Growing up in an Irish Catholic family from Connecticut, there was always one meal that I could always look forward to: Gumbo. I remember my grandmother spending hours at the stove making her Sunday special, sneaking me bites of andouille sausage along the way. The house would be filled with the delightful smell of cajun seasoning and we’d all be salivating at the hint of our upcoming meal in the air. My dad would sometimes bring home some fresh crawfish he would catch out by the creek and after he boiled them, we’d all take turns cracking them open. I’d dip mine in the gumbo – I’m a dipper. Then my uncles would break out the banjo and accordion and our feast would suddenly turn in to a singalong that would last into the early evening. Those were the days.
Actually, if anyone ever suggested that we serve gumbo at a family dinner when I was growing up, they’d be laughed out of the room. We were kind of a meat and potatoes family. You wanted some seasoning? Here’s the salt and pepper. No, my family, my mom especially, was never into any regional foods or foods with any kind of spice. Don’t get me wrong; I had some good food growing up. But in retrospect, my palate was pretty boring by the time I was released into the real world. That’s a good thing though because there was so much to explore.
Lola made gumbo for us once before. Gumbo just sounds like something you want to try. The word itself is tasty and full of promise. It’s fun to say. When you start watching cooking shows and reading magazines and seeing what’s in it, you start getting curious about it. I’m not sure what was the catalyst was that made Lola make her gumbo, but it was exciting to have it on our stove. My recollection was that the gumbo was tasty however, and Lola can attest to this, she used okra in her recipe which is authentic and acts as a thickener, but it’s kind of a gross vegetable. It was either undercooked, overcooked or it’s just an awful plant in general – we weren’t a fan. So we enjoyed this wonderful gumbo that was filled with delightful bites, but it was littered with this gross odd looking vegetable they call okra. That kind of soured us on it.
If you don’t know, gumbo is a stew that originated in southern Louisiana during the 18th century. It consists primarily of a strongly-flavored stock, a thickener, and the Cajun holy trinity of vegetables (celery, bell peppers, and onions). Gumbo is a stew while other dishes like jambalaya and paella are considered a casserole which is the difference between the two. The popularity of the late, great chef Paul Prudhomme in the 1980s helped spur the popularity of gumbo and helped bring it to an audience outside the Bayou. And for trivia purposes, gumbo is the official cuisine of the state of Louisiana. Now you know!
I looked for a recipe that uses a roux as a thickener (not okra) and I found one courtesy of my old pal Rachael Ray. There are a ton of recipes out there for good gumbo. I picked one that looked easy. I also opted to not add in shrimp which is a usual ingredient in gumbo. I’m not a huge shellfish fan and I didn’t want to make the effort of making something I would really not want. To start, I got all my ingredients together and got to work cutting up the holy trinity (and garlic too). This recipe was kind of a one-pot process. You cook the chicken, take it out, cook the sausage, take it out, cook the veggies, then add everything back in. It probably took about a half-hour of work to get it on the stove and ready to do it’s thing. While it cooked, the house slowly filled with great smells between the cooking veggies, the sausage and the cajun seasoning. It’s nice to have a house filled with some good home cooking.
When it came time to eat, I wasn’t sure how to serve it. After some quick research, it seems the best way to serve it up is with some rice and some French bread. I whipped up some scallion rice which was really just white rice with scallions mixed in. I scooped some rice in a bowl and then labeled some gumbo around it so the rice was still peeking out the top. Then I ripped off a couple of chunks of crusty French bread, buttered it and served it on the side. The biggest dilemma was what to serve it with: fork or spoon. The spoon seemed like a good idea, but it’s hard to eat a chunk of chicken with a spoon. We went with the fork although in reality, this is exactly the kind of meal a spork was meant for.
This was good stuff. It was spicy (probably a 6.5 on the 1 to 10 scale) but great flavor too. The rice helped soak up the broth so it really ate like meal. The broth was a combination of tomatoes and chicken stock and that combined with the the cajun seasoning really made the flavor pop. The chicken was good an flavorful, as was the sausage and it was nice to have the chunks of protein to give it all some heartiness. The bread was a must-have addition to the party too because you could use it to scoop up all that goodness. Best of all, there was no okra. I’d say this was a winner.
We celebrated gumbo today which is something a ten year old me would have never done. I’m glad I branched out and started trying different things along the way. There’s so many flavor and tastes in this world it seems silly to just keep yourself confined to a limited menu. Sure you will hit some okra along the way, but at least you tried. You’ve expanded your view of the world. You’ve explored. You’ve been brave and tried something new. That’s what celebrating every day is all about.
Did I just hit you with a morale to this story? I think I did. If this was a movie, this is where the banjo music from my uncles would kick in and play us out.
Next Up: National M&M Day