom of pan, as moisture boils off then mixture turns golden (10-15 minutes).

Reduce heat slightly, and stir very frequently until color is like dark caramel or lightly creamed coffee. Be careful not to scorch the roux.

Add the onions, and fry, stirring frequently 3 to 4 minutes.

Add celery, and fry an additional 2 minutes.

Finally add the bell pepper. Stir and fry 1 minute.

Add water or broth, Cajun seasoning, and simmer 3-4 minutes.

Add tomatoes, and cook 1 more minute.

Add chicken, and if thigh, simmer 4 minutes, if breast, 2 minutes.

Add sausage, and let the gumbo simmer 5 minutes.

Add okra, and simmer 2 minutes or until okra begins to soften.

Taste, and add salt, if needed, to make faintly salty (the okra and meats will soak more up).

Finish by simmering several minutes. Let cool to allow flavors to mingle.

Serve reheated in individual soup bowls over several spoons of cooked rice.

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