BATON ROUGE, La. - Gumbo is one of those dishes that everyone has an opinion on.
Dark and stewlike is best, says one cook, while another, who may be a close friend or neighbor, disagrees. The opposing view is that the best gumbo is caramel color, a flavorful soup that lets the seafood and vegetables stand on their own.
All would agree that gumbo is a slow-cooked dish served either as a soup course or as an entire meal. In Louisiana, a seafood gumbo is sometimes topped with a spoonful of potato salad, as well as a scoop of cooked white rice.
According to Stanley Dry, a Louisiana food expert, "trying to sort out the origins of gumbo in Louisiana is complex and ultimately, inconclusive.
The name comes from the African word "gombo," meaning okra, suggesting that the original gumbos were made with okra. Okra thickens vegetable and seafood broths and produces the soupy gumbos that many Louisianians love.
But gumbos are also roux-based, made with roux, the browned flour-and-oil mixture that both seasons and thickens the broths. The roux-based gumbos take their inspiration from French culinary traditions.
Every gumbo is unique, created by a cook with patience and love, says Louisiana chef and photographer David Gallent, who gives classes in gumbo making.
Another informed opinion on the subject: Gumbo is better the next day, Gallent says. Make a pot, cool it down, ladle into shallow containers, cover and chill 24 hours in the refrigerator. The next day, return the gumbo to the pot and gently reheat it on the stove.
"Overnight," Gallent explained, sharing his expertise at a gumbo workshop, "the pores in the meats and chunks of seafood suck in the seasonings and intensify the taste.
"That's why," he continued, "it's important to go light with salt and pepper. I'd even suggest underseasoning. You can adjust the salt and pepper right before you serve or allow each person to add what he or she prefers to their bowls of gumbo at the table."
Gallent, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, works as a recipe developer and food photographer-stylist for food manufacturers, agriculture and seafood trade organizations and cookbook publishers.
Gumbo, he told his workshop, consists of four components: starch, broth, particulates (vegetables and meat) and seasonings. A fifth component in Louisiana is file, which is optional.
Starting with the starch, Gallent showed class members how to make an oil-free roux. It's easy, more healthful than the higher-fat variety, and does not affect the taste of the finished gumbo, he noted.
To make the oil-free roux, spoon the desired amount of flour into a measuring cup. Overfill the cup and then level off with a knife or spatula. Pour the flour into a large baking pan. An insulated pan works well, he said.
Bake the flour in the pan in a 350 F oven for 1½ hours, stirring every 15 minutes to distribute the flour. This stirring is important; for the task, Gallent used a flat, ovenproof silicone spatula. Fully scrape the bottom of the pan to rotate the flour as it bakes, he explained. When the flour is browned, remove from the oven and cool.
According to Gallent, the oil-free roux can be stored in a closed container or freezer bag in the freezer for six months.
One cup of dry roux will thicken a gallon of broth, Gallent said. "That is the ratio of starch to broth you will work with in making gumbo."
From starch, Gallent moved into discussing how to handle particulates, the vegetables and meat or seafood components of gumbo.
"I like to think of gumbo as caramel soup," he said. "I want both the appearance and taste of a rich caramelized roux filled with caramelized vegetables.
"Proper caramelizing takes time, and when it comes to making gumbo, the time spent in caramelizing is your gift of love, something from your heart that shows you care," he added with passion.
Gallent recommends caramelizing vegetables separately from the roux. He cooks over low to medium-low heat in a cast-iron skillet, slowly cooking the water out of the vegetables and concentrating the sugars in the vegetables to create the nice caramel color.
He does onions first, then the bell peppers and celery. The bell peppers and celery release steam when added to the caramelized onions and deglaze the pan, Gallent said. The steam also distributes the caramelization throughout the vegetables.
A family-size pot of gumbo will call for two onions, one to two bell peppers, two ribs of celery and three garlic cloves. Gallent adds the garlic last.
After readying the vegetables, Gallent returns to the roux which he has transferred to a large gumbo pot. Slowly add a small amount of roux; stir over medium-low heat until it thickens. Then, add a bit more roux.
"Think of roux and broth combining as making liquid Mississippi River mud," he explained. "One ladle at a time, stirring constantly with the spatula all the way through and around the sides of the pot, too. Keep the mass smooth and free flowing."
Once the roux and broth are combined, Gallent transfers the mass, as he refers to the combined roux and broth, to another pot. Cook the mass over low heat for 45 minutes.
During the cooking time, skim and discard foam that rises to the top, but don't stir the pot, unless you are concerned about it scorching. Cook at a low temperature to prevent this from happening.
After the broth and roux flavors have melded, it's time to incorporate the caramelized vegetables. If you are adding okra to the pot, now is when you would de-slime or cook the okra before stirring it in.
As with the vegetables, cooked separately before being added to the roux and broth mass, Gallent also recommends cooking the meats separately.
"I strain out the browned bits from sausage and will also precook seafood to prevent steam off the cooking seafood from diluting the mass," he continued.
What if you can't hold a gumbo overnight before serving? Gallent advised removing the gumbo from the stove, away from the heat. Let it rest for 5 minutes. Don't stir it. Make a final skim to remove any skin that may have developed on the surface as the gumbo cools.
Re-season if you feel a need to do so and have green onions chopped and ready to put on top of each bowl as it is served.
The following recipes are from Gallent's gumbo class.
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ to ¾ cup vegetable oil, clarified butter, fat or lard
Use a heavy pot or cast-iron skillet to make roux. Heat the oil over low heat and stir in enough flour to make the consistency of wet sand.
For best results, a roux is cooked over low heat and stirred every 15 minutes until it's the desired color of a copper penny for a lighter roux, or a chocolate bar for a darker roux.
For a lower-fat roux, omit the oil and cook the dry flour in a 350-F oven, stirring every 15 minutes, until the dry flour reaches the desired cooked color, a golden brown.
The cooled dry roux is then whisked with cold water or broth into a liquid slurry, and the lumps are smoothed out before adding the slurry to the broth.
(Recipe from David Gallent, chef and food photographer)
Shrimp and Sausage Gumbo
2 pounds unpeeled, large fresh shrimp
Two 32-ounce containers chicken broth
Half of a 10-ounce can beef broth
1 pound andouille or smoked sausage, cut into ¼-inch slices
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 medium onions, chopped
2 green bell peppers, chopped
2 celery ribs, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons Creole seasoning
½ teaspoon dried, crumbled thyme
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 to 3 teaspoons hot sauce
½ cup chopped green onions
Hot cooked rice
Peel shrimp, reserving shells, and devein, if desired. Set shrimp meat aside. Combine shrimp shells with chicken broth and beef broth in a large Dutch oven; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 10 minutes. Pour shells and broth mixture through a wire-mesh strainer into a bowl. Using the back of a spoon, press the shells against the strainer to remove most of the trapped broth. Discard the shells. Set broth aside and keep warm.
Cook sausage in a Dutch oven over medium heat until browned. Remove sausage; set aside.
Measure drippings from sausage and add enough oil to measure ½ cup. Whisk oil and drippings mixture and flour together in a 5-quart soup pot until smooth. Add more oil if roux doesn't flow smoothly. Cook over medium-low heat about 35 to 40 minutes, stirring constantly, until roux is chocolate-colored. Be careful not to burn.
In a separate skillet, cook onions, bell pepper, celery and garlic over low heat until tender, stirring often. Gradually add cooked vegetables to the roux and broth in the soup pot. Bring mixture to a boil. Stir in bay leaves, Creole seasoning, thyme, Worcestershire sauce and hot sauce. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered 50 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Stir in shrimp, reserved sausage and green onions. Return to a low boil and simmer 10 minutes or until shrimp turn pink. Discard bay leaves. Serve with hot rice.
Makes 11 cups.
(Recipe from David Gallent, chef and food photographer)
Gumbo preparation tips
-Cook on low to medium low.
-Give the ingredients time to caramelize and develop flavor.
-When stirring, fully scrape the bottom and sides of the pot to make certain you are incorporating all the ingredients and ensuring they are evenly cooked.
-The color of the roux affects the flavor of the gumbo. Darker roux are sweeter. Caramelize vegetables separately from the roux.
-Create an easy-to-prepare and flavorful stock from canned chicken or beef broth and season it according to taste and type of gumbo being prepared.
-Skimming to remove the foam from uncooked roux or particulate is essential in order to develop the full rich flavor of a gumbo.
-If possible, make gumbo a day ahead to allow the meats and seafood to fully absorb the seasonings and intensify the flavor.
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