Gumbo… So like borscht in that there are so many ways to make it. The Cajun chicken gumbo, the most common and likely the most popular will be featured here today. I won’t, however, fail to note the different variants of this rich, savoury classic that I fell in love with many years ago when I first visited Louisiana and have learned more about in subsequent visits from friends of mine from there.
A quick bit of background: The first time I ever tried gumbo (also called “gombo”), I was in New Orleans for the first time. Where better to try such a dish for the first time than in the city that made it famous?
As I sat and ate it in a noisy, crowded eatery after a parade during Mardi Gras with a few newly-made friends, I was picking my way around the chunks of okra that I was still making strange with. One of them leaned over and asked me, “You know what they call gumbo without okra in it?”
“Er, no….” I replied, unsure if this was a riddle or some way for the locals to have a laugh at the tourist.
“Chicken soup.” she laughed. She was right; gumbo derives its name from okra, the hearty, starchy green vegetable that binds and adds body to an otherwise chicken soup. Since then, I’ve learned the secrets of how to make a good batch of Cajun chicken gumbo from both practice and bits of cautiously imparted wisdom from a few friends of mine from that part of the world.
One of the first things I was taught (aside from the “Trinity”, which is the onion, pepper and celery blend) was the “Cajun Napalm” principle. This is the practice of the slow and low cooking of roux. Any equal parts mix of fat and flour can count as “roux”; a non-dairy answer to this would be olive oil and flour. I’ve dabbled in using liquefied bacon fat mixed with flour; now THAT was a heart-stoppingly good batch of gumbo…. But I digress.
Anyways… The long, slow cooking down of roux where it deepens to a rich, brown, chocolate colour with a robust, nutty flavour is what they call Cajun napalm.
It bears mentioning the different styles of gumbo that exist: chicken, shrimp or blends of different seafoods. This is where the word “creole” gets affixed to gumbo. As my Cajun friends point out, the main difference between Cajun and Creole is the addition of tomatoes. That simple? Yep. The story I was told is that The Spanish cultural and culinary influences in Louisiana brought the tomato prominently into Louisiana during their short turn in charge there.
As for some of the more rustic styles of gumbo I’ve encountered, the further back into bayou country you get, the more creative I’m told you could be with the meats that go in the pot. Catfish, turtle, snake, alligator (one of my favourites) and even squirrel (no, I’m not joking; it was delicious, by the way).
Cajun Chicken Gumbo
- sauce pan, soup pot
- 1/2 cup butter
- 1/2 cup flour
The Main Body
- 1 Tbsp oilve oil
- 2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp pepper
- 1 whole onion diced
- 1 whole green pepper diced
- 1 stalk celery diced
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1 lb chicken chopped 1/4 – 1/2' cube
- 2 cups okra chopped into 1/4" thick coins
- 6 cups water or stock if using stock, chicken works best
- 1 tsp basil
- 2 tsp oregano
- 2 tsp thyme
- 2 tsp cajun spice could be switched with 1tsp cayenne pepper
- 1 Tbsp lemon juice
- 2-3 whole bay leaves
Starting with the roux….
- Melt the butter in a small sauce pan over low-meduim heat; once fully melted, mix in the flour and keep the heat at low simmer.
- For the flour to fully cook out takes at least 5 minutes; with stirring at a low temperature, the flour and butter will darken, imparting a more nutty flavor. Keep an eye on it and take a few seconds to stir it every minute or so while prepping the rest of the ingredients.
- Once the roux is done to deep golden brown (or darker if you prefer), remve from heat and set aside to cool while starting the main body.
Building the gumbo….
- Heat up the soup pot to meduim-high; add the olive oil and S&P; let it cook up until it starts to release its fragrance.
- Add the onion, pepper, celery and garlic; sweat it off (about 5-7 minutes)
- Add the okra, chicken and stir in the basil, thyme, oregano and lemon juice.
- Once the chicken is fully seared off, add the roux and stir it in thoroughly
- Add the cajun spice, liquid and bay leaves.
- Pull the heat down to a simmer and let it run for at least 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Serve either by itself or over rice.