North Coast Journal

Jan. 1995 - FOOD

Cajun filé gumbo

by Betty Thompson

When Ron and Kay Zammit, natives of Louisiana, lived in this area we were lucky enough to share in the spoils of their care packages from home. This included real Louisiana hot sausages from a mom-and-pop operation in the country made from the whole pig - no preservatives, chunky, spicy and hickory smoked for a whole week.

Mmmm I can hear Ron humming approval. We devoured these spicy rounds in mounds of jambalaya or gumbo made by Kay.

Gumbo is an original creation from Southern Louisiana kitchens. Cajuns (Acadians/ French Canadians) invented gumbo when they tried to duplicate bouillabaisse, the fish stew from France, using the fish and vegetables native to Louisiana. Cajuns discovered over the years that it also tasted delicious without the fish and with other additions as well.

Gumbo can be made using many ingredients: greens, sausage, ham, crab, shrimp, frog legs, scallops, squirrel, duck, chicken and oysters. The ingredients are interchangeable according to what one likes and has.

In Louisiana no two gumbos are alike. There are as many versions of gumbo as there are cooks to make it. The word "gumbo" comes from the Congo "quingombo," which means okra. But gumbo can be made using okra or filé as a thickening agent.

The Choctaw Indians first ground the dried sassafras leaves to make filé powder. Cajun cooks made it popular when they added it to gumbo to give it a thyme-like flavor and thicken it slightly.

General gumbo cooking rules are: Start with a roux and thicken with either okra or filé powder. Supposedly if it lacks both okra and filé it is not a gumbo. Okra is cooked with the gumbo but filé never is because filé powder becomes stringy when boiled. It is best added just before serving or let diners add their own at the table.

Many Cajun/Creole dishes begin with a Louisiana brown roux, unlike the French roux which is not browned. This is simply cooking oil (Ron says bacon grease or lard is the best) and flour cooked together over low heat until it has a rich brown color and toasty nutlike flavor. How brown the roux is depends on how it is to be used. Gumbo requires a rich dark color. Kay says the color of Hershey's syrup is a good guideline.

A heavy pot is essential (cast iron). This makes the cook's job much easier (less likely to burn). Begin with !/2 cup oil and a little more than !/2 cup flour. Mix these with a wooden spoon in a heavy Dutch oven. Place over low heat and stir occasionally. It is important that the roux brown slowly. It takes about 45 minutes to reach a dark color.

Stir more frequently near the end of the cooking time as the mixture is more likely to burn. If small brown or black flecks appear it has burned and should be discarded. The slower it is cooked the less likely it is to burn.

When the desired color has been reached, turn off the heat. To stop the cooking process, add the vegetables called for in the recipe such as the onion and bell pepper or immediately transfer the contents into a metal bowl and let the mixture cool.

Exercise care as this mixture is extremely hot. Do not set the bowl on plastic cutting boards or counter top. A jar of roux will keep refrigerated for up to two weeks or up to six months in the freezer.

This brown roux is the base for the gumbo. Gumbo is served in a soup bowl over a scoop of steaming hot rice. Pass the filé powder. Serve with French or garlic bread and a green salad.

Kay's Seafood Gumbo

Kay loves using Dungeness crab in place of the Louisiana small blue crabs. Ron grew up with filé and Kay grew up with okra; the result is they like to use both.

1/2 cup oil

1/2 cup with a little extra flour

11/2 cups chopped onion

6-7 cloves garlic

1/2 cup chopped green pepper

3 stalks chopped celery

1/2 cup parsley

6 chopped green onions

2 packages cut okra

1 large can tomatoes

11/2 quarts chicken broth

1 tablespoon salt

1/2 teaspoon red pepper

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1-2 bay leaves

2 lbs. prawns, cleaned

1 10-ounce jar small oysters

1 large cleaned crab, body quartered, legs removed

Chopped green onions and parsley

Make a very dark roux with the oil and flour. Cook slowly and stir often till very dark brown.

Cut up onion, garlic, bell pepper, celery and parsley and add to the roux with the okra. Add broth, water and tomatoes, stirring while you pour. Add salt, pepper and crab and cook one hour.

Add shrimp and cook till done, about 15 minutes. Add additional chopped parsley and green onions about 30 minutes before serving.

Cut oysters in half or thirds and add 15 minutes before serving. Serve over hot long grain rice with filé.

Chicken-Sausage Gumbo

Humboldt Sausage Works makes andouille and Louisiana hot sausage or use a good smoked Kielbasa or Linguicia.

1/3 cup flour

1/3 cup cooking oil

2 large onions, chopped

1 green pepper, chopped

6 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon red pepper

4 cups hot chicken stock

2 pounds chicken thighs or breasts, skinned, boned and cut into bite-size pieces

1 pound andouille or smoked sausage, cut into bite-size pieces

1 10-ounce package frozen cut okra, optional

Parsley, minced.

In a heavy Dutch oven, combine flour and oil and cook slowly into a dark roux. Stir in the onion, green pepper, garlic, black pepper and red pepper. Cook for five minutes until the vegetables are soft. Gradually add the hot chicken stock and stir in the chicken.

Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Stir in the sausage and simmer another 20 minutes.

Add okra and cook for another 20 minutes. Place !/2 cup hot cooked rice in each bowl and spoon gumbo over rice. Top with minced parsley.

Gumbo Z'Herbes

This Lenten dish, traditionally served on Good Friday, was meant to restore the body after fasting.

This dish can be made with or without meat.

1 pound kale or collards

1 pound turnip greens or chard

1 pound spinach

1 bunch parsley

1/2 small cabbage shredded

2 teaspoons dried basil

1 teaspoon oregano

2 bay leaves

1/4 teaspoon allspice

3 whole cloves

1/3 cup flour plus a little extra

!/3 cup cooking oil

2 large onions, chopped

1 cup chopped celery

1 cup chopped green pepper

1 pound smoked ham cubed

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon red pepper

1/2 teaspoon paprika

salt to taste

Filé powder

Hot steamed rice

Wash all the greens thoroughly and place in a large pot along with the basil, oregano, bay leaves, allspice, whole cloves and enough stock or water to barely cover. Bring to a boil, partly cover and simmer for 30 minutes or until greens are tender.

Remove greens and save stock. Cut up the cooked greens.

In a heavy Dutch oven stir flour and oil together until a dark mahogany color.

Add onions, celery and green pepper to the roux and sauté about 10 minutes until tender. Add reserved cooking liquid, chopped greens, ham, salt, pepper and paprika. Bring to a boil, partly cover and simmer over low heat for about 30 minutes.

Serve over hot cooked rice and pass the filé powder.

Betty Thompson has been teaching cooking classes locally since 1974.

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