Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas Gumbo: A Primer

It's become tradition at Casa Scampwalker to brew up a gumbo for Christmas Day.  And why not?  The cajun/creole stew is a rich and flavorful concoction, yet low on the pretense meter -- something that fits the way we celebrate Christmas (in our jammies, enjoying one another's company).

I didn't have my first gumbo until visiting New Orleans many years ago in college, but the dish stuck with me (literally and gastronomically).  From the proletariat version served at Mother's to the decadent Commander's Palace version, I was hooked.

It took me awhile to perfect my own version at home (I'm a flatlander, not a coonass), but I think I've got it down.  I won't give you the precise recipe (what fun is that?) but there are a few things I've learned over the years that turn a good gumbo into a great one.

Stock.  Cans of broth will do the trick, but a homemade stock is SO much better.  And it's not hard to do.  I strip the carcass of my smoked Thanksgiving and simmer it down with celery, carrots, onion, and garlic with bouquet garni for several hours.  The result is a thick and complex base to gumbo or soup of any sort.  Freeze it and use it at any time.

Roux.  It's the base of any classic French cuisine, and although it's two simple ingredients (flour and an oil of some type), it's deceptively difficult to do one right.  For my gumbo, I do two parts flour and one part canola oil, although I've also been known to substitute a little bacon grease for canola.  I call mine the Two Beer Roux, because it takes me two beers to turn it from white to a deep chocolate color.  Don't use too much heat, or you'll burn it and have a mess on your hands.  There's no set time, although 30 minutes more or less does the trick.  Another word of advice: have everything else prepared ahead of time, because you won't have time to chop anything once your roux is ready.

Meat.  You can put any combination of critter into a gumbo, and it's especially good for those particularly dark, strong-tasting birds like woodcock.  You can also salvage the more shot-up birds, since you're dicing everything up.  For this year's gumbo, I combined duck, woodcock, dove (which I mistakenly thought were more ducks), sausage, and a few frozen shrimp left over in the freezer.

We always make plenty more than we can eat at Christmas, but it freezes well and the flavors meld even better over time.  It's the Christmas gift that keeps on giving!

1 comment:

  1. Gumbo is a hit in my house this time of year. I put Thanksgiving turkey leftovers in for the meat. Paul Prudhomme's recipe is my map but you do a much better job of explaining the roux dance than he does. Gotta try some woodcock and dove in one.