Gumbo is, by far, my favorite Louisiana food.
If Louisiana – especially New Orleans – were a food, it would be gumbo: a mix of Creole, Spanish, French, indigenous and other influences giving birth to a new culture.
For those who don’t know, Gumbo is a magical stew unique to Louisiana cuisine. It’s cooked low and slow so the vegetables and proteins (shellfish, sausage, chicken) blend together, allowing their flavors to meld into a pot of perfection.
For years, I have enjoyed different gumbos, from a sweet Cajun grandma’s kitchen in West Baton Rouge, to a “hole in the wall” restaurant on a random street in New Orleans, and it always blows my mind when I taste the variations of this beautiful dish.
However, as much as I enjoy this dish, and as much I love cooking, after the several years I have spent living in Louisiana, I had never dared to make gumbo on my own. I must confess, not many things in life have had the capacity to intimidate me as much as cooking gumbo from scratch.
I’m a history junkie, and the more I learn about this state – through friends, reading, or simply by my time spent listening and observing my surroundings and people – the more I realize the complexity of the relationships and the local culture, and the importance of food in this region. Everybody’s grandma’s gumbo is the best, everybody has a story about when they saw or tasted something called “gumbo” that clearly wasn’t. Louisianans are especially proud of their cuisine, and living here, I understand why!
As with many other delicious traditional dishes from all over the world, gumbo was born in poverty; within the mixture of the indigenous tribes that were already here, the descendants of Spanish and French settlers who were born in these territories, and those brought here by force, enslaved from Africa. It was made of scraps, mixing different cooking techniques and whatever ingredients they had on hand.
My husband traveled to Uganda several years ago. He said that he was speaking to some local people, who were teaching him a few words in their local dialect of Luganda, the Ugandan language. One of them pointed to an okra plant and said “ngombo.” My husband immediately made a connection between okra and the delicious dish from back home and repeated, “gumbo!”
I remembered Gombo is also the French word for okra, and remembered an area in Louisiana populated by Acadians (which later turned to a-Cajuns) in the 18th century, when they were exiled from New Scotia, bringing with them their language and cooking techniques, helping create what we know today as Cajun cuisine.
I’ve found that if people don’t have anything else in common, food is often the common denominator. Food reflects our identity, it tells the story of who we are, what we do, and why we do it.
When my husband encouraged me and pushed me to make gumbo, I began to realize just how communal the dish is. I got the ingredients from the local veggie stand, encouragement and tips from great friends like Genny (who’s native New Orleans-girl opinion of my gumbo I appreciate so much!), or my friend Sophie, who invited me to make gumbo with her one time, tips from all the sweet Cajun grandmas and mom’s who have loved me throughout the years, as well as the instructions of New Orleans Chef Toya Boudy (who has so much material on creole and Cajun food and kindly answered me when I reached out). Without the help of each of these beautiful people, my story of a successful first gumbo may have been very different. That is a lesson in itself.
Making gumbo was a really big deal to me because I am aware of how precious this culinary heritage is. As a foreigner, my hesitation in making it came from my understanding of the cultural weight of this dish and my desire not to offend anybody by making a “soup” and calling it gumbo, which it is not. My heart was not to gentrify a culture, but to honor and exalt the history and the identity of those who it belongs to.
Louisiana has given me some of the most bitter and the sweetest moments of my life. It gave me the love of my life, great friends, and many life lessons.
Just like the history of this place, my gumbo is not “my recipe.” It’s actually not even really a formula with measurements and precise amounts. It is a recollection of different voices, experiences and influences from friends, and a deep respect for tradition. It is my way to honor this place, its people, and its culture.
This version of gumbo contains ingredients that are more likely to be found outside of Louisiana, I hope you enjoy making it!
Chicken and sausage Gumbo
(A pot for about 15 people)
1 cup of vegetable oil
1 cup of all-purpose flour
1 lb chicken – dark meat, if possible
1/2 lb Andouille sausage*, sliced
1/2 lb smoked sausage, sliced
1 large onion, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
1- 2 Bell pepper, chopped
4-5 cloves garlics, smashed or chopped
4 Bay leaves
1-2 jalapeños, seeded and chopped.
2- 3 quarts chicken stock (depending on how thick or thin you want your gumbo to be)
1 tsp thyme (fresh if possible)
2-3 Green onions for garnish
Salt to taste
*Andouille sausage is the classic Cajun smoked sausage. It’s coarse and incredibly smoky, similar to many craft sausages. If you can’t find it, substitute with a smoky craft sausage.
1. Season chicken with salt and black pepper and sear it well (don’t cook all the way through – just sear the outside) in a large pan with a some oil. Set aside.
· I like marinated my chicken overnight to increase the flavor, this is optional.
2. Chop all your vegetables and have all other ingredients nearby and ready to use.
Preparing the roux:
This is the most important part of the gumbo!
The roux gives consistency, flavor and color. The most important thing is simply to pay attention. So, make sure you DON’T leave your stove top, and DO NOT STOP stirring the pot at any moment, otherwise your roux will likely burn and you will have to start all over again.
I suggest you watch a show on TV or listen to a podcast while stirring because once you start, you won’t move from that spot for about 45 minutes.
If your roux does burn, don’t try to salvage it. I once heard a New Orleans chef say “If you’ve never burned a roux, you’ve never cooked gumbo.” It happens! Don’t get discouraged, just throw it out and start again.
1. Set your stove to medium heat. In a large pot (this is where your entire gumbo will be cooked) add the (1 cup) oil and let it heat up until lines become visible in the oil.
2. Add flour, a little at a time, to the oil and begin stirring with a wooden spoon. You will notice the lumps of flour will begin disappearing.
The initial color of the roux is white. Stir until it becomes a caramel-chocolate brown color.
It’s ok to use a fat other than vegetable oil, as long as it has a high smoke point - like peanut oil, lard, bacon grease or butter (just watch carefully and cook on a low-med heat). But always a 1:1 ratio - equal parts flour and fat.
New Orleans Chef Kevin Belton’s rule on ratio of roux to stock: 1 cup of roux for every 8-10 cups of stock.
Gumbo without roux isn’t gumbo, it is a soup. Do not skip this step.
Be patient and do not try to hurry the process by turning up the heat, this will result in a burned roux.
Roux should be dark brown, if it is not at least a dark caramel color, your roux is not cooked completely.
Do not leave it unattended, it will easily burn; and cooking with a burnt roux will ruin the entire gumbo. This process will take about 45 minutes.
3. Once your roux has reached the desired color (chocolate brown), add the onions, celery and bell peppers (otherwise known as the “trinity” in Cajun cuisine). Sautee until the onions turn translucent and add garlic, stir for a couple of minutes.
4. Slowly add chicken broth and stir constantly to eliminate lumps.
Chef Toya recommends to warm up the chicken stock to avoid the splash when adding it the hot roux mix to avoid splashing. This is optional.
5. Add seared chicken from the pan that was cooked earlier.
Make sure to use everything from the pan – use some stock and scrape clean, and pour all that goodness into your gumbo pot!
Some choose to cook the chicken and add the pieces, chopped. I added whole legs, wings and thighs with the bone (because bones add flavor), and after simmering for long time the chicken will literally fall off the bone. This method leaves bones in the gumbo – if you want to avoid bones, use boneless chicken.
6. Add the rest of the ingredients to the pot: sausage, bay leaves, thyme, jalapeño, abundant salt and pepper (wait to add shrimp, if including).
7. Turn the heat to medium high and once it starts boiling, let it simmer. Cover the pot and let it cook in low-medium heat for a minimum of 3 hours, stirring every once in a while.
Time is flavor. Don’t be afraid of “overcooking your gumbo,” that simply is not possible. I left mine simmering for about 12 hours and the flavors were amazing!
Don’t rush it! Gumbo takes time and the longer you let it simmer, the better everything blends and the more flavor you’ll get.
8. After at least 3 hours, taste it and adjust salt.
9. When ready to serve dispose bay leaves and serve it in a bowl with rice (and a scoop of potato salad, if you’re feeling adventurous) and sprinkle the top with green onions.
Gumbo tastes even better the next day.
If adding shrimp, they cook very quick, so add them only for the last 10 minutes before serving.
Share your experience with me using #johatable!