Monday, June 2, 2008

Goody Goody Gumdrops. Er, Gumbo.

I remember when I was a kid I used to hate Gumbo. Hate it. Which doesn't make sense to me now, since I'd never even had it. I think I just hated the name. What kind of name is Gumbo, anyway? Sounds kind of like Dumbo. But at least Dumbo was an elephant that could fly, whereas Gumbo, well, that's just a dumb ol' soup. Well, that's what I thought, anyway. Thankfully I've smartened up a little and no longer judge a food by its name, else I never would've started messing around with making my own gumbo, which, as it turns out, is way better than any gumdrops I've ever had.

Like a lot of the things I've come up with that end up here, this one started at work. We had some andouille sausage and some shrimp on hand that we weren't going to be using for anything else, and I needed to come up with a soup of the day, so I got out the Professional Chef cookbook that we have on hand to see if they had anything I could use. Luckily, they happened to have a gumbo recipe that called for shrimp and sausage. (On a side note, I don't find that book to be very interesting at all. Seems very "clinical" to me, and the recipes aren't all that special.) Now for the record, my recipe is not theirs or even at all like theirs, as I think you'll see. I just read theirs over quickly to get an outline of what to do, then struck off on my own, like I usually do. Also, it seems there are as many ways to make gumbo as there are people who like it, so I highly recommend taking my recipe (for lack of a better term) and using it like I used the CIA's- just a rough guide, something to get your own ideas going, then head off on your own. I'll also post a link at the end for a great site I found for all things Cajun. It's absolutely mouthwatering.

Alright, let's get this party started. The first thing you'll want is a very, very large pot. Gumbo just seems to expand when you make it. You think you're only making enough for 1 or 2 people and next thing you know, you end up with enough to feed the neighborhood. Y'know, it seems like it was that way with my Pozole too. I guess now that I think about it, maybe it's just me and the way I cook. I'd still get a large pot, though. Gumbo is very tasty and you'll wish you'd made a lot. As for ingredients, it can vary widely. I say use whatever you think of when you think "Cajun", but here's a list of some stuff I like in mine:

Definitely Peppers, and several varieties. The more, the merrier. For my last batch I used Poblanos, Anaheims, and JalapeƱos, as well as some green Bells. I plan on using those and several more the next time I make it. Canned roasted red peppers work well, too. And if you're feeling really motivated, you could take half (or more) of whatever peppers you're going to be using and roast them yourself on the grill. Yeeeeaaaaah, baby. (On another side note, if you take some jalapeƱos, sliced lengthwise and seeded, and grill them over open flame until they're mostly charred, mix in some kosher or sea salt, garlic powder, a dash of pepper, and a generous dose of fresh squeezed lime juice- totally delicious!)

Canned diced tomatoes (fresh will work, too, of course, but since they're getting stewed anyway, I just found the canned kind to be faster and more convenient)
Sausage (andouille, chorizo, or whatever else you like)

That's the bulk of it right there, for me anyway. A couple other things you'll need are flour, oil, chicken stock*, and Cajun seasoning (either a good store-bought kind, or something you made up yourself.) As far as the Cajun seasoning goes, what I've been using, and can highly recommend, is Chef Paul Prudhomme's Poultry Magic. First off, I know it's not considered a "Cajun seasoning" but I started using it because it's what we had on hand at work- we use it for chicken, blackened burgers and, occasionally, wings. And honestly, I didn't like the stuff at all. I'd had it on chicken before, and had tasted it straight from the container and was not at all impressed. I know some people think that it's mostly just salt, but I didn't find it to be overly salty- just not particularly good-tasting. But- then came the day that I made the gumbo and ended up using it because it was quicker and easier than making something from scratch, and lo and behold, the gumbo turned out fantastic! And the last batch of gumbo that I made, I couldn't find any at the store, so I ended up buying this stuff instead. Now that is mostly salt! Mouth-burning table salt too, apparently. Of course I tasted it before actually using it, so it never made it into my gumbo, but I did have to try and whip something up from scratch, and even though it wasn't bad, it was nowhere near as good as the Poultry Magic. Maybe I should have done an internet search for "Cajun spice". I might have found this Poultry Magic clone recipe. (I haven't tried it yet, but I'm planning to. I want to see how it stacks up.)

Alright, once you've got your veggies, protein, and Cajun spice ready to go, the rest is pretty simple. Take some flour and spread it in a thin layer on a baking sheet, then pop it into a hot (400-450 degree) until it's a nice dark-cinnamon-brown color, giving it a stir every once in awhile. Should take about 20 minutes if I remember right. As for how much- I'd do a lot. That way you can have extra on hand for the next time you make it. But as for how much to use in the soup, it's hard to say. Depends on how much soup you're making, and how thin you want it to be (or not to be). While the flour is browning, add your chopped fresh veggies to the pot with some oil and cook until soft. If I'm using andouille, what I usually do is cook that up first, and then use the fat from that to cook the veggies in. I know it sounds unhealthy, but don't be fooled- anything that adds that much flavor to the pot has to be good for you. When I use shrimp, I usually go for the raw kind and just cook it directly in the soup. If you're lucky enough to be able to find some smoked shrimp, they add some good flavor too. (Yes, I am aware they look like nasty cockroaches.
Nasty, tasty cockroaches, hehe.) Just simmer them in the chicken stock and strain out before you add it to the pot. If I use chicken, I usually cook that off separately and add it to the soup when it's done, but I suppose you could just cook it in the soup as well- I do that when I make Tom Kha Khai and it's always tasty. Either way. As for the ham, I actually just use either a very meaty hambone, or a couple hamhocks- again, straight into the pot for a long simmer.
Back to the veggies- once they're nice and translucent add in some of the flour until they're well coated. You may need to add more oil to the mix so it doesn't get too clumpy. Add in some of the Cajun spice. (Be generous with it- it's good stuff. Also, if you can find some smoked paprika, it's very good. I got mine at Spice Barn). Now, along with the meat, you can add your canned tomatoes and chicken stock and just let simmer for awhile. (There's no Right amount on the tomatoes, stock, or anything else, for that matter- "whatever tastes good to you" is my rule of thumb.) If you find you need to add more Cajun spice, you can probably just add it straight to the soup with no problems, but if you want to add more flour, it's probably best to mix it in with some oil first to avoid clumping. (I believe they call that a roux.)

That's pretty much all there is too it. A lot of people like to serve it over rice, but I like it straight.

*As far as chicken stock goes, you could buy it ready-made, but I think it's far better to just make your own. Besides, the ready-made stuff seems to have gotten pretty expensive, so it's not even really cost-effective.

Ok, for some real gumbo recipes, as well as lots of other drool-worthy Louisiana and Cajun recipes, music, and culture, check out the Gumbo Pages- a goldmine of Bayou goodness!

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