Sunday, December 18, 2011

Yumbo in the Gumbo

Jeff, Daisy and Maya

Hethyr:  A few years ago a very close friend of ours left this world too soon.  It was close to his 50th birthday, which happened to coincide with our anniversary – October 27th.  Since his passing, I’ve made a big batch of (my version of) his gumbo around this time every year to celebrate his life.  Although we’re posting this a couple of months late, I did make the last batch around the end of October and we’re still enjoying it from the freezer.  This recipe, like most, has a sort of story to go along with it…

I first struck up a conversation with him at the bar at Front Range Barbeque and, oddly enough, I remember it having something to do with facial moisturizer.  WTF?  A rather bizarre conversation for a late 20-something girl and a late 40-something guy to be having in a crowded bar, right?  Well, that was the beginning of many strange and wonderful conversations with Jeff.

Love of bluegrass and good beer brought us together, but we found many other commonalities as well.  He loved to cook and actually taught me a lot about food and cooking before I became a chef.  We ended up in the same close circle of friends and did everything together for a few years before he left us.  He had this awesome childlike excitement about EVERYTHING and it was totally contagious.  He was also hilariously anal over the top when it came to learning about something new or getting involved in a new hobby.  He would research it thoroughly and then send his friends an email about all that he had learned.  Then he would talk about it incessantly for the next few weeks.  I miss those emails and chats a lot now and wish I could have them back.  But at least I have the good memories.

Christmas at our house 2007 - Dottie and Jeff

Well, one year I was planning and making the food for the Mardi Gras bash at Cucuru Gallery Café and I asked Jeff if he had a good, authentic recipe for gumbo and/or red beans and rice since his family is from southwest Louisiana.  I had no idea what I was getting myself into by asking that question!  He knew that I knew how to cook, but this was the email response I received anyway (I’m leaving out a lot of it to spare you, but I’m sharing the parts I found funny or interesting.  I’m also leaving out the actual recipe since I’ll give you my version below.)...  

“Hey, I've never written the beans and rice recipe down, but I've tried Emeril Lagasse's version and it's awesome.  Some folks can't stand that guy, but he makes very authentic Cajun… 

Here's my gumbo recipe.  It's the way that my mom and grandmothers made it in southwest Louisiana.  It's the way gumbo is supposed to taste.  Not like what most restaurants serve.  The sausage is one of the most important ingredients.  If you can't find the sausage that I recommend (impossible to find in CO), try to find a good slow-smoked (hickory) sausage.  Or you can substitute about 2 tablespoons of Colgin's liquid hickory smoke.
Difficulty: Difficult (but damned worth it)

Make the roux (while chicken is roasting):
CAUTION!! - This stuff will be over 350 degrees and will cause 2nd degree burns!!  Combine oil and flour in a large heavy pot (cast-iron is best) over  medium heat (add more oil if needed to make a runny paste texture).  Stir  slowly and constantly for about 30 minutes until about the color of a milk  chocolate bar (slightly lighter).  It's very important that you do not stop  stirring no matter what!!  Burning will happen in only a few seconds if not  stirred and will make the roux taste bitter. If this happens, throw it out and start over.  Note: It helps to have a 'real' stove hood that vents to the outside as this process will smell up the whole house if you have one of those hoods that blows it back into the kitchen (what's up with that?).
Remove from the heat, allow gumbo to rest for a few minutes, and skim off fat.  Stir in the parsley and half of the green onions.  That's it!!  You're done.

Serve over rice (making sure to remove the bay leaves as you serve).  Garnish with a sprinkle of chopped green onions and a dash of 'gumbo filé'.  Enjoy!!

Note: Gumbo, like most soups, chili, etc. will taste better after sitting in the fridge overnight.”

So, that was the email with about two-thirds of it removed.  See what I mean about him being over the top?  But this is honestly one of the best gumbo recipes I’ve ever had and he really did give GREAT instructions because my first batch got his seal of approval and he was super-picky about gumbo.  I also got this comment from one of my long-time clients whose family moved to Colorado Springs from Baton Rouge a few years ago…

“OMG!!!  Awesome gumbo!!!  Jeff gave you truly an authentic LA gumbo recipe... And the good kind...  Normally the lower south cook a creole gumbo and call that gumbo...NOT!!  True gumbo has to have a dark roux and you cooked it perfectly...  I know for sure he is looking down smiling...”

Makes me feel good to know that I can carry on his tradition.  I just wish he were still here to enjoy it with us.

One more thing that I feel needs to be addressed…  I’ve had people tell me that this isn’t true gumbo since it doesn’t include okra.  I have found out that this is not the case.  Gumbos can be categorized by the type of thickener used:  okra, filé OR roux.  Jeff’s version, and therefore my version, uses roux and filé.  I’m sure it would also be great with some okra thrown in, but I’ve never seen the need to add it – it’s perfect as is!

This is a pretty difficult recipe because it requires a LOT of hands-on time during the first hour or so but it is SO worth the time and effort.  Just be sure to make a gigantic batch so you don’t have to do it very often (it freezes wonderfully!).  I usually only make it twice a year – around Mardi Gras and again around Jeff’s birthday – but we enjoy it out of the freezer for months.  I hope you like it as much as we do.

Hethyr's Jeff’s Chicken and Sausage Gumbo
Serves 12 (although I usually double that!)
  • 2 whole chickens, cut into pieces (legs, wings, breasts, etc.)
  • 3 tablespoons Cajun Spice Blend (see recipe below)
  • 1 cup + 1 tablespoon oil, divided
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 10 cups water or chicken stock (I love to use homemade stock made from the carcass and scraps from the cooked chicken)
  • 2 cups yellow onion, chopped
  • ½ cup celery, chopped (feel free to use the celery leaves, too)
  • ¾ cup green bell pepper, seeded, ribbed and chopped
  • 3 pounds Andouille sausage, cut in half lengthwise, then cut into half moon slices (contrary to Jeff’s comment, it can be found in Colorado Springs at Ranch Food Direct)
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne
  • 3 bay leaves
  • Salt
  • ¼ cup parsley, chopped
  • 1 cup green onion, chopped
  • 8 to 10 cups cooked rice
  • Gumbo filé powder (optional)
  • 12 hard-boiled eggs (Jeff did NOT use eggs in his gumbo, but his brother Philip does and that’s where this addition came from – we love it, so it stuck)
1.  Preheat oven to 400ºF; rub chicken with 1 tablespoon of oil and 1 tablespoon of spice blend.  Place in a large oven-safe baking dish and bake for 40 minutes or until you can easily remove the meat from the bones (reserve bones for homemade chicken broth if you’d like!).  When it’s cool enough to touch, remove the meat and shred.  Cool.

2.  Make the roux (as Jeff said, this stuff can cause nasty burns, so be careful - I usually wear long oven mitts while I stir):  Combine flour and oil in a large heavy pot over medium heat.  Stir slowly and constantly for about 30 to 35 minutes or until it’s slightly lighter than a milk chocolate bar.  It’s very important that you don’t stop stirring because it can burn in a few seconds and it will make the roux taste bitter.  If that happens, throw it out and start again.

The roux should be "slightly lighter than a milk
chocolate bar" according to Jeff.

3.  When the roux is finished, add the onions, celery and green pepper and continue to stir for about 5 minutes or until wilted.  Add the sausage, remaining 2 tablespoons of Cajun Spice Blend, cayenne, bay leaves and chicken stock and stir until well combined.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 2 hours (add more liquid if/when necessary).

4.  Add shredded chicken, adjust salt and simmer on low heat for 1 hour more (add more liquid if/when necessary).

5.  Remove from heat, allow gumbo to rest for a few minutes and skim off fat.  Remove bay leaves and stir in half of the green onions and parsley.

6.  To serve, place equal amounts of rice in bowls, top with gumbo, sprinkle with filé, plop a boiled egg on top and finish with remaining parsley and green onions.  Best with good friends and beer!

Cajun Spice Blend
Note:  This makes a lot, but only use the amount called for in the recipe – you’ll have extra.
  • 2 ½ tablespoons paprika
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 tablespoon dried thyme
1.  Mix all ingredients together and store in an airtight container.
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Jon:  You might be surprised to hear about the quality of gumbo that is created here in the Pikes Peak foothills.  Every year as a kickoff to Manitou Springs’ Carnivale celebration, the Mumbo Jumbo Gumbo competition attracts dozens of exceptional entries from locals and far-reaching travelers.  Our friend Brian, who owns Front Range Barbeque on the West side of town, has won the professional division with his Alabama-born recipe, our friend Jonny has won the amateur division with his Wisconsin-born recipe, and our friends Travis and Whitney have won the amateur division with their Lousiana-born recipe.  Few things are quite as enjoyable as wandering through Manitou's Soda Springs Park and sampling gumbo after gumbo... a nice late-morning gorging on Southern stew.

Jeff never entered his gumbo into the Mumbo Jumbo Gumbo competition and Hethyr hasn't either.  However, there is no doubt in my mind that this recipe would be a serious contender for the crown.  No disrespect to the finely crafted dishes of our friends and the other worthy strangers who compete, but this gumbo is HANDS DOWN the best I have ever tasted.  This high-altitude Cajun concoction is as good as it gets.

It is no surprise that such an amazing creation originated from Jeff.  He emitted a wealth of great ideas, brilliantly useful and useless knowledge, profoundly creative innovation, and all-around positive energy.  He researched nutrition for humans and dogs to an encyclopedic degree, investigated the validity of current recycling practices, assembled M*A*S*H-worthy camping shelters, studied constellations, constructed the world's greatest camping beer cozy (see below)... all while managing to behave like a kid in a candy store over all the incredible wonders of the world.  Not a week after I told him I would begin pursuing a career in teaching did he buy me Teaching for Dummies.  The dude was always looking for the perfect answers.  It stands to reason that such a guy would create the world's greatest gumbo. 

If you have the gusto to embark on the sophisticated task of making gumbo - the mother of all edible creations - then it should be this one.  Jeff would be happy that his recipe lives on, and he would most certainly hope that you would find enjoyment in the scientific culinary process of the great gumbo adventure.