My first gumbo-making attempt came in college, in a friend’s kitchen, and involved a recipe clipped from the newspaper, piles of onions and peppers and shrimp and more than a little naïvety about what we were getting ourselves into. The result was, as I remember, quite good and somehow I also recall — in a warm, fuzzy and nostalgic way — feeding a large and extremely happy crowd that evening. Maybe it was the wine, but I’d like to think that at least some of that happiness was as a result of a wonderful gumbo.
That particular recipe, now yellowed and dog-eared in a binder that I seldom reference but can’t throw away, took some Northern liberties with this Southern regional dish. But I’ve since figured out that gumbo authenticity is a matter of taste. There are as many “true” gumbo recipes out there as there are cooks in Louisiana. There are all-seafood versions, ones with chorizo and chicken and no shellfish, ones heavy on the red bell pepper and okra, ones that steer clear of okra…and they are all good. At the end of the day, it’s really up to you to adjust based on what you like.
We made a version recently that was clearly tweaked for the younger crowd in our house and it turned out being one of my favorites. I’ll admit up front to omitting what many think of as crucial to this dish: we steered clear of the cayenne, the chorizo and andouille, and did not include any real “hot” factor. But the milder spices and sausage I chose simmered and flavored this version so well that daughter 1 declared the broth “delicious” when served over white rice. Our version, which is a riff on a gumbo recipe on Epicurious that I adjusted for quantity and spiciness, is heavy on the veggies — many of which came from our CSA pick-up — and includes okra, chicken thighs, and gets a smoky hit from kielbasa. We finished it with a couple of shrimp quickly simmered in the stew before serving. Serve it with some Louisiana hot sauce on the side for anyone who wants to dial up the sizzle factor.
Here’s what went into our gumbo:
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3 – 4 bell peppers, chopped (we used a combination of green and purple peppers)
3 medium onions, chopped
4 stalks of celery, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons freshly-choppped thyme leaves
4 bay leaves
1/2 cup white wine (we used a Sauvignon Blanc)
2 cups chicken broth, homemade if you have it
2 8-ounce bottles clam juice (or 2 more cups chicken broth)
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes in juice
4 – 6 skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into 1 inch cubes (approximately 1 1/2 pounds)
1 12-ounce package of kielbasa sausage, sliced into rounds
2 cups fresh okra, sliced (or use a package of frozen, thawed sliced okra)
1/2 pound peeled and deveined shrimp (or more — up to a pound — if you like shrimp)
2 cups hot white rice, cooked, for serving (basmati or Calrose are great…but any medium- to long-grain variety will work)
2 tablespoons freshly-cut parsley
Hot sauce, passed separately
Start by making a roux. Heat vegetable oil in a large dutch oven over medium heat. Add the flour and stir to incorporate. Stir the mixture frequently over medium heat until the flour begins to cook and takes on a medium brown, toasty color. Be careful not to burn the flour or you’ll have to start over…burned roux will ruin the dish.
When your roux is the color of a cup of lightly-creamed coffee, add the peppers, onions and celery. Cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are softened and the onions are starting to brown — between 5 and 10 minutes. There will be a lot of veggies in the pot so you won’t get tons of browning, but the flour-coated onions will start to get a little crispy at the edges. This is what you want.
Stir in the salt and then add the thyme and bay leaves. Pour in the wine, chicken broth and clam juice and stir well to incorporate. Add the tomatoes and their juice, crushing the tomatoes one-by-one as you add them (if you don’t mind the mess, just squeeze them in your hand over the pot until they are broken into large pieces). Bring to a simmer.
Add the chicken and kielbasa and continue to simmer until the chicken is cooked through — 10 – 15 minutes.
Add the okra and cook through until tender — another 10 or so minutes. The okra will begin to thicken the gumbo.
At this point you can turn down the heat and allow the gumbo to simmer, with frequent stirring, on very low heat. The flavors will continue to blend but the okra may lose its bright-green color. Or, you can press forward — it’s almost ready, and the wonderful aromas may have your family camped out in the kitchen.
Add the shrimp during the last 5 minutes of cooking. The gumbo is ready when the shrimp are pink and cooked through.
To serve, place a large scoop of rice in a bowl and top with the gumbo. Sprinkle with freshly-cut parsley and pass hot sauce on the side.
Serves: 10 – 12
Parent rating: My husband and I are splitting the difference and giving this three-and-a-half stars. I really liked it and found it nicely balanced even without the spice. He likes the zing of andouille and cayenne and found it to be too mild. So hard to please everyone!
Kid rating: Also three-and-a-half stars. Leftovers were not quite as popular as the novelty of the first serving, but daughter 1 tried — and liked — shrimp. Both girls got good servings of veggies mixed in with the rice they like so much. I’ll keep tweaking this recipe and eventually everyone will be as happy as I remember being the first time I made gumbo.