...And now for the recipe: gumbo ma mere

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Courtesy of the author's mother here is a refined recipe for the classic Louisiana dish that encompasses so much more than just the ingredients

Jim Gabour
18 March 2012

I must document my mother’s refined addition to a dish that acts as a binder to families all over Louisiana, but especially in New Orleans.

Here it is, with only a few of my own variations.

The roux (a very dark one):

  • 4 teaspoons goose fat (or substitute bacon drippings -- I’ll explain 
  • 3 teaspoons butter
  • 3 teaspoons olive oil (no sense using extra virgin, you can use plain or even pomace)
  • 8 teaspoons all-purpose flour, sifted if you’ve the energy

The Holy Trinity of New Orleans cooking, all medium chop:

  • 2 large onions
  • ½ large bell pepper (or 6 jalapenos)
  • 1 stalk celery

 and a finer chop of:

  • 4 big toes garlic (considering the above, often referred to as the Pope)
  • 1 cup fresh parsley (or 4 tbsp dried)
  • 4 whole green onions

For wild game version, use ½ to 1 pound of each game, deboned as best possible, and shredded or chopped in small pieces:

  • venison or wild boar or alligator  (with gator, use tail cut only, or shoulders & hips marinated overnight in a decent sherry – but you knew that)
  • squirrel and/or rabbit
  • duck or mourning dove

And, for melding the wild flavors:

  • ¼ pound well-cured and spiced pork tasso  (lean meat, seasoned & smoked, now available in many meat markets)
  • ¼ cup sherry (preferably a bit sweet)

For out-of-hunting-season or urban version, substitute:

  • the carcass remaining after carving of a 10-12 pound smoked turkey or two large chickens
  • (add 2 teaspoons Liquid Smoke to cooked but unsmoked turkey or chicken)
  • ¾ pound andouille sausage (or any flavorful, lean sausage), chopped in ¼-inch cubes
  • ¼ pound well-cured and spiced pork tasso, julienned in one-inch strips
  • 4 quarts water (with another 2 quarts on reserve)
  • 1 cup red wine (minimum)
  • ¼ cup dried mint (½ cup fresh)
  • ¼ cup dried parsley (½ cup fresh)
  • 1 teaspoon ground sage
  • ½ teaspoon dried thyme
  • 8 large bay leaves
  • ½  teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne (or to taste)
  • 4 teaspoons ground pecans
  • 4 teaspoons Lea & Perrins or Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 teaspoon Pickapeppa sauce
  • 1 teaspoon Louisiana Hot Sauce

The low-down:

This is the best gumbo you will ever eat.  Guaranteed.  All the great restaurants, all the fine cookbooks, they’ve wonderful versions.  But this is the one.  It’s the goose fat, and the mint, and the pecans that break it out of the pack.

You may want to vary the thickness of the roux or the quantity of wine or spicing.  And of course with a gumbo all the meat ingredients can become whatever you have on hand, even seafood (oyster, shrimp and gator especially).

The wild game version is one of the dishes that my mother makes that is not only edible, but miraculously good.  Each fall, when all our family friends started bringing over the bounties of the Louisiana swamp hunting seasons, she will inevitably give in to her great “country” instincts, take whatever fowl or mammal she couldn’t fit in the freezer, and concoct a gumbo that will take your breath away.

Even without the game, you’ll find the deep rich taste of this dish immediately evocative of the great gumbo of cultures that makes New Orleans, and South Louisiana, the unique fulfilling place that it is.

Preparing the turkey/stock:

 If you’re making the wild game version, you can substitute 4 cups of chicken stock, because the game flavor will overwhelm almost any stock you use.  But if you’re using turkey or chicken, this will make the flavor of the final roux much more intense.

After taking the big light and dark cuts of meat off the turkey, leaving the wings and back intact, break the bird into smaller pieces, about a dozen to include neck and giblets.  Place in 4 quarts of water with 4 bay leaves, and half the sage & thyme.  Bring to a boil, then drop to simmer for at least two hours, or until meat is dropping off bone.

Strain, replacing liquid in pot, and keeping on a very low flame.  Allow bones and meat to cool.  Remove meat and set aside. There should be well over a pound.

Now you’re ready to make the infamous dark gumbo roux, a daunting enterprise.

The gumbo roux:

This is the grand daddy of the roux family, and in its perfect state, the gumbo roux is the darkest ebony imaginable.  It seems impossibly black not to be burned, and yet the patience and nerve it takes to make will reward you with the nuttiest, richest base you’ve ever tasted.  My innovation is using the sweet goose fat, with its tolerance of high temperature.  A Christmas goose has become something of a tradition with me, just because of the fat rendered in the process, though I truly enjoy the crisped skin, a candy-like avian crackling.  However, I do not particularly care for domesticated gooseflesh, which I find rather bland, even when accompanied by the best of sauces.

Domesticated fowl do not even seem to be the same animal, once you’ve been exposed to the pungent high flavors of their counterparts from the wild.  Of course, the days of my own hunting are long gone, as I see fuzzy bunny ears, fluffy squirrel tails, and majestic high-flying ganders as creatures whose lives I can no longer personally end.  Note that next-to-last word.  A true hypocrite’s refuge.  I won’t shoot them, but I sure will be the first in line to eat them.  Baby, if you’ve got a couple of wild ducks in the freezer, bring them on over, because yours truly is heating up the stove.

To return to the point:  I do not find the prospect of a meal of domestic goose particularly exciting, but reducing the fat from a single 6-8 pound bird gives me enough to store in my freezer as a roux starter for the better part of a year.

Place a cast-iron skillet or thick, even-bottomed aluminum pan over medium-high flame.  Add the goose fat and butter, and then once they are melted, stir in the oil.  Raise the heat by a third, and sprinkle in the flour, a little at a time, evenly across the entire bottom of the pan.  Begin slowly stirring with a flat-edged wooden spoon. A roux this dark will inevitably smoke, so don’t worry about that.  Just keep stirring and don’t let it burn.  If it does burn, resign yourself to starting over.  It happens.  The phone rings, the neighbor yells, there is a loss of continuity while remembering a particularly provocative moment at last year’s Decadence Ball.

Ah, New Orleans’ wonderful Decadence Ball... I was diverted for a few minutes myself just then.

It happens.  There is no sense in trying to salvage a burned roux, and throwing all these delicious ingredients into a dish that will never be quite right.  Just start again.

You may have to add a bit more oil as the flour seems to dry out toward the end of the process.  If this does occur, it will happen quickly, so have the extra oil easily accessible.  Eventually you will have a thick, brownish-black substance that smells of nuts and chocolate.  It will not seem like it is enough to handle the large gumbo, but it is far more concentrated than you would believe.  Be careful as you stir, as it is extremely hot, and a minute splash on the skin can be quite painful -- this is the voice of experience.  Just as you achieve the final stage of color, rather than run through the house showing off your hard-won base, drop in the chopped vegetables, withholding garlic until the very last.  Stir veggies in completely so that very little roux remains on the bottom of the pan, and then cover.  Lower the flame by half.  This part of the process allows the vegetables to sweat themselves from starch to sugar, without adding extra liquid other than their own.  Remove the lid and stir every 2-3 minutes until all vegetables, including garlic, clarify or become almost translucent.

If you’re using wild game, use this moment to do a final inspection for metal shot, sharp bones and pinfeathers, all of which are quite unsettling when encountered between the molars.

Add the chopped meat to the roux, cooking another 3-5 minutes until browned.

The assembly begins:

All this while you’ve had the stock simmering away.  Now raise that flame to medium heat. Take the roux off the fire for the moment.  Slowly and carefully spoon the roux, meat and vegetables into the stock, stirring so that it begins dissolving.  When you’ve finished transferring the mix, put the roux pan back on the fire and deglaze, pouring in the wine.  Stir gently, scraping all the remaining roux and cooked pieces into the wine mixture.  Bring to a boil, then drop to a low heat and simmer for 5-8 minutes, until the alcohol is driven off.  At this point, I always enjoy the heady scent of the flavored grape.  Pour into stock.

Add remaining spices and sauces, stirring all the while.  Taste.  The mint will have added this indefinable edge to the flavor. The inimitable Cajun chef/philosopher Justin Wilson himself told me about his own use of mint in an interview I was fortunate enough to have with him in the seventies.  I have developed this suggestion, now using four or five times what he recommended.

Add the ground pecans and stir again.  This gumbo can be used with or without the filé -- ground sassafras leaves -- which is normally used as a thickener.   Filé can be bitter if too much is used and cannot be allowed to cook, so it must be added to each portion individually at the last minute.  While I enjoy the filé serving ritual, I have come to savor the nutty flavor of the pecans as much more in tune with this particular gumbo.  I got the idea when, after the holiday pastry baking was done and Thanksgiving dinner over, I was left with a turkey carcass and a quarter of a pound of pecan dust -- the end of the season’s shelled nuts.  This recipe is the result.

Place a scoop of white rice in the center of a large soup bowl.  Ladle the gumbo around the rice.  Garnish with chopped green onions and a single pecan half atop the rice.

Serves eight as an entree, sixteen as an appetizer.

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