Eric Akis: Gumbo a taste of New Orleans melting pot

Eric Akis

If you’re in the mood for a stick-to-the-ribs, comfort-food dish, rich with southern flavours, try making gumbo. It’s a Louisiana Creole specialty that has long been popular in New Orleans and its surrounding region.

According to New Orleans Official Guide,, gumbo has come to be one of the best examples of that city’s multicultural melting pot, that has made New Orleans — and it’s cuisine — what it is today. It adds that gumbo can simply be described as a type of stew served over rice, but notes that New Orleanians would argue that gumbo is almost its own food group.

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Creoles in Louisiana are generally known as a people of mixed French, African, Spanish and Native American ancestry. Creole cuisine uses ingredients all those folks brought to the table when settling in Louisiana. But when it comes to techniques used to make that cuisine, they are considered classically French in spirit.

That’s clearly reflected in recipes for gumbo. One of the key steps in making it is the preparation of a roux, a French-style, cooked fat-and-flour mixture, used as a thickener. When you make a roux for gumbo, though, you need to cook it until it’s a rich, chocolate brown, because in that form it will, very importantly, colour and flavour the gumbo.

Also flavouring gumbo is a version of the French mirepoix, a base flavouring made from a mix of vegetables. In Louisiana, their style of it is called “the holy trinity,” and always includes celery, onion and bell pepper.

The name gumbo is derived from a West African word for okra, kimgombo. That makes sense, because West African slaves introduced this vegetable to the region. Beyond its taste, adding okra to gumbo also helps to naturally thicken it.

Beyond seasonings, such as dried spices and herbs, another traditional ingredient mixed into gumbo is filé powder, which is made from dried, ground, sassafras leaves. It, too, flavours the gumbo and helps to naturally thicken it. But I did not use filé powder in my recipe, as I could not find it for sale in Victoria.

That is OK though, because according to New Orleans Official Guide, there is no set recipe for the perfect gumbo, as everyone has his or her own way of making it. But other ingredients, beyond those noted above, that do often get added to the pot include such things as seafood, chicken, sausage and/or ham.

My version is rich with prawns and sausage and numerous other tasty things. It will make a hearty Sunday dinner when served with steamed rice.

Prawn and Sausage Gumbo

This New Orleans-style gumbo is hearty, nicely spiced and rich with prawns, sausage and vegetables. Serve it with steamed rice. After ladling the gumbo into bowls, I normally set some of that rice right in the centre of it. There are a few steps required to make this gumbo, but you can do some of the preparation well in advance of cooking it. See Eric’s options.

Preparation time: 40 minutes

Cooking time: About 70 minutes

Makes: Four servings

275 grams fresh chorizo sausages (about 2 to 3, depending on size)

16 medium or large wild prawns, with shell on

3 1/2 cups chicken stock or broth

1/4 cup plus 1 tsp vegetable oil (divided)

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 large green bell pepper, diced (cut into 1/4-inch cubes)

1/2 medium onion, diced

1 large celery rib, diced

1 large garlic clove, minced

1/2 tsp dried thyme

1/8 to 1/4 tsp ground cayenne pepper, or to taste (see Note 1)

1/2 tsp ground cumin

1/4 tsp paprika

1 bay leaf

1 (14 oz./398 mL) can diced tomatoes

1 (14 oz./398 mL) can sliced okra, gently rinsed, and then drained very well

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste (optional)

1 large green onion, thinly sliced

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Line a baking pan with parchment paper. Set the sausages in the pan and roast 20 minutes, turning once, or until just cooked through. Remove sausages from the oven, drain away excess fat, and then cool to room temperature.

While the sausages cool, peel and devein the prawns (see Note 2). Now set the prawns on a plate and refrigerate until needed. Reserve the prawn shells in a bowl.

Heat 1 tsp of the oil in a medium pot set over medium-high heat. Add the reserved prawns shells and cook and stir until bright pink in colour and a little toasty. Pour in the stock (or broth) and bring to a simmer (small bubbles should just break on the surface). Reduce the heat as needed to maintain that simmer. Simmer stock 20 minutes, and then strain into a bowl or another pot.

When the sausages have cooled, slice them, widthwise, into 1/2-inch pieces and set on a plate.

To make the gumbo, pour the remaining 1/4 cup oil into an eight-inch wide pot set over medium heat. Stir in flour, creating a thin roux. Cook and frequently stir the roux until milk-chocolate-brown in colour (be careful not to burn it), about four and a half to five minutes. Add the onion and cook and stir two minutes. Now mix in bell pepper and celery and cook and stir another two minutes. Finally, add the garlic, thyme, cayenne, cumin and paprika, and cook one minute more.

Very slowly, mix one cup of the prawn shell flavoured stock into the roux mixture. When mixture starts to thicken, slowly mix in the remaining stock, and then the tomatoes.

Stir in the sausage and bay leaf. Increase the heat slightly and bring the gumbo to a gentle simmer. Simmer the gumbo, uncovered, 20 minutes. Mix in the prawns and okra, return to a simmer, and cook 10 minutes more. Taste the gumbo and season with salt and pepper to taste, if needed. Serve portions of the gumbo sprinkled with green onions.

Note 1: If the chorizo sausages you bought are fairly spicy, use only 1/8 tsp of cayenne pepper. If there are mild, go with a 1/4 tsp, or even a bit more, if you like things spicy.

Note 2: To peel and devein a prawn, hold the tip of tail in one hand. Slip the thumb of your other hand under the shell between its swimmerets (little legs). Pull off the shell, but leave the very tip of the tail in place. Keep the prawns shells for the stock. With a small paring knife, make a lengthwise slit along the back of the prawn. Now pull out, or rinse out with cold water, the dark vein. Pat prawn dry and it’s ready to use.

Eric’s options: You can prepare parts of the gumbo in advance, which will make it quicker to finish and serve at meal time. For example, in the morning, you could peel and devein the prawns, and roast, cool and slice the sausages, and keep them both refrigerated until needed. You could also make the prawn shell flavoured stock in the morning, strain and cool it, and keep it refrigerated until needed. You can, of course, also cut the onion, bell pepper, celery and garlic needed for the gumbo in the morning, and keep it refrigerated until needed.

Once cooked and served, if you have any leftover gumbo, once cooled, it could be frozen, to thaw and enjoy at another time.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks, including seven in his Everyone Can Cook series. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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