Seafood, smoked meats, and rice are some of my favourite foods, so dishes like Gumbo have always been near and dear to my heart. When it appears on restaurant menus, it’s hard for me to resist the temptation to order it, even though I often regret it. It has occurred to me that perhaps these restaurants had it right all along and that it was I who didn’t know what gumbo should taste like, but I’ve always had this nagging suspicion that these yankee restaurants were somehow missing the soul of Gumbo.
To test my hypothesis, I had gumbo three times in as many days while I was down in Louisiana. Unsurprisingly, they were far better than any I’d ever had previously, but what did surprise me was that each one was radically different from the other. There was the Rabbit and Adouille Filé Gumbo at Brigsten’s, the Green Gumbo with Oysters at the Crescent City Farmer’s Market, and the Shrimp Gumbo with a Deviled Egg at Cochon. So which one was the most authentic?
As it turns out they were all authentic. Like its Latin cousin chili, gumbo has as many variations as there are people who cook it. In looking through a ton of recipes I noticed that they typically have four things in common: a protein, a mirepoix, a thickener and rice. The protein can take the shape of smoked Andouille sausage, Tasso ham, chicken, pork and or shellfish. The mirepoix usually has onions, peppers and celery, but I’ve seen versions that include all kinds of other vegetables. Then, to thicken the gumbo, most recipes call for a mixture of a flour and fat based roux along with either okra or filé powder.
In the past I’d darkened the roux, but never took it past medium brown. While tasty, my gumbo was never quite the flavor bomb that I experienced in New Orleans. After having a taste of gumbo from its homeland, I decided to revisit and revise my gumbo. I had a vision of a thick, dark nutty stock that explodes with smokey, peppery flavor on the tongue.
For a true Cajun style gumbo, the roux needs to be cooked until it’s a dark chocolate brown. This gives it an intense nutty flavour, but I wasn’t satisfied with just nutty, so rather than using a high smoke point oil, I used the most flavourful oil I could think of: duck fat. You could also use butter, lard or bacon grease, but if you use butter, make sure you clarify it first or the milk solids in it will burn. This is the trickiest part of making gumbo, mainly because it has to be constantly stirred to keep it from burning. Timing is also important because there’s a very fine line between deep earthy flavour and bitter acrid carbon.
Many recipes, call for making the roux, then adding the raw vegetable to it, but I wanted to coax more flavour out of the vegetables, so I browned the duck and sausages first then sauteed the mirepoix in the fat from the meat until it started to caramelize.
This gets the gumbo off to a good start, but to really get the flavour going, I simmered the duck legs and Andouille sausage in stock until the duck meat was falling off the bones. To get the full tongue coating thickness, I used a combination of the roux and okra, which gives the gumbo a pleasing slickness without being slimy. The shrimp goes in at the very end, steeping in the hot liquid off the heat, cooking them perfectly.
Served over a bed of rice with some crusty bread, it’s a satisfying meal that should last you a few days.
- Heat an 8 quart dutch oven or other heavy bottomed pot over medium high heat until very hot. Generously salt and pepper the duck legs then add them to the pot, skin side down. Add the sausage slices around the duck in a single layer and allow to brown. Flip the sausage slices as they brown then flip the duck legs when they no longer stick to the pan. Transfer the sausage to a plate as they finish browning then transfer the duck legs when they are nice and brown on both sides.
- The pan should now have about 1 tablespoon of fat rendered from the sausages and duck. If there is more, drain the excess off into a ramekin and set aside. To make the mirepoix, add the onions and celery along with a generous pinch of salt and saute until soft and translucent. Add the two bell peppers, garlic and chili pepper of your choice and continue to saute until the onions are starting to caramelize and the bell peppers are nice and soft. Take the pot off the heat and set aside.
- Now we're going to make the roux. What we're doing here is caramelizing the flour until it's dark chocolate brown. To avoid burning it, it needs constant supervision and stirring which will take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. Don't use a non-stick pan or silicon utensil to stir as they are typically not safe to use at temperatures as high as this mixture will get. I'd recommend using a stainless steel whisk or a flat edged wooden paddle. If you use a wooden paddle, be prepared to have it scorch a little. Lastly be very careful not to splash this on yourself as it's a guaranteed trip to the ER if you do.
- Add any reserved fat you have from the duck and sausage to a 1/4 C measuring cup and top off with duck fat, clarified butter, or lard. Do not use regular butter, as the milk solids in it will burn. Add the fat to to a medium sized sauce pan and heat over medium low heat until very hot. Add the flour and immediately start stirring. Be sure you keep every part of the roux moving so it does not burn. As long as it's not smoking you can turn the heat up in small increments but turn it down if you start to see smoke. As the roux reaches a medium brown color (like beef gravy), turn the heat down a little to slow the process down. You want to get it to the color of dark chocolate (photo above), but there is a very fine line between that and burnt.
- As soon as it's reached the desired color, remove the pot from the heat and stir in some of the mirepoix to bring the temperature down quickly. Once it's cool enough to touch, have a taste. If it tastes bitter, you need to throw it out and start over. Add the roux and chicken stock into the large pot with the rest of the mirepoix. Put the pot over a medium high flame and whisk until the roux is dissolved and the mixture begins to boil.
- Turn the heat down to maintain a gentle simmer and add the duck, sausage and the rest of the gumbo ingredients. Cover with a lid set slightly ajar to allow steam to escape and simmer until the duck is tender (about 1- 1 1/2 hours).
- In the meantime, cook the rice, and peel and devein the shrimp.
- When the duck is tender, remove the legs from the gumbo and allow them to cool enough to handle. Take the meat off the bones and add it back to the pot. Taste for seasonings and add more salt and pepper as needed and adjust the spiciness with cayenne pepper. Turn the heat up and bring the gumbo to a boil then add the shrimp, stirring to submerge. Cover immediately and remove the pot from the heat. The residual heat will gently cook the shrimp to perfection in about 7 minutes (use less time if your shrimp are small).
- To serve, put a small amount of rice in the bottom of a shallow bowl and top with the gumbo. Sprinkle with parsley and serve with hot sauce and bread.