The above photo is of my youngest brother, Jeff, my mother, and my grandmother in our kitchen. My grandmother was actually the gumbo queen in our family. The photo below looks like it was taken at one of our Christmas open houses.
One of the most iconic recipes in the South is gumbo. The dictionary’s definition of gumbo is “a soup or stew thickened with okra”. I take issue with this for two reasons. First, there are variations of gumbo by region in the south and some Louisiana gumbos do not have any okra at all. Second, the okra isn’t the only thing that can thicken the gumbo. Roux thickens gumbo, too. Or you can be like me and use both.
My mother had a gumbo recipe in her cookbook. You will find that all gumbo recipes are best if you make them using ingredients you love. For instance, I don’t use chicken or sausage in my gumbo, because I prefer only seafood. You may like chicken and sausage better. Either way, yours will be tasty. There’s a secret ingredient or two I’ll share at the end.
In case you can’t read this, the ingredients are as follows: One big ham bone, or chopped ham (2 cups). Simmer in water. (She says add the 2 cups crawfish tails and/or cleaned shrimp here. But experience tells me those little morsels will become rubber. Best wait until the end to add them.) 2 cans stewed tomatoes. (I use diced canned and fresh tomatoes.) 1 whole green pepper seeded and chopped. 6 garlic cloves, minced. 3 cups cooked, diced chicken. (I don’t use chicken or sausage in my gumbo, only seafood.) 2 Tablespoons Tony Chachere’s Cajun Seasoning. 6 whole bay leaves (I take umbrage here. I can not stand bay leaves. Nope. This isn’t the proper gumbo flavor in my opinion, but you may love bay leaf, so I’ll be quiet.) Bring to a simmer and stir often and serve over rice. She forgot to put okra. She always used okra, so she forgot to write that in. We all love okra in our family. In southern families where there wasn’t a lot of money, okra was an easy, nutritious vegetable to grow.
My mother was from the Midwest, where every good soup or stew had a ham bone in it. But southern gumbo doesn’t always have a ham bone in its broth. I’m afraid I went a little “hog-wild” and excluded the ham bone, opting instead to add bacon grease to the roux, as I used two boxes of store-bought chicken broth.
And you need a good roux for your gumbo.
Here is how I make Roux: Peel the raw shrimp, saving the shells, and put the shrimp in the refrigerator to keep very fresh. (At this point I’m going to put my fresh fish fillets in milk in the fridge, this takes the “fishy” flavor out.)
Take the shrimp shells (we always call them peels) and put them in the fry pan and add about two cups of water. Boil until the shells are very soft. Strain through cheesecloth to make sure and get the little bits of shell out, discard the shells. Reserve the liquid.
Add 1/2 cup of flour and 1/2 cup of bacon grease (light tasting olive oil if you’re afraid of bacon grease, or even butter if you love the flavor) in your pan and turn the heat to medium.
Stir and stir and add a little more bacon grease so the mixture doesn’t burn. Keep stirring . It will turn a pleasant brown or caramel color. This is roux. You add it to the boiling gumbo at the end.
Okay, so you’ve done the roux. Set it aside.
So now, for the gumbo:
You’ve got your seafood keeping cold in the refrigerator. Good. Shrimp, fish, crab, whatever is fresh. If using crab – boil them and clean them first. Then, add the crab still in the shell to the broth. It can cook along with all the veggies. The crab shell adds good flavor, and picking the crab meat out at the end is part of the experience.
Your broth is important. If you want to make your broth ahead of time that is fine, or use the boxed broths from the store. I never use anything stronger than chicken broth, in other words, don’t use beef broth. I want to add the shrimp water to the broth.
Honestly using a ham bone to make your broth is fine, it makes a good broth, but watch your salt content. You don’t want it overly salty.
Bring the broth to a nice simmer and add the pepper, the garlic, the tomatoes (note on tomatoes, adding these as a flavor is a creole gumbo, adding them as a vegetable is grandma’s gumbo) Okra. Use fresh okra. (Edited to add: frozen chopped okra is okay, but pick the okra ends out). Always make sure as you slice up your okra that you use okra that the knife slices right through. If the okra is too tough for your knife, it’s going to be too tough to eat.
Okra, to me, makes a gumbo a better gumbo, but I was raised in Texas eating my mother’s and my grandmother’s gumbo. (I have been working for years to make a gumbo similar to my grandmother’s.) She died with her recipe. I think the entire family has been working on this for all these years, too. It was THAT good!
Here is a picture of Tony’s Chachere’s Cajun seasoning. You can get it on Amazon if you can’t find it in the store.
But the real secret ingredient and the other thing my mother forgot to mention in her recipe is the gumbo file. That’s pronounced ‘fee’ lay’. File is made from ground sassafras leaves. It is also a flavoring in the old-fashioned fizzy drink sarsaparilla. Without file you will have a nice seafood bouillabaisse. I’m sure you can find gumbo file online, too. You just have to look for it.
So now you’re going to bring all your veggies to a nice boil for about thirty-five minutes. You want the okra and pepper to be very tender. If you love spice, add a tiny bit of Tabasco to your gumbo. A tiny bit, I say, because one extra drop and whooo-eee, call the fire department!
Now, you can add your fish fillets, they will break in pieces as they cook, and always add your shrimp last. When you see the fish is flaking, and the shrimp are a nice pink, add your roux and stir.
The gumbo is done and you’re now in for a real treat. Serve it up with a bowl of hot rice. Be sure to let me know how your gumbo experience turns out.
Here’s a photo of my beloved grandmother with fish that my brother Jon, in the photo, and my grandfather caught. Looks like catfish and some flounder. The photo looks to be about from 1967. You can bet there was a big fish fry, and likely some gumbo for the entire extended family.
I hope your Thanksgiving is wonderful this year. Have a happy one.
Here are my grandparents at Thanksgiving.