Today the temperature dropped quickly here in Manhattan, and I hear that the Coonasses down home in Louisiana are also experiencing a cold snap. Which can only mean one thing for them and me: Gumbo. So today I’m channeling all those fine Coonasses down there to write this blog post on Eliza Mae’s (my long-departed momma’s) Seafood Gumbo.
I think seafood gumbo was Momma’s best dish because it was her favorite dish. This is not because she wasn’t good at everything else (her Syrup Pie is one of the best things I’ve ever experienced in this life), but since she had nine children, a motel to run, and her own side gig on top of all that (her beauty shop in my birthplace of Eunice, La.) – she had a lot going on ALWAYS. Since cooking requires focus (when that was not usually possible for her) she often had snafus in the kitchen. Nonetheless, this seafood gumbo of hers – especially if you can get ahold of fresh crabs – will make you know that my real Momma (not the overburdened one) had a truly magical touch with her roux. The secret to all successful rouxs is neither in the fat nor the flour. It’s all in the patience. You gotta be patient to get to roux nirvana (rouxvana?). Here’s her Seafood Gumbo recipe, which, of course, starts with a good dark roux:
Eliza Mae’s Seafood Gumbo
1 cup of vegetable oil
2 cups of all-purpose flour
3 cups onion, diced
2 cups bell pepper (red, green or yellow), diced
1 large head of garlic, minced
1 cup celery, diced
1 pound of andouille sausage (kielbasa works if you can’t get andouille), cut into cubes
1/2 pound of Tasso*, cut into cubes
10 cups of chicken stock (or water)
Seasoning mix (formula below)
2 bay leaves
1 pound of lump crab meat
1.5-oz. packet of dried shrimp (optional)
6-8 uncooked crabs (claws and torsos can be separated)
2 pounds of peeled shrimp
2 dozen shucked, cleaned oysters
1 bunch of parsley, chopped
5 shallots, chopped
In a bowl, mix 1 tablespoon of onion powder, 1 tablespoon of salt, 1 tablespoon of black pepper, 1 teaspoon of cayenne pepper, 1 teaspoon of white pepper.
INSTRUCTIONS for the Roux
In a cast iron skillet, heat the vegetable oil on medium heat until you can feel that it has been warmed through when you wave your hand over the oil. Do not heat to boiling. Add the flour, one half cup at a time, whisking briskly until it is all incorporated and smooth. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Using a flat wooden spatula, stir the roux constantly, making sure to scrape the entire bottom of the pan. Once all the flour is incorporated, the mixture will be creamy and will turn from white to yellow, and finally to a deep chocolate brown. The critical thing is to go SLOW. For this recipe, your roux should look like dark chocolate.
If the heat is too high, the flour will cook too quickly and the roux will be ruined. The whole roux-making process should take about 25-30 minutes, although I’ve taken more time – lower heat for longer – to get a solid dark brown roux, with less threat of burning. When in doubt, remove your pot from the heat and continue to stir briskly. The roux continues to brown until the pot cools down, so you should continue stirring. DO NOT LEAVE THE STOVE when you’re making roux.
Once you’ve achieved a beautiful deep brown, but not black or burned roux, the hard part of gumbo-making is over! If the roux burns you must start over. A properly-cooked roux emits a deep, rich and nutty aroma. Trust your nose. A burnt roux smells much like burnt paper or rice, and cannot be salvaged.
INSTRUCTIONS for the Gumbo
After you’ve got your roux to that beautiful chocolate brown color: In a large stockpot add the chopped vegetables and a little cooking oil (about a tablespoon) and begin sautéing them on medium heat. About 5 minutes. Add the chopped sausage and the tasso. Cook for another 5 minutes. Add the roux to the vegetable and meat mixture, then begin adding the chicken stock or water, a cup at a time, stirring as you go to fully blend the roux, dissolving any lumps. Add the seasoning mixture and the bay leaves.
Turn the heat to high until it all comes to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and add the crab meat and pack of dried shrimp. Loosely cover the pot (leaving a little crack to avoid overflow). Keep an eye on the gumbo, stirring occasionally and reducing the heat if it looks like it is going to boil over. After 30 minutes of cooking on no higher than medium heat, add the remaining seafood, take the pot off the heat and let it sit idle for about 15 minutes. Skim off any fat that rises to the surface, then add the chopped parsley and shallots. Serve over white rice, with a side of cold potato salad and/or baked yams. Serves 10-12. You can freeze the leftovers for up to three months (although this might be only a fairy tale – gumbo in our house never goes uneaten for that long). Unfrozen, it will keep in the refrigerator about a week.
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*Tasso is smoked, cured pork. If you can’t get it, you can substitute the same amount of sausage.