“Jambalaya, crawfish pie and filé gumbo,” sung by Hank Williams is music to my ears. I like jambalaya and crawfish pie, but gumbo is like a soup for the soul. For years I have been saying I want to try my hand at making a pot of gumbo, so finally I asked my Auntie Janice who was born and raised in New Orleans to teach me how. I am happy with my first pot of gumbo (my auntie really did most of the work); however, I did purchase the ingredients—you do learn from observation, right? After this first lesson on how to make gumbo, I feel confident that I can do it again.
First, you have to decide what kind of gumbo you want to make. You can make a several different types of gumbo: seafood, okra, or chicken and sausage. You can actually put whatever you want in gumbo. My auntie is obviously a carnivore because we bought smoked turkey necks, beef stew meat, chicken drumettes, seasoned ham, and bone-in pork shanks. She said that purchasing smoked meat and any meat with the bone still in gives the gumbo more flavor. We also purchased jumbo shrimp, boiled crab, and Double D sausage (no substitutions). She believes that you should never get frozen or small shrimp (because when they cook they will shrink—the bigger the better).
I was surprised at how much meat we bought, but I had to trust that someone who has been cooking for the past 40 years knows what she is doing. My aunt believes that you should never have to fish around for meat in a pot of gumbo. Every scoop should be filled with an abundance of whatever you choose to put inside of it.
After cleaning, rinsing, and cutting the meat, she says to put your pot on the stove before filling it with water because the pot will get too heavy to carry from the sink. We filled a 24 quart stock pot with most of the meat. We saved the seafood, chicken, and sausage to put in later when the gumbo was almost ready. We also added crab boil, bay leaves, parsley, red pepper flakes, Zatarain’s Creole Seasoning (no substitutions), tomato sauce—that was in a can that she opened with a knife, and of course, the holy trinity (onions, celery, and bell peppers—she never buys this pre-chopped). We only filled the pot a little over half way full with water (you want to add more water as needed to ensure that the gumbo is not too watery) and let it cook on high, stirring occasionally.
We let the gumbo cook for a couple of hours before we added the chicken and then a little longer before we threw in the sausage. We did a taste test intermittently to see if we needed to add a pinch of this or a dash of that. By now we have been letting this big pot of gumbo simmer for almost five hours. We added the seafood and Zatarain’s Gumbo Filé (no substitutions) and my auntie turned to me and asked, “Do you like the color of the roux?” I said, “No,” so we added a few drops of Kitchen Bouquet to darken it. In the end, we skimmed the extra fat off the top (she actually called it grease), and let the gumbo cool before divvying up the gumbo in different containers for freezing and sharing with family and friends.
I had a wonderful time learning how to make gumbo and hanging out with my auntie for a day. It was very relaxing and a very fulfilling experience. The biggest lesson of all was learning how expensive it is to fix a pot of gumbo, that is why my auntie says to buy meat and seafood periodically before hand—especially when it’s on sale—so it won’t be so costly. She also said to always use the best of the best and never short change on ingredients for the price. I originally thought that gumbo was a low cost meal like po’ boys used to be; as it turns out it is a delicacy. I can’t afford to spend $100 bucks to cook this dish very often!
In closing, I am not sure if you noticed that I didn’t talk about making a roux—her method is a family secret. I sure am happy that I am her niece and got the family recipe!