Gumbo Ya-Ya for a Christmas Birthday

Holiday gatherings are generally neither small nor intimate affairs in my family these days. They use to be growing up. There were just the four of us in Frankfort, as our extended relations lived in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. These days I’m fortunate that a birthday party or holiday get-together will easily involve 15-20 family members. The hosting venue will be run full of kiddos, grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers & sisters, boyfriends/girlfriends, and even a fiancé or two.

This places a premium upon two items, food and liquor. The food can be tricky as the chosen dishes must serve a discerning allotment of all ages. The liquor is a given, in particular around Christmas, as all must cope with the onslaught of holiday festivity.

Upon this most recent Christmas night party, a Monday, my sister-in-law and a couple of us consulted amongst the merriment on what we might pull together for my mother-in-law’s birthday that was on the coming Wednesday. Rumor was a ham might get cooked, but that raised eyebrows. Regardless, something would need to supplement that, and a vegetarian option would be required as well.

My immediate thought was gumbo.

Having lived in New Orleans for years, the holidays are a time of gathering, and in that region great pride is taken by cooking up a pot of this strange dish with an even stranger name. There are holiday gatherings, tailgating for football and neighborhood parties, and all of these will have someone in charge of bringing a mess of gumbo.

I find there is something about Louisiana’s communal atmosphere, and the sharing of love that comes with cooking fine food, that lends itself to New Orleans cuisine. That city, and the spirit that populates its inhabitants – their festive nature, refusal to give up, and open-arm welcome to visitors the world over, whether day or night, can be encapsulated in a steaming bowl of gumbo. It’s all in there, the mystery, celebration, satisfaction and camaraderie.

Odds are gumbo is the number one item most people would say they remember about their mama cooking for them as kids growing up in and around New Orleans. But truly gumbo is not a gender specific dish. It could be dad that made the gumbo. It can be a guy thing, much like barbecue or chili. That’s another mark in gumbo’s favor.

Defining gumbo, much like its contents, can be mysterious. It’s soup-like, but not something that neatly fits into that category on a menu. It can be an appetizer, but a big bowl of hearty gumbo over rice with a crust of dipping bread easily makes for a full meal. There can be seafood involved or not; chicken and Andouille sausage or just the sausage; yes to tomatoes or a resounding NO (this remains a hotly contested ingredient option); and there in lies its beauty, gumbo is many things to many people.

Generally speaking folks start with a stock or broth, add in chicken or seafood, scrape in the Holy Trinity of chopped onions, green peppers and celery, usually a bit of okra, Andouille sausage, and thicken the mixture with a dark roux.

Within those broad boundaries much adaptation is available to take place. I’ve been at this for 20-plus years and continue to tweak my recipe, but that is exactly what I love about this food. There’s latitude for change, experiments can be made and mistakes can be covered up. Gumbo may be considered lo-country fare, but when done properly it’s anything but pedestrian.

GUMBO YA-YA

Ingredients: Meat from one whole chicken, 2 to 3 pounds (chopped); 2 teaspoons Creole seasoning; 8 tablespoons unsalted butter; 1 pound Andouille sausage (diced); 1 cup vegetable oil; 1 cup all-purpose flour; 1 sweet onion (chopped); 1 large bell pepper (chopped); 4 stalks celery (chopped); 6 cloves garlic (minced); 2 cups okra (sliced); 8 cups chicken stock; 1 teaspoon dried thyme; 1 teaspoon basil; 1/4 teaspoon black pepper; 1/4 teaspoon white pepper; 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper; 1/2 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika; 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce; salt as needed; 1 bay leaf; 1 bunch green onions, both white and green parts (chopped); 1/2 cup Italian parsley (chopped); several dashes of Louisiana-style hot sauce; and 4 cups cooked white rice.

As a disclaimer up front I will say this gumbo recipe is a two day affair. It can be cut to one day if store-bought stock is substituted over making stock from scratch, but it will not be as tasty, guaranteed. Take the time, buy the ticket and take the ride. Plan ahead, buy a whole chicken, preferably something at least 5 pounds. If a heartier gumbo is wanted purchase a 7 or 8 pound bird. Let’s make a proper chicken stock!

CHICKEN STOCK

Ingredients: 2 pounds chicken bones (or whatever is rendered after cooking a whole chicken); 6 quarts water (or 24 cups); 2 whole carrots (peeled & thickly sliced); 1 sweet onion (roughly chopped); 4 stalks celery (roughly chopped with leaves included); 6 cloves garlic (minced); 1/2 cup parsley (chopped); 1 teaspoon thyme; 1 teaspoon salt; 12 whole black peppercorns or 1 teaspoon ground black pepper; 1/2 teaspoon white pepper; 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper; 2 bay leaves; and 1 cup dry white wine.

Right, first purchase one whole chicken and cook the bird according to package instructions (basically 90 minutes at 350 degrees); allow chicken to cool for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Now render all the meat from the bird, including wings, breast, legs and the bits underneath, discarding the skin. There should be plenty of meat. To increase the flavor, it’s best to leave a bit of critter on the bones. Take the best parts and leave any that seems reasonable.

Place the bones in a roasting pan and brown them in the oven for 20 minutes.

Bring the water to a boil over high heat in a large stock pot. Add the browned bones and remaining ingredients; reduce heat to medium and simmer for one hour, or until the liquid is reduced by half.

Remove the pan from the heat and allow the stock to cool, then refrigerate for four to five hours – overnight is even better (I placed mine on our screened-in porch considering the chilly temperatures outside and saved the refrigerator room). I find that after this entire process is complete, the last thing I want to embark upon is shifting gears toward making my gumbo.

In the morning remove any fat that has gathered at the surface of the liquid, then strain the stock through a colander into a large bowl. Discard the bones and vegetables left in the colander. If not using immediately, the stock can be safely kept refrigerated for up to a week in a sealed container, or freeze it for later use.

With making the stock a day ahead of the actual gumbo preparation, for those wishing to utilize the down time, this is a great moment to knock out some of the chopping of vegetables and such that will be needed the following day. It saves time and is nice to have ready to throw together easily when the moment arrives.

*     *     *     *     *

It’s gumbo time! About 30 minutes before starting to put ingredients together, get the chicken out and season it with Creole spice. If not done previously, first chop the chicken into bite-sized pieces and then season.

Melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a skillet and brown the chicken pieces over medium-high heat; set aside in a large bowl; in same pan melt the other four tablespoons of butter and brown the Andouille sausage; this also can be set aside in the same bowl with the chicken.

Now let’s make a roux! Using the same pan the chicken and sausage were cooked in, (don’t rinse it out or wipe it clean) pour in the cup of vegetable oil and warm over medium high heat; use a wire whisk to free up any browned chicken or sausage particles from the bottom; sift in the flour, stirring constantly; continue heating over medium-high heat until a dark brown roux is achieved.

This will first turn a blond/tan color; keep stirring and the mixture will continue to darken; be patient and wait for it to start turning brown, it may take 20 minutes or more; basically get it to an almost burned state but not quite. Careful this mixture will be extremely hot and can pop at times, firing what is commonly referred to as “Creole Napalm” onto the exposed skin of hands and arms. This stuff burns, especially when making a dark roux. If the roux does accidentally burn, throw it away and start again. Burned roux will poison anything it is used in, and render it awful. Cut the losses, use it as a learning experience and simply start again.

Remove the roux from heat, and add chopped onions, bell peppers, celery, garlic and okra; stir the vegetables about in the roux mixture, as this will help cool off the roux and prevent it from further darkening. This also serves to cook the vegetables.

Transfer the roux/vegetable mixture to a large pot, like Dutch oven or stock pot; pour in the chicken stock, bringing it to a boil; lower the heat to simmer, and add the chicken and sausage.

Time to spice this puppy up! Get the measuring spoons out and pour in thyme, basil, black pepper, white pepper, cayenne pepper, Spanish smoked paprika, Worcestershire sauce, salt and bay leaf.

Continue cooking for 45 minutes over low heat; add green onions and parsley; adjust seasoning with salt, pepper and hot sauce to preference. Serve in soup bowls over white rice. It makes eight servings.

I made a double batch of this recipe for Michelle’s birthday party, and it was a good thing as the ham wasn’t so wonderful and attendees just kept coming back to steal another taste of this affable gumbo. Gil made a lovely vegetarian lasagna to go along with our other entrée items that was super yummy. I will say, don’t sleep on the rice. If that gets messed up bad enough it will impact the gumbo’s overall deliciousness. That being said, this chicken & Andouille sausage gumbo will happily feed many. YA-YA-YA!

Like anything worth eating, gumbo takes love and time, but it’s all worth it.

Happy New Year!

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