- Maggie C. Perkins For the Austin American-Statesman
Perhaps my favorite dish of the Thanksgiving season comes the day after.
While folks line up early to catch Black Friday sales, you’ll find me in the kitchen, humming along to my favorite tunes, stirring a steaming pot of gumbo that will be ready just in time for a favorite football game. Over the long weekend, the flavors will intensify. These leftovers are the best leftovers.
There are as many ways to prepare gumbo as there are hungry gumbo lovers. This is my only way.
I learned as an eager young housewife at the elbow of a true Creole cook. I sat on a stool in his outdoor kitchen, laughing at his stories and his awful Cajun jokes, as he shared his Creole-cooking ways.
He taught me that it is attention to detail that yields the best results, that a proper roux is complete in about the time it takes to drink two beers, and that any flaws will be unnoticed in equal measure to the love with which the gumbo is made.
But we’ve all had bad gumbo, so let’s start by talking about roux. You can’t make gumbo without cooking flour in fat to make a roux, and my favorite roux is made with leaf lard. You may also substitute an equal quantity of the fat of your choice: vegetable oil, duck fat, schmaltz (chicken fat), butter. I know old-school cooks who even use bacon grease.
Olive oil is not a good choice for roux. It has a low smoke point that is not appropriate for the intense heat or extended time required for roux development. (Important note: If your roux scorches, toss it and start again. Roux bad, gumbo bad.)
The darker a roux, the less thickening ability it has. A lighter roux will thicken more, which is why you might see cooks who use a darker roux calling for okra or filé powder to aid in thickening.
But before you start the roux, early in the day, or preferably the day before, prepare your ingredients. Once you start cooking the flour and fat, the process goes fast and there is not one appropriate second to look away, so have your other ingredients ready and set aside, covered, within reach.
Chop celery, onion and bell pepper into equal, uniform sizes for a more professional finish and pleasant mouthfeel. The “trinity,” as it is known, is designed to flavor the gumbo, not to be an actual bite.
Andouille, a highly seasoned sausage made of smoked pork butt, can be difficult to find outside of Louisiana, and sadly, what passes for andouille in the meat case of your local grocery bears little resemblance. That might be your only choice, though, unless you make a special trip to Stuffed Cajun Meat Market or another specialty store such as Salt & Time, Dai Due or Smokey Denmark. As a last resort, substitute a good-quality smoked kielbasa.
If you and your diners are sensitive to heat, season judiciously as you go. Spices and salts will intensify with cooking and positively bloom overnight.
Cajun seasoning could be purchased pre-mixed from the spice aisle, or you could make one of your own and regulate seasonings according to your own preferences. The homemade seasoning I use has less salt, no garlic powder, a touch more celery salt than usual, marjoram and a favorite cayenne pepper.
Filé powder is a gumbo seasoning and a thickener made from ground sassafras leaves, but don’t add it to the pot. You can add it to individual bowls of cooked gumbo, but boiling filé powder results in gelatinous ribbons of yuck. It is often used in place of okra, which is usually out of season by this time of year, but some people downright detest it.
Speaking of polarizing gumbo ingredients, some folks add chopped tomatoes to gumbo. Not this folk, but some. Traditionally, tomato is found in Creole versions of gumbo, while the more rustic Cajun gumbo omits. Use one small can of drained, chopped tomatoes, if you must.
One of the biggest takeaways from my Thanksgiving gumbo is that the best stock comes from bones that have been roasted first. This is true of your everyday rotisserie chicken or the deep-fried turkey you just ate for a holiday dinner. The heat brings out even more richness and flavor in the bones before the carcass hits the soup pot.
Turkey Bone Gumbo
For the stock:
1 turkey carcass and any remaining turkey meat
1 onion, peeled and quartered
1 rib of celery
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons whole peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon ground oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground thyme
For the gumbo:
1/2 cup lard
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 large ribs celery, chopped
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
2 1/2 quarts turkey stock
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound andouille sausage, sliced on the diagonal
1 tablespoon Cajun seasoning
1 bunch scallions, green tops only, sliced
1 bunch parsley, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Remove any large pieces of remaining turkey meat and reserve, leaving the meat that clings to the bone. Season the carcass with salt and freshly ground pepper. Roast turkey bones at 350 degrees, until bones have begun to brown, and any remaining meat is crisp and golden brown, about 45 minutes.
Transfer roasted bones and any roasting juices to a large stockpot. Add onion quarters, celery, bay leaf, salt, whole peppercorns, oregano and thyme. Cover with water, about 3 quarts. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium, cover and simmer for 45 minutes to an hour, adding additional water as necessary to maintain liquid level. Correct seasonings to taste. Strain through a fine sieve and reserve.
Melt lard over medium heat. Gradually add flour, whisking constantly to prevent sticking or burning. Stirring continually, bring the roux through the darkening stages of brown, about 25 to 30 minutes. I like mine as dark as you’ll find in a Creole gumbo — mahogany.
Some cooks stop at a milk chocolate color. You may want to practice, beginning with milk chocolate brown and working through dark chocolate brown toward mahogany. There’s a sweet spot you’ll come to discover where roux is the darkest brown without scorching at all.
Once the roux has developed to the preferred color, carefully add the chopped “trinity” of celery, onion and bell pepper. This serves to cool the scorching hot roux, and it’s also the moment when I trade my trusty whisk for my trusty wooden spoon. Stirring constantly, cook until vegetables have wilted and are transparent.
Add stock, garlic, andouille sausage and Cajun seasoning. Bring to a hard, rolling boil for 5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and cook at a rolling simmer for 45 minutes. Add the reserved turkey meat, parsley and green onions to the pot, simmering an additional 15 minutes. Correct seasoning to taste. Allow to cool a bit before ladling into soup bowls, traditionally over cooked white rice. Serves 6.
— Maggie Perkins