Jazz Standard

Jazz Standard

Gumbo is the ultimate improvisational dish

By Lessley Anderson

Among the upscale sweetbreads, seared foie gras, and lobster bisque on the menu at New Orleans restaurant 7 on Fulton, you’ll find an offering that seems incongruously down-home: andouille and seafood gumbo. “We don’t really cook New Orleans–style here, but we do do gumbo,”

says Chef Michael Sichel. A rich, stewlike dish typically served over plain white rice, gumbo was introduced to the region by African slaves, and became popular with poor folk as a way to use up leftovers. But serving it alongside his high-end French fare is a point of pride for Sichel, a native New Yorker. “It’s like when you go to a Chinese restaurant and you try the lo mein to see if they know what they’re doing. People come here and say, ‘Oh, you got a gumbo. Let’s see if you’re a good cook or not.’”

Arguably the most famous dish associated with the Big Easy, gumbo will be sampled by tens of thousands of tourists this year during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, at white-tablecloth restaurants like Sichel’s, divey beer joints, and everywhere in between. But if gumbo-eaters

compare notes afterward, they may become confused. Some gumbos will be as thick as congealed gravy, while others will be as thin as a rich chicken broth. Some will contain seafood, and others will have chunks of meat; still others will have both. And just to make it more confusing, there’s even a style of vegetable gumbo (gumbo z’herbes) that’s often made vegan. That’s because gumbo is not so much a dish as a loose set of guidelines, from which point the cook is free to improvise. Take it from the city that invented jazz: That’s often how the best dishes are created.

It’s All Inside

Gumbo has three parts: a thickening agent, the stock, and the stuff in the stock. The amount of love you put into each of the three equals the depth of the gumbo’s soul. That’s why you’ll want to make your own stock. For a seafood gumbo, use shrimp or crab shells. Chicken stock is standard for meaty ones. If you’re making a vegan version of gumbo z’herbes, go veg. Otherwise, use a ham hock.

Once you’ve got your stock made, the thickener is where you start building your gumbo. There are three different methods of thickening: The most popular is to make a roux (pronounced “roo”), equal parts fat and flour browned on the stove. Or you can use okra, which breaks down during cooking

and adds mass to the liquid it’s in. The third, more obscure way is to add crushed-up sassafras leaves called filé (pronounced “FEE-lay”), an ingredient passed along by Louisiana’s Choctaw Indians. Filé imparts an herbaceous flavor, too. The only hard-and-fast rule of making gumbo is you never use both filé and roux as thickeners, which would be like wearing a belt and suspenders, only much slimier.

How thick should your gumbo be? “It all depends on who you talk to,” says Stephen Stryjewski, co-chef and co-owner of New Orleans’ Cochon restaurant. “I prefer when it’s not too viscous. I like it to have a nice consistency where it’ll coat your tongue, but not with paste—fairly brothy.”

Poppy Tooker, leader of the New Orleans chapter of Slow Food USA, likes hers thick: “Everything needs to be cooked until it’s kinda gotten homogenous.”

Then you’ve got your chunks. Although it’s associated with New Orleans, gumbo is cooked and eaten all over the Gulf Coast and up into the Carolinas. Nearly everybody starts with what’s called the “holy trinity”: onions, celery, and green bell pepper, added to the hot roux, or sautéed in oil if you’re

thickening the gumbo another way. After adding the stock, the sky’s the limit. Cajuns from Southern Louisiana love meat in theirs. Traditionally gumbo was a vehicle for a hunter’s bounty: frog, rabbit, duck, pig, guinea hen, even squirrel. Chicken and andouille sausage gumbo is a Cajun classic. In New Orleans, you’re more likely to find combinations incorporating seafood (shrimp, crab, oysters). Creoles, descended from French, Spanish, and African slaves, also enjoy adding tomatoes, though you won’t catch a Cajun doing that. At New Orleans restaurants these days, in fact, gumbo containing tomatoes is out of fashion, thanks in large part to the influence of Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme, who rose to power in the Crescent City in the 1980s.

Okra is often added to any of the variations; use it if you like your gumbo thicker. Gumbo z’herbes, traditionally served at Lent, is made with various greens (always an odd number for good luck, usually seven), but sometimes it’s flavored with a little meat. Or a lot of meat. Chef Leah Chase of the famous New Orleans restaurant Dooky Chase’s puts brisket in hers. The Gumbo Shop in New Orleans adds smoked mushrooms and red beans to a stick-to-your-ribs vegan version.

And though gumbo is always served on a bed of white rice, some Cajuns also add a scoop of potato salad, like dolloping rouille in a bouillabaisse. In this vein, Cochon serves its gumbo with a shrimp-stuffed deviled egg on top.

Making this dish is not difficult; even the roux isn’t hard. It makes your house smell divine: the nutty roux, the “trinity” hitting the fat, and the rich broth simmering. Gumbo can taste as nuanced and complex as a well-made consommé, and feeds a crowd.

“One of the most beautiful gumbos that I’ve ever made was last winter,” says Slow Food’s Tooker. “My buddy Bart who is an ace hunter brought me tons and tons of beautiful Teal ducks, and I browned ’em and made a stock and made an oyster and duck gumbo. Everyone at the table wept!”

Best of all, you don’t even really need a recipe (though ours are great). Make it how you want to, because that’s how it’s supposed to be.

Lessley Anderson is senior editor at CHOW.