It’a shame that Cajun/Creole cooking, perhaps the most authentically American cuisine of all, gets so shortchanged in American restaurants, reduced to a paprika-covered chicken breast or fish sandwich. If it were up to me, families across the country would gather around for a feast of crawfish étouffée and bread pudding on Thanksgiving; oyster po’boys and maque choux every 4th of July; beignets and Sazeracs at Christmas. Until that dawn breaks, let’s start things off easy by making my favorite stew of them all—the one and only gumbo.
- 1/2 lb andouille sausage, sliced 1/4” thick
- 1 lb chicken thighs, boneless & skinless
- 1 catfish fillet, medium size
- 1 qt chicken stock, warm (preferably homemade)
- 4 oz neutral oil (vegetable, grapeseed, corn, or canola)
- 4 oz all-purpose flour
- 1 cup onion, diced (about 1/2 medium onion)
- 1/2 cup poblano pepper, diced (about 1/2 pepper; or sub green bell pepper)
- 1/2 cup leek, diced (white and light-green part only; or sub celery)
- 5 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 cup tomato, diced (1 medium tomato, or use canned)
- 2 bay leaves
- ~6 grinds black pepper
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1 tsp thyme leaves, chopped (about 1 medium branch)
- 1 tbsp blackening seasoning (mock recipe below)
- 1 Tbsp filé powder
Makes 6-8 servings. Ready in about 2.5 hours.
Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Combine the flour and the oil in a large Dutch oven or heavy pot. Stir with a silicone spatula to combine until smooth and even. Bake the roux uncovered in the oven for 90 minutes until brick-brown, stirring every 20 minutes or so.
Meanwhile, chop your vegetables and combine the onion, poblano pepper, leek, and garlic in one bowl.
In another bowl, combine the tomato, bay leaf, the ground peppers, and the thyme.
After 90 minutes, move the roux from the oven to the stovetop set to medium-to-medium-high heat. Add the first bowl (with the onions, peppers, leek, and garlic) and stir constantly for 8 minutes until the vegetables are soft but not burnt.
Add the second bowl (with the tomato, bay leaf, and spices) and stir for another minute. Carefully and slowly pour in the warm chicken stock, stirring to form a smooth soup. When it begins to bubble again, turn the heat down to low, cover, and set a timer for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, brown the andouille sausage slices in a large frying pan over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Scoop out with a slotted spatula or spoon, drip off, and add to the gumbo.
Pour off most of the sausage oil from the pan. Pat the chicken thighs dry and season with salt and pepper on both sides. Brown in the same pan, over medium heat, for about 5 minutes on each side. Drip off and place on a clean, heat-proof cutting board. Chop into bite-size pieces and add to the gumbo. Wash your knife and grab another cutting board.
Next, pat-dry the catfish fillet, salt on both sides, and dust liberally on both sides with the blackening seasoning. (It’s hard to use too much.) If the pan is dry, add just a bit more oil, and fry the catfish 2 minutes on each side. Use a metal spatula and a quick, decisive scraping motion to flip it. Move to the new, seafood-only cutting board and cut into bite-size pieces. Add to the gumbo.
Note that as with the chicken, the fish may not be fully cooked when it comes out of the pan. This is ok since it’ll continue cooking in the gumbo. Err on the side of undercooking it here so it doesn’t dry out.
By now, your 30-minute timer should be close to going off. When it does, turn off the heat, cover the pot, and leave it alone for another 15 minutes. Your gumbo will look a bit soupy and light at this point.
Before serving, scoop out about 2 tablespoons of the liquid and mix with the filé powder in a small bowl until smooth, then stir back into the gumbo. This should thicken and darken it (in addition to adding a unique earthy and herby flavor). Taste and add salt if needed.
You can eat it right away, though the flavors blend better in the fridge overnight. Serve over white rice, sprinkled with chopped green onions and however much simple hot sauce you prefer. Crystal is the original brand of choice.
Gumbo will keep in the fridge for about a week. It also reheats well from frozen.
Gumbo is often made without filé powder, but I find that it ends up lacking a certain herbal flavor and rich texture that way. You should be able to find filé in larger markets, or consult a local spice & herb store. You can sprinkle on and mix in more at the table if you like your gumbo thicker.
You can also make the roux on the stovetop in about 20-30 minutes, but you’ll have to whisk constantly to make sure it’s even and doesn’t burn. The oven method is slower but more consistent.
Packaged andouille sausage is available in most supermarkets these days. If you can’t find it, go with a simple pork or chicken sausage flavored with garlic and hot, dried peppers. Avoid herby or sweet sausage.
Green bell peppers are the authentic choice for Cajun mirepoix, but I substitute poblano peppers since I find them tastier in almost every case. They’re fairly easy to find.
Celery is also the authentic choice, but Jim is a fan of Thomas Keller’s substitution of leeks for celery, and I tend to agree. I like celery, but I love leeks.
Gumbo is made with just about any meat that’s available to you, from chicken and duck to rabbit and mussels. I like this combination, but you can try using shrimp, for instance. If you have access to good seafood/shrimp/fish stock, try that, too.
You’ll be working with both raw and half-cooked chicken and fish, so please observe food-safety protocol: use separate cutting boards for each meat, keep them away from other foods in case things go flying when you cut, wash your hands and wipe down all surfaces frequently.
I blacken my catfish before adding to the gumbo for added flavor and firmer pieces. You can buy pre-mixed blackening seasoning, but if you think you’ll blacken fish or chicken often, it’s worth it to make your own. Mine includes:
- 6x paprika
- 6x tomato powder (made by grinding extra dry pieces of sundried tomato)
- 2x cayenne pepper
- 2x onion powder
- 2x black pepper
- 1x coriander
- 1x cumin
- 1x celery seed
- 1x allspice
Use your taste and judgment for precise ratios. The seasoning will keep for a few months in a spice jar. Unlike most packaged mixes, this doesn’t include salt, so you can use quite a bit of it without oversalting the meat.