This dish is a strong flavored American classic with roots in the swamps of Louisiana. Cuisine like this was developed with the idea of stretching ingredients (with lots of sauce and seasonings as well as cheap rice) for the purpose of feeding larger groups of people. When the Acadians of Canada resettled in the Southern edge of the US after 1755, life was hard. The people there literally had to eat whatever they dragged out of the swamp. Anyone who has watched an episode of “Swamp People” on television knows how hardy these people are. If you go after 10-12 foot carnivorous lizards to make a living, you’ve had to make some harsh adaptations. And some families have made their living hunting alligators in the swamps for the last 300 years.
While making this recipe I had visions of a mother cooking up a roux with papa tending the simmering stock with kids ranging from 2-12 playing around the fire with an alligator roped to a tree. Then suddenly papa yells “Run chillun!! Dat alligatuh is gettin’ away! Go get him o’ we gonna have nuffin’ to eat!!!!”
Though this recipe does not include alligator meat, I suppose you could make it with some and it would still be authentic. My recipe here uses seafood and the ubiquitous Andouille sausage found everywhere in Louisiana. Gumbo traditionally also uses okra as both a vegetable and as a thickening agent. I do not like okra except fried or pickled in a bloody mary so my recipe here omits it. But feel free to add it with the aromatics during that step if you want okra in your gumbo. What separates my method from traditional Cajun cooking is my use of a microwave to make the roux. This saves an hour off the cooking time easily despite the groaning of traditional Cajun cooks.
Above I have peeled about 8 oz of shrimp and I am saving the shells which I will use in my stock. Never throw away shrimp shells!! I save them in freezer bags and freeze them. Now what I have here is not nearly enough to make a proper stock so I had to take some from my freezer.
Above I have started a pot with 3 bay leaves, some thyme sprigs and about 6 scored and bruised sage leaves. I’ll add a little bit of salt or a chicken bouillon cube as well (a little salt helps extract flavors from these ingredients).
In addition to my shrimp shells I had half a chicken carcass I had saved from a previous dinner. After you carve up a roast chicken for a family meal it is my hope that you save the carcass and freeze it like I do. Nothing is better for making homemade stocks. You can add chicken feet and necks from an Asian market for an even richer broth. I’ll simmer this stock covered for about an hour and 20 minutes on low heat.
Here I am setting up the fat for my roux. Above you see a tablespoon each of ghee (clarified butter) and bacon grease. To that I have added a tablespoon of butter flavored popcorn oil.
Then I top it off with vegetable oil so that I have one cup of fat.
To this I will add 1 1/2 cups of all purpose flour. Do not pack the flour and try to measure exactly. It makes a difference. If you don’t scrape the flour off the top for perfectly measured cups, you can have either lumps or oil separating from your flour after cooking which no one likes.
And here is the raw mixture of oil and flour whisked together. It takes about 12-15 minutes (depending on the power of your microwave) to cook this so you will want to wait until your stock is ready before you start cooking the roux.
Now for our aromatics. What you see above are what’s called the Holy Trinity “and the pope” flavor components of Cajun cuisine. Garlic is “the pope” as it’s not always used. For the holy trinity itself we have orange bell pepper (which I used for color as well as flavor), white onion, and celery. The garlic I will mince up before using.
Here’s my chicken and shrimp stock drained and ready for use. That’s REAL stock. You can buy cartons of stock but I prefer to make my own. The difference in flavor of the final product is very telling. We will use about 2 quarts of stock here.
And here I have about 1 lb of crawfish tails. I love these things passionately so it will be my most plentiful ingredient.
Sliced Andouille sausage is next. I have about 8 oz there.
8 oz each of shrimp (cut into pieces) and bay scallops. Also not shown here is 1/2 lb of canned crab meat which I add toward the end of cooking.
And here I have started the roux which is the base and thickener of Cajun sauces adapted from classic French cooking. After 6 minutes you can see that the mixture is now a medium brown color.
Two words of caution here. You MUST use pyrex glass here. Normal glass will likely break from the extreme heat generated from our oil and a plastic measuring cup is absolutely out of the question as it will melt and burn with the hot oil. The other point is once you start this – watch it carefully. If there is any moisture in your flour, the mixture will bubble over the top as steam starts to expand from the flour. And keep a paper towel under the cup in case this DOES happen and you aren’t fast enough to catch it. It will save some time in cleanup.
Beyond the 6 minutes, you will want to go about a minute at a time between stirring and when it gets even darker, stir every 30 seconds. The darker the roux gets, the less thickening power it has which is why I started with a whole cup of oil with 1.5 cups of flour. Any less and at least in my humble opinion, the gumbo will be too thin. Here we have the roux the color I like it. A muddy chocolate brown.
I add the roux to a large pot on low heat and add my vegetables. Stir this well. It will immediately thicken the roux and form a hash. This is normal. The vegetables should hiss upon contact with the hot roux and start to cook. This is when we start adding our stock a little at a time.
You will want to whisk the stock and the roux together well, adding a little stock at a time and mixing well with the whisk before adding more stock. It is after this that I will cover the pot and simmer this for about 25 minutes.
Above you can see I have added all my meats and 2 tablespoons of filé powder which you can get at any grocer. Filé powder is made from the dried and ground leaves of the North American Sassafras tree. It is both a thickener and adds flavor. It is at this point that I will also add 1/4 – 1/3 cup of fish sauce (instead of salt) and about 1/4 cup of Cajun seasonings. The last meat I put in (not shown here) is 1 lb of lump crabmeat because its already cooked and doesn’t stand up well to lots of stirring (flakes apart). I then cover and simmer this for another 5-10 minutes and then it is ready to serve.
Gumbo is traditionally served with rice. Often as little as a tablespoon full or as much as you like. Most people will use a long grain rice here and you will hear Uncle Ben’s mentioned a lot by Cajun cooks. Traditionally a poor man’s food, the gumbo makes large, cheap plates of rice more palatable for filling bellies. I like using my Japanese Koshihikari rice as it sticks together well for presentation but comes apart easily when spooned out with the hot gravy. This dish is reminiscnent of Japanese Kare Raisu (curried rice).
Ladle your gumbo around the rice carefully. You will note below that I preach better than I practice.
For presentation I wiped the rim of the bowl here. A professional would plate this such that the rice looks pristine white surrounded by the gravy. This is where my status as a hobbyist and not a professional comes through. But I cook mainly for taste and I can tell you the flavor of this dish is absolutely fantastic despite any shortcomings in appearance.
This is traditionally a stew but bursting with flavors. A real “stick to your ribs” kind of meal.
And here is the recipe:
Cajun Seafood Gumbo (serves 8-10 as a main course)
- 2 dry measure cups of uncooked rice (chef’s choice)
- 1 lb crawfish tails (precooked is fine if you can’t get fresh)
- 1/2 lb sliced Andouille beef sausage
- 1/2 lb peeled, cleaned and deveined shrimp
- 1/2 lb bay scallops
- 1/2 lb lump crabmeat
- 1/2 bell pepper minced
- 1/2 large (or 1 whole medium) white onion minced
- 2 whole celery ribs minced
- 5 garlic cloves minced
- 2 Tbs filé powder
- 1/4 cup Cajun seasoning
- 1/4 – 1/3 cup Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce (to taste)
- 2 quarts of your favorite stock or broth (or you can use my recipe)
- 1 cup of some kind of oil (feel free to get creative here as I did in my example above)
- 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
Stock (if using my recipe)
- 1 lb shrimp shells
- 1/2 or a whole previously cooked chicken carcass stripped of most meat
- 3 bay leaves broken
- 6 sage leaves bruised and scored
- 3 whole sprigs thyme
- 1 chicken bouillon cube
- Sufficient water to mostly fill a 4 quart stock pot.
- Simmer the stock covered for 80 minutes (if using my stock recipe) before doing anything else
- Mix the oil and flour (hereafter referred to as the roux) in a 1 litre or larger Pyrex glass bowl or measuring cup
- Microwave the roux for 6 minutes and watch it carefully. If it starts to bubble towards the top of the glass, stop the microwave and stir the mixture. As the roux cooks and the moisture in the flour evaporates, this will be less and less likely to happen (bubbling over). Stir well at the end of 6 minutes.
- Continue microwaving the roux for 2 more minutes, again watching carefully. The roux will start to darken. Stir well.
- Continue microwaving the roux now for 30 second intervals watching the color of it very carefully and stirring in between. You want a brown to dark brown color depending on your tastes. The darker the roux gets the more character the flavor has but the less thickening capability it will have.
- When the roux reaches the desired color, pour it into a large pot and put on the stove at medium heat.
- Add all the vegetables and stir well, cooking the veggies in the thickening roux.
- After about 30 seconds, slowly start adding the stock, whisking it into the roux well.
- After all the stock has been mixed in, cover and simmer for 25 minutes.
- While the stew simmers, cook whatever rice you plan to use with the meal.
- After the simmer, add all the meats and stir well.
- Add the fish sauce and Cajun seasonings and stir well.
- Add the filé powder and stir well.
- Simmer for 8-10 more minutes. Feel free to taste and add hot pepper to the gumbo at this stage if you want it spicier.
- Add the crab meat and gently fold in.
- Form the rice into small mounds in the center of your serving bowls.
- Carefully ladle the gumbo around the rice.