There’s one very simple formula I’d like you all to remember: cold weather + gumbo = happiness.
So, recently, when the temps dropped below 50 degrees, I fired up Grandma’s cast iron chicken fryer and got busy. And it’s good I’ve done this a couple of ten times or so, because taking pictures with one hand while making a roux this dark with the other ain’t easy.
Now, when we talk about gumbo, there’s really only two varieties though each has endless variations. Those two are seafood gumbo and gumbo ya-ya. Seafood gumbo is a Creole version of the stew with a lot of Afro-Caribbean influences. It is good just about any time of year, and it’s the kind they mostly make in New Orleans. Even though I was raised on this kind, at some point, I crossed over to the dark side—to Gumbo Ya-Ya.
Gumbo Ya-Ya is the kind they make in Cajun country, around Lafayette. The recipe is simple: it features a very dark roux redolent of chocolate and dark French roast coffee and features no seafood at all; just the Holy Trinity, andouille (prounounced “an-Dew-ee”), duck or chicken, and spices. The most difficult thing about Gumbo Ya-Ya is the technique. And that’s what this blog post is all about.
First, the recipe. The one I have used and likely will always use is published in “The Commander’s Palace New Orleans Cookbook” by Ella & Dick Brennan. There’s lots of great recipes in there for all kinds of classic New Orleans dishes, but the only page that is splattered and beaten up in my book is page 38.
Oh, yeah, I made Bananas Foster that time and set off the fire alarm when I lit the rum to deglaze the pan. Of course, earlier that same night, my roux had set off the smoke alarm (two different kinds of alarms, sheesh), but then I stopped using canola oil. Smoke problem solved. Not sure what do about the rum. Flaming alcohol is gonna flash. But that’s another post.
Second, the shopping. You want to get about a five pound roasting chicken, although I’ve used a four-pound or two, three-pound fryers with success. But truly, the bigger the single chicken, the better, as it will have fewer bones than two chickens of an equivalent weight. For all ingredients, I try to buy organic.
Concerning the sausage, andouille outside of Louisiana can be a bit strange. So if you can, try to find a Louisiana brand, like Richard’s. Usually, it’s going to be precooked and in a vacuum-sealed pack like a smoked sausage. A quick shop at Publix and then at Kroger, however, failed to turn up the right stuff on this go round so I got the fresh kind at Whole Foods.
You need about a pound, although I use up to a half pound more to make up for a smaller chicken, if I can’t get the five pound one. If using fresh sausage, put it whole in a pan in a 400-degree oven for about 20 minutes or until it is firm, easily sliceable, and thereby pot-ready.
Instead of the vegetable oil called for in this particular recipe, I now use ghee or clarified butter. The roux will be cooked at very high heat until it almost burns (it’s very exciting). And every vegetable oil I used smoked too much and gave the finished stew an off flavor. The organic ghee worked perfectly, however, with very little smoking until the very end and added a richness to the dish I really preferred.
When making the gumbo that is the subject of this blog, however, I experimented with lard in an effort to really layer the pork flavors as well as the chicken ones the recipe is designed to highlight. Although the gumbo tasted fine, the lard actually smoked more than the butter and I was missing that richness I mentioned above, so I’m going back to clarified.
Now for chicken stock, the Brennans suggest making yours from scratch. I have a better idea. Kitchen Basics, baby. Available in just about any grocery store, costs about $4, and beats that panties off of anything else. Use either regular or unsalted. (I prefer unsalted.) You will need two Tetra paks of it. Oh, and shake well before opening (or hold your finger over the little flap if you open it before shaking. Made that mistake before…).
Finally, you need flour, celery, white or yellow onions, bell peppers, garlic, and white rice, kosher salt, cayenne pepper, and garlic powder. (See quantities below.) You will also want to obtain a clean, paper grocery bag. How you manage to come by it or ascertain it’s degree of cleanliness is between you and your bag boy.
Third, the prep. Pretty simple, but you need to know how to disjoint a whole chicken—and don’t cheat and get a cut-up one. They suck. So, you get to busy and after you disjoint everthing and cut the breasts across and in half, leaving out the back, you get ten pieces. And trust me, people, do leave out the back. If you don’t, you and your friends better at least practice up on that Heimlich maneuver.
After your pieces are cut, place them on a flat sheet, pizza, or jelly roll pan and season both sides with kosher salt, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper. Set aside for half of an hour. While you are waiting for those seasonings to sink in really well, you will want to cut up your veggies.
The most important reason to have all your veggies prepared before starting the roux is that a big bowl of this stuff is what you use to put out the roux just before it bursts into flames. I don’t care how quickly you chop. You will not have time for prepping veggies once your roux is started. Don’t even think about it!
In Louisiana, we refer to this particular combination of veggies as the “Holy Trinity” because it is these three ingredients always used together that gives many dishes in Louisiana their distinctive flavor. The Trinity is similar to a French mirepoix of onion, celery, and carrots, but instead of carrots, we substitute bell peppers.
So, coarsely chop 2 cups onion, 1-1/2 cups celery, 2 cups bell pepper. Put the mix aside in a bowl within an arm’s reach of the stove. Trust me. You will not have time to dash across the kitchen when you finally need it.
Then, separately, mince 1-1/2 teaspoons fresh garlic and, although the recipe calls for minced andouille, I like mine sliced diagonally. It’s a thing. Take 2-1/2 cups of flour and put it in the clean, paper grocery bag I mentioned earlier.
If you want to go traditional, you will also want enough dry, white rice to make about 4 cups. It like cooking butter in mine.
Fourth, let’s light this candle! After a half hour has elapsed from seasoning the chicken (and by the time you finish all of this prep, you should have no trouble with this requirement at all), place the seasoned chicken pieces in the paper bag with the flour, fold the top, and either turn the bag over while holding the fold shut or give it a gentle shake until the chicken is just coated with flour. Remove the chicken to a platter and reserve 1 cup of the flour that’s left in the bag.
In Grandma’s cast iron chicken fryer I inherited that’s been seasoned for like a hundred years (aren’t you jealous, you should be), heat the ghee until it’s around 299 to 399 degrees and fry the chicken pieces until the coating is just brown. Don’t worry about cooking it all the way through until done. The chicken will finish in the stew. This step is really just to give the hot butter some chicken flavor.
Once all the chicken pieces are browned and set aside, the party really gets started when you add 1 cup of the reserved flour from the grocery bag to the very hot oil to make the roux (i.e., fried flour).
Now repeat after me: once I start the roux, I will not take my eyes off of it for one second, nor will I ever stop stirring until it is finished, no matter what. **You can call them back. You cannot save a scorched roux.**
And so you CAREFULLY stir, and stir, and stir, getting into every nook and cranny of the pot. Do not splatter the roux onto anything with nerve-endings unless you hate them and can make it look like an accident. The only more painful burn is a melted sugar burn when making candy. Roux burns will make you cry. Don’t do it.
But if you keep your flame high and your fingers crossed and are very, very good, after about fifteen minutes of constant, unerring attention, your roux will be the color of dark chocolate but will not smell burned. Amazing.
Once you reach that dark chocolate color, immediately turn off your flame, add the chopped veggies (but not the garlic), and keep stirring the roux and veggies until those veggies are tender. The smell is incredible and will make your neighbors jealous. And, yes, the roux is hot enough to cook celery, onion, and bell pepper soft with no extra heat. Remember how I told you roux burns will make you cry?
Next, place a stock pot or large, heavy saucepan next to your chicken fryer on the stove. Now that the veggies and roux are cooled and not burned because you stirred them like I told you, dump the roux-veggie mixture into the stock pot and pour in your well-shaken and not spilled chicken stock. Bring the stock-thinned roux-veggies mix to a boil, while stirring. Lower heat to a simmer and add the garlic, sausage, and chicken you set aside earlier.
Now ignore for about 1-3/4 to 2 hours. Well, maybe not the ENTIRE time. You should probably come back and give it a little stir from time to time, making sure you scrape the bottom to avoid stickage. You know just for funsies.
Taste and adjust the salt and, if you like, toss in a few dashes of Tabasco. Hey! It’s your party….
NOTE: if you or one of your guests is weird about bones in their meat (yes, those people are out there), I have achieved the same flavor and yet avoided table side freak outs by deboning the chicken after frying but before adding it back to the roux-veggie-stock mixture.
The meat goes in the pot directly but the bones are placed in cheese cloth, tied closed with butcher’s twine, and hung like a cachet inside the pot suspended by the other end of the twine tied to the pot handle. Once the gumbo is cooked, just pull out the bag of bones and discard.