Gumbo: The Soup of Life

I think of Gumbo as the soup of life.

Gumbo is one of the most complex soups I make. To be successful, it really takes all the senses. The color of the roux, the texture and the flavors mixing together, and the sound of the simmer. The more diverse the ingredients, the better it tastes.

Also like life, gumbo is ugly.

I don’t know about your life, but my life is not all that aesthetically pleasing either.

It’s messy. It’s got a lot going on. It’s not too hot, but it is certainly spicy.

And, yet, the end result is pretty damn good.

Here’s a 10 step plan to gumbo. I have no such plan for life. Recipe-like stuff is bolded.

#1- Accept that you are not from Louisiana and you are just doing the best you can. As a white girl from California, I do not hope to compete with what I have tasted from Shreveport to New Orleans and several stops in between. Gumbo is about your flavors,  your kitchen, your history, your life.

#2- About a week or so prior, plan a menu with pot roast, another with chicken. Ham is good too. Save about a cup and a half of meat from each meal. You can freeze it if your gumbo-making date is further out than is reasonable. Anyway, you want about four cups total (cut up for soup). All one kind is fine but it is better with a mix. Grilled trip tip made it this year and the taste of the grill added a wonderful layer. Gumbo is meant to be everything you had left over from the week thrown in to make a soup so imagine a great week of southern cooking all coming together in soup.

#3- Buy the best andouille sausage you can find. Don’t worry abut it being too hot because all the other flavors will calm it down and you need some spice to make it real. In California, so far, this means packaged sausage from the grocery store. You want a pound of sausage. I’ve used link and ground and it’s all good.

#4- Make a soundtrack. Gumbo takes a while and you need some good music to get you through it. I have a “Nola” play list and it helps. I like Harry Connick in there and have songs from a street musician I heard in the French Quarter.

#5- Buy 1/2 a pound of rock shrimp. I’ve special ordered crayfish in the past, but they are a lot of work to shell and I thought the rock shrimp was great.

#6- Chop the vegetables. You want about 6 cups of vegetables. One-two cups of onions and then a mix of what sounds good to you. This year I used carrots and zucchini. Celery is good too. Bell pepper is good.  I like the added color of the carrots and there isn’t much I won’t put zucchini in. If you do use carrots, slice finely so they will cook evenly with the onions and celery.

#7- Mince the garlic. The recipe I started with said 1 teaspoon of garlic. That has to be a typo. I used three large cloves. I think it could have used more this year. You really do have to use fresh garlic.

#8- Okay, it’s time to make the roux. You’re going to need to be watching it for about 15 minutes so go to bathroom/check the dogs/return the text before you start. I don’t make gravy so I found this new, but for those who make gravy, it’s probably not that big of a deal. And let’s just pause here to say:  I love that word roux (say: roo).

Here’s how I do it: Cook the sausage in about 3/4 cup olive oil (vegetable oil is fine). Scoop the sausage out. It’s fine to have some bits left. Take the pan off the heat and stir in a cup of flour. Return to low heat and whisk oil and flower into smooth paste. You want no lumps and it to cook evenly. When it’s the color of pale peanut butter, remove from heat and add all your vegetables and garlic. Also throw in some salt and pepper. I also added two bay leaves. Splash in Tabasco. I’d say about three tablespoons. Or six. Start small and add to taste.

Spicing: Remember- this is like life. Make it suit you. More salt? Fine. Don’t have bay leaves. It’s okay. I like black pepper so there is plenty in mine. Attached to a different hot sauce? Great. I mainly use Tabasco because it’s made in Louisiana and I feel like I understand what it does to the soup. It’s part of my comfort zone.

#9-Cook all this until your onions are translucent. Watch it so the roux doesn’t get too dark though. Darker peanut butter is perfect.

#10-Scoop it all into the soup pot and add 6 cups of chicken broth (more if you want it a little soupier and add the other meat (chicken, roast, ham– not the seafood). Keep on low and cook this for at least 45 minutes. About 15 minutes before serving, add the rock shrimp. Stir as needed to keep from sticking. You aren’t really cooking at this point– you are just letting the flavors all come together. Well, and the veggies are all tender.

Serve over pasta or rice (rice is more traditional).

And of course:  Laissez les bons temps rouler!