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Friday, September 15, 2006

As long as I ain't got no job, I might as well make some 10-hour Gumbo

Passing through the Grand Army Plaza farmers' market the other day, I noticed a huge table of organic okra. I thought, "I'm unemployed and have lots of time to kill. Why not make a little gumbo?"

Foolish, foolish man.

Three days of work later, it's done. It's fucking tasty, but is it worth the 10-odd hours I spent making it?

I worked with a recipe I derived from Chuck Taggart's gumbo recipe. He is of the opinion that 1) you can't take shortcuts with the stock -- you've got to make it from scratch, and it should cook for the better part of a day; and 2) you need to buy shrimp with the heads on, to use the heads in the stock. He writes:
Shrimp heads impart a wonderful flavor to the stock, and it just ain't the same as a real New Orleans gumbo without them. Do whatever you have to do. In many cities you'll have better luck at Asian seafood markets.
I got mine in Chinatown, and I can swear by the results.

The finished product
The word "gumbo", by the way, has a great history. American Heritage says the word for okra was gombo in Louisiana French, while Wikipedia says the word was gumbo in the Charleston, South Carolina dialect Gullah. These words were brought into new world Creoles by Western and Southern Africans who spoke languages from the massive Bantu system of connected tongues, where the Tshiluba word ki-ngumbo continues to mean okra today. (In Puerto Rico, and other Carribean Spanish Islands, guingambó is the word for okra.) Since "gumbo" literally means "okra", some insist that a gumbo made with a thickener other than okra--such as filé powder (made from mildly carcinogenic sassafras leaves) or just a roux--is not a proper gumbo, but just a stew.

Day 1

After buying about two pounds of okra, I get some peppers, celery and tomatoes, and notice along the way that New York State gives coupons for farmers' markets to poor families as part of WIC, or whatever succeeded AFDC. So someone in the state legislature must be competent. (I'm bitter because all of the candidates I supported in the primaries on Tuesday lost.)

Then I go for my big run, to Chinatown. On Mulberry, bout a block South of Canal, there is a Chinese butchery and grocery store that sells goodies like loose chicken bones and shrimp with heads. I get four pounds of chicken legs and thighs and two pounds of shrimp, but they are out of bones, so I pick up a four-pound pack of drumsticks from Pathmark--engineered meat at its cheapest, and enough extra bones to make up for the missing ones. The bones are crucial because they give your chicken stock a deep base flavor; they also thicken it, to the point that when you put the stock in the fridge, it will reach the consistency of Jell-o.

Chinatown also has the secret ingredient of cheap stock--the world's largest vegetables. They sell carrots the size of daschunds and onions Manute Bol couldn't palm for around 60 cents a pound. I hobble onto the subway, doubled over with about 15 pounds of groceries and with a bag of Chinese mini-cakes in one hand, which is obligatory when visiting Chinatown.

I also grab some Chorizo sausage at Pathmark--one of Chuck Taggart's suggestions is to have chicken, seafood and sausage in the gumbo, and it won't be easy to find real Andouille sausage.

Day 2

To start the stock, I roast the chicken for half an hour in the oven, eatthe crispy skin off the thighs, pull off about half the meat and put the bones and ligaments into boiling water in a huge lobster pot. Roasting makes the flavor better and makes it easy to separate meat from bone.

I crack a few peppercorns and roast them without oil in a pan. Then I chop up the garlic, onions, carrots and celery (saving half the celery, garlic and onions to go in the gumbo later) and sautee them in olive oil with spices--oregano, tarragon, thyme, bay leaves, and salt--in the pan with the peppercorns. I add some scallions and parsley at the end and throw it all into the pot. I have a few heads of broccoli, a partially-used onion, and some chives handy, so those go in too. Pretty much any vegetable handy will improve a stock, so long as it's not bitter like radish or tasteless like cucumber.

Then I start on the shrimp, cutting off the heads, snapping off the tails (if you snap right, half the shell comes off with it), and chucking the shells. I throw heads, tails and shells into the stock, and save the meat for later. (Most people de-vein the shrimp, but I think that's a waste of time, and I need all the time I could save.)

The whole thing cooks for about four hours, simmering on low heat. Then I drain all the stuff off using a colander and cheesecloth--in the past I just used paper towels, but they drain way too slow--and then begin one of the really tedious processes--pulling chicken meat off of the bones to go in the gumbo tomorrow. This meat has lost much of its flavor, but it's still worth saving for the texture, even though separating meat from ligament and fat is truly joyless.

To finish off the stock, I put it back on to boil for another hour or two to reduce and concentrate it, which makes it tastier, easier to balance with other liquids, and easier to store. Then I let it cool and put it in the fridge. (Ideally, you should put the pot in a larger pot of ice water first to cool it quickly so it spends less time in the bacteria-friendly range of 150-50 degrees, but this has never seemed practical.) It has to cool overnight so that the fat will separate completely from the stock.

Day 3

I take out the now jiggly stock and spoon off the fat. (Another reason to use lots of chicken bones and boil for hours: the natural gelatin in the stock makes it separate cleanly from the fat, so it's easy to roll the fat off of it.)

Some of the stock I freeze for use in future concoctions; back on the burner with the rest, with a few bay leaves to release flavor as it cooked.

To thicken the gumbo and make it tacky, I next make a New Orleans-style dark roux. As per Taggart's instructions, I go for a massive roux with about a cup of flour and almost as much fat (by using equal amounts olive oil and butter). On medium heat, I slowly mix the flour into the fat, stirring constantly to make it even and to keep it from burning. Then I let it cook for another half hour, getting more and more brown and releasing a deep nutty flavor I never knew a roux could have. According to Taggart, cooking a roux this long diminishes its thickening power, which is the only way such a huge amount of roux could avoid turning the gumbo into glue. Once it hits the color of coffee, in it goes.

By the way, Taggart warns: "They don't call roux 'Cajun napalm' for nothing. Don't let any splatter on you, or you'll get a nasty burn." I catch a microscopic splatter, and somehow this stuff burns worse than hot oil.

I start the rice on the side. The secret to fluffy rice, I have learned, is to rinse it a lot before cooking, undercook it a tiny bit, and refrigerate it once it's done.

I chop up the chorizo and put that in the gumbo. Then I go through the chicken one last time and pull off cartilage, skin and fat I'd missed earlier (I swear these things continued to grow overnight) and toss the meat in.

I chop the peppers and sautee them with yesterday's leftover garlic, onions and celery until good and brown, and toss them in. I slice the tomatoes, scallions and okra but save them for later, since they cook so quickly. Okra is slimier the more you slice it and cook it, so you can control the gumminess of the gumbo to some degree by how thinly and how early you add the okra.

Now I season to taste, with salt, pepper, hot sauce, a little fresh tarragon and rosemary.

Finally, I throw in the shrimp, scallions, tomatoes, and okra, give it another ten minutes, and kill the heat. It's finished.

At this point I realize that this has been a different project than anything else I've ever cooked. Normally, if I ruin a dish, it's disappointing. But ruining this would be a travesty--a waste of ten hours of my life, not to mention forty dollars of ingredients.

Has it been worth it, when I could have instead just bought a carton of chicken stock, a pound of shelled shrimp, chopped some okra, onions, and garlic, and had something pretty tasty in its own right in about an hour? I make myself a bowl, then another, then another. I am starting to feel desperate that there is no one around to enjoy it--my girlfriend is off getting drunk with film-school buddies--but then our roommate Priya comes home, and she and her boyfriend gobble some down to high praise. Priya says it all: "Anytime you want to spend three days making that, it's fine with me."

Next time, I'd get to Chinatown early enough to score a few pounds of chicken bones, and start the vegetables earlier in the gumbo so the celery can cook all the way -- it was still a little too crunchy for my taste.

Here's the recipe in a nutshell:

For the stock:
  • chicken parts - six or so pounds of bones, legs, whatever
  • shrimp with heads - couple pounds
  • onions - couple pounds
  • celery - couple pounds
  • carrots - couple pounds
  • garlic - one whole head
  • peppercorns - spoonful
  • bay leaves
  • spices - fresh if you can, dried otherwise
    • thyme
    • tarragon
    • oregano
    • basil
    • rosemary
  1. Put a very large pot on with water to boil. Make sure there's always enough water to cover all the stuff in the pot.
  2. Add some bay leaves.
  3. Roast the chicken in the oven, then cool and pull off most of the meat. Put the bones in the pot, put the meat aside to cool more.
  4. Chop the vegetables. Refrigerate half the celery and onions and about 1/3 of the garlic for later.
  5. Crack the peppercorns by pounding them with something (your fist on the side of a wide knife works well, or the bottom of mug) and roast them without oil on a skillet.
  6. In same skillet, sautee the vegetables with olive oil, spices and a little salt until brown at edges. Add to pot.
  7. Shuck shrimp of heads, tails, and shells. Put these in pot, put shrimp in fridge.
  8. Let the stock boil on low for several hours--the longer the better.
  9. Strain the stock through cheesecloth and pick out chicken meat. Put all the chicken meat in the fridge.
  10. Boil down the stock for another hour or two.
  11. Put the stock in the fridge overnight.
  12. The next day, skim the fat off the top.
For the gumbo:
  • chicken meat put aside when making stock
  • onions put aside when making stock
  • garlic put aside when making stock
  • celery put aside when making stock
  • sausage (Andouille if possible, or Chorizo or other)
  • okra - couple pounds
  • tomatoes - couple pounds
  • peppers - couple pounds
  • scallions - one bunch
  • cup or so of flour
  • 3/4 cup or so of fat (olive oil or butter or both, whatever porportions you like)
  • more bay leaves
  • parsley
  • hot sauce
  • rice
  1. Put stock on low heat with a few bay leaves and a cup of water.
  2. Slice vegetables. Separate the peppers from the okra, tomatoes and scallions.
  3. Sautee yesterday's vegetables with the peppers until brown at edges and add to stock.
  4. Make the roux by heating the oil, then slowly mixing in the flour so that the mixture stays even and doesn't lump. Cook on medium over the next half hour until dark brown, then add to pot.
  5. Start the rice. When done, drain and refrigerate.
  6. Slice the sausage and add to pot.
  7. Add the chicken from yesterday, tearing into bite-sized pieces and making sure there are no ligaments or fat left.
  8. Spend some time seasoning with salt, pepper, hot sauce, and other spices.
  9. Add the shrimp.
  10. Add the okra, tomatoes and scallions.
  11. Serve over rice.
This recipe made me about eight quarts of gumbo; I froze two and have to eat the rest in the next week, so Alice, give me a call and come over.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Tue Feb 20, 08:06:00 AM:
As a puertorrican I can tell you that here the most common word for okra is not guingambó but quimbombó.
Blogger NecrochildK on Tue Sep 16, 09:20:00 AM:
WHO on earth said that making gumbo with a roux is not real gumbo?! THat's how everyone I know born and raised in Acadiana make it, even when using okra!
Blogger NecrochildK on Tue Sep 16, 09:22:00 AM:
Not to mention, not to be rude, but by that picture, you're serving it wrong. It should be a stewlike consistancy, not served up like rice and gravy.