Thursday, February 21, 2013

GUMBO: The Recipe

GUMBO Pt 2  The Recipe (or not)

I'll put the disclaimer right at the top. This is not going to be a recipe like you might be used to.  This is NOT going to be a listing of ingredients followed by the steps of how to put them together; exactly.  Those things will all be here, but it seems to me that writing down a recipe for gumbo like you're making cookies or salad dressing compromises the depth, the mystery, the secret codes and the soul of what gumbo really is.  Gumbo is how you feel that day.  Gumbo is what you happen to have lying around.  Gumbo is and was survival food.  There are as many different versions of gumbo as there are cooks who have cooked it.  This one happens to be ONE of mine.

The last time I wrote down a recipe for gumbo it was for my younger sister and it ran to about eight pages and included a lot of legend and lore.  Sadly, her treasured recipe book, wherein my treatise was stored, was stolen by the jealous ex-wife of her now husband and whatever wisdom/knowledge/hearsay I imparted has flown to the winds.  It is not at all unlikely that whatever I happen to write here my contradict much of what I wrote then.  Gumbo is like that.  I'm like that.  She said hers came out pretty good.

Another disclaimer early on is that I have always made gumbo in batches anywhere from 5 to 15 gallons.  This will not be that big and as a result, the amounts may not be precise.  Bear with me; improvise and intuit.  Lastly, remember that this is just a base recipe. You will be expected/advised to add the goodies: crab, shrimp, oysters, duck, etc., per your own tastes and desires.

There are two lists of ingredients, mandatory and optional...

The mandatories are:

The Holy Trinity of Vegetables plus garlic, jalapenos, green onions and okra (cut frozen is just fine)
Chicken Legs

And the optionals are:
Hot Sauce
Seafood (shrimp, crab, crawfish, oysters...)
Rice (although this is more of a given; it's gotta have rice)


2 Cups All Purpose Flour
2 Cups Canola Oil (or Canola Oil and some rendered bacon fat)

Let's start with roux, a simple mix of equal parts of flour and fat that is traditionally used for thickening soups and sauces.  We won't bother with any of that white and blonde roux stuff.  We won't even pretend that this is for thickening; it isn't.  This is gumbo and the roux is "as black as your arm if your arm was black" and it is cooked to the point where nearly all the gluten, the thickening agent, is cooked out of it.  What it does do is give gumbo that elusive, haunting smoky and almost burned flavor for which it is famous.  The roux is so simple yet so ultimately critical to the final flavor of your gumbo.

I use canola oil for my roux and if I happen to have some rendered bacon fat I'll mix that in with it when I heat it up.  I find that a light simple oil like canola is easy to work with, smokes at a relatively high heat and blends easily.  Yes, the bacon renderings add flavor, but you're going to need a WHOLE lot of bacon fat if you want to use it exclusively for your roux and honestly, clarified butter is just too damned expensive

There is a school of thought that subscribes to the theory that in order to make a proper roux you have to heat the oil to a flashpoint, add the flour as fast as you can (without creating napalm) and then stir like a mo' fo' until it turns black.  I'm not sure why this is a popular theory, but I don't do that.  No, I don't.  Heat the oil slowly until it comes up to point well below smoking and stir in your flour.  Keep the flame somewhere between low and medium and relax.  Put on some music you love and hang out with your roux for a while, stirring and stirring.  It is critical at this point that you use a wooden spoon or something that will easily insinuate itself into the edges (or corners) of your pan.  You don't ever, ever, ever want the roux to stick to the pan.

You will, with patience, begin to observe the roux slowly, very slowly changing color, or at first you may just wish you were.  But yes, it will begin to change color and edge away from the whitish tan  glop you have been stirring toward something a bit suaver and tanner.  The stirring will also become easier as the roux heats through.  As the roux cooks, the gluten, that is the thickening agents, begin to cook out of it and the roux will become thinner and thinner the longer it cooks.  Continue to exercise your patience, rock back and forth (or sway) to the music and keep stirring.  There will be a direct parallel between the thickness of the roux and the color as it cooks.

  As the roux grows darker it becomes quite thin and needn't be stirred so arduously.  Before the flour is fully cooked is when the roux is most in danger of burning.  You will now begin to work your way through the gradations of color; ecru, tan, peanut butter and finally, oh yes, finally at last into the chocolates.  Keep the roux moving but look for it (or at least I look for it) to turn the color of a good chocolate sauce.  When it hits that point take the pan off the flame and put it somewhere to slowly cool.  Keep stirring because you do want the roux to keep cooking, although you've effectively slowed the process down.  This will bring the roux to the ultimate "black" color all on its own.  The pan can now sit, unrefrigerated, until you feel ready to make your gumbo.  Do go back and give it frequent stirs during its first half hour off the stove.  As the roux cools it will separate slowly; let it.


2 Gallons Previously Made Chicken Stock
8-12 Whole Chicken Legs
2 Cups Rough Chopped Yellow Onion
4 Seeded and Rough Chopped Green Bell Peppers
1 Head Rough Chopped Celery
1 Cup Rough Chopped Green Onions
2-3 Heads Smashed Garlic
All the Chicken Bones you've saved
All the Shrimp Shells you've saved
All the Crab Shells you've saved  

It is absolutely true that you can make perfectly good gumbo using water as your liquid base.  There should, in theory, be plenty enough flavorful additions to the pot (the roux chief among them) to make a tasty gumbo.  But you (and I know this about you) are not looking for just a "perfectly good gumbo",  you are looking to make a gumbo that has a depth of flavor, layers and layers of flavor; a gumbo that makes you close your eyes and wonder, "where did THAT come from?"  One of the many, many answers to that question will be that at least SOME of "THAT" came from the rich, deep and mysteriously flavored stock you added to the pot.

I'm going to tell you how to make this deep and mysteriously flavored stock by making an awfully large presumption.  I'm going to presume that you not only know HOW to make a good chicken stock, but that you will have a gallon or two of it on hand to make your gumboIn this recipe you will be using cooked chicken legs and a good way to cook those legs is to gently poach them in a bath of simmering previously made chicken stock.  This will not only get your legs properly cooked, it will also enrich your previously made stock.

Take the cooked chicken legs out of the stock and turn your oven on to 450.  When the oven is hot put all the chopped vegetables and all the animal parts into a heavy roasting pan and roast them for at least 45 minutes before you touch them.  Stir up the bones and vegetables in the roasting pan to see if they're beginning to stick to the pan.  They should be.  Put the pan back in the oven and continue roasting until you can see that the tops of the veggies and the chicken bones are taking on a rich brown color. (This is a good time to pull the chicken meat from the cooked legs and add the bones to the pan.)  Scrape the pan again to check for caramelization on the bottom of the pan.  What you want is for the vegetables, bones and shells to be breaking down into a nearly burnt, brown crumbly mess that is sticking to the pan.

When you feel as if you have achieved optimum browning and are afraid to let it go any farther (no, I mean really afraid) take the pan out of the oven and scoop all the browned ingredients into a heavy stock pot.  Put the hot roasting pan on a couple of burners on your stove and turn them to medium high so that the pan starts to sizzle.  Pour in 2-3 cups of your previously made (and enriched) chicken stock and scrape up everything you can from the bottom of the pan.  Please be careful.  When you feel like you've got it all scraped off the bottom and sides pour it into the pan over the roasted mix and see if you need to do it again.  Scrape EVERYTHING you can into the pot, pour the rest of your chicken stock over it and make another stock.  Bring this one to a boil, drop the heat, pull the pot over to one side of the burner so that the bubble just comes up the side of the pot and let it cook for 3-4 hours.  If you feel as if you are losing liquid too quickly either add more chicken stock or water to keep the level even with where you started.

Strain the stock when it is cool enough for you to feel comfortable handling it and put it on a shelf in your refrigerator so that air will pass both over and under it.  Let it rest for a day to allow the flavors to settle and so that whatever fat there is comes to the top and is easy to remove.  Your stock is ready and your roux is ready.  Now it's time to get the solid ingredients ready and move into actual gumbo making.


The Holy Trinity of New Orleans cooking is onions, green bell peppers and celery.  It is purported and it often really seems that those three vegetables show up in nearly every dish, be it Cajun, Creole, or somewhere in between.  There are those like me who detest green bell peppers yet end up admitting, somewhat grudgingly, that once they immerse themselves for hours in all other things "gumbo" they do indeed have their place.  There is an entirely different school that questions the need for celery and I agree that it probably has less presence than any of the other ingredients and can, at times, come off, when one can actually taste it, as slightly bitter.  I do remember that at the Elite Cafe we went through a period where we experimented with omitting it from our basic gumbo recipe, but ultimately decided that we could take it or leave it, so we took it.  Ultimately you must look at the Trinity as a flavor base that will cook deep into and indeed become an unseen (at least at the first adding) layer of flavor.

The "plus three" for me are garlic, lots and lots of garlic, jalapeno peppers, and green onions.  Each of these has their place in my gumbo and therefore are included in this recipe.  To me they are all essential components of the gumbo flavor.


The underlying flavor of smoked pork is key to my own gumbo flavor base and while I do love using andouille, the long smoked and densely made sausage of Louisiana, I have had success using other smoked sausages and at Belle Roux we omitted Andouille entirely and used our own house-made Creole-style smoked pork sausages.  Our recipe combined the best parts of Andouille and Chaurice sausages and added a rich greasy smoky flavor.  Whatever you choose to use must have a smokey flavor and a good healthy spice to it to effectively enhance your gumbo.


8 Big Yellow Onions, cut in large dice
8 Big Green Bell Peppers, cut in large dice
2 Heads Celery, cut in large dice
6 Heads Garlic, peeled and chopped
8 Jalapenos, diced
2 Bunches of Green Onions, sliced and reserved
16-20 Spicy Smoked Pork Sausages (If you are using Andouille, which are generally longer, use 10)
1# Frozen Sliced Okra

Cut the vegetables, mix them and divide them in half.  Set the green onions aside for later use.
Dice half the sausages and and cut the other half into discs.  

Put your big gumbo pot on the stove and bring it up to a medium heat.  Add the diced sausages and let them cook slowly so that they render their fat.  When they have given up as much fat as they can, add one half of the chopped mixed vegetables and stir them into the sausages.  Cook over medium heat until the vegetables are coated with fat and beginning to soften.  Pour your gumbo stock over the vegetables and bring it to a boil.  Let it come to a rapid boil and then turn it down, pull it to one side of the burner and do a slow simmer for an hour.

On another burner bring your black roux back to life by heating it very slowly until it becomes smooth and the oil is once again incorporated.  You do not need to get it cooking, only to heat it so that it becomes nearly liquid and is close to the same temperature as the simmering stock.  Increase the heat of the cooking gumbo stock and vegetables and when it is just short of a boil, add the black roux in a slow stream while whisking steadily.  When the roux is completely incorporated, bring the (now) gumbo to a boil again then reduce the heat and repeat the pulling of the pot to one side of the burner.

Place your cut Andouille (or other sausage) discs on a sheet pan with the cut frozen okra and roast them in a 450 degree oven until they both begin to brown and stick to the pan.  This will take 20-25 minutes.  Scrape them up and add the sausage and okra to the gumbo.  Using the same technique as you did to deglaze the roasted bone pan, deglaze the sheet pan with a half cup of water to capture the remaining browned bits that have stuck to the pan.  Stir the okra/sausage mix in and add the second half of your  chopped vegetables to the gumbo pot.  Stir them in and bring the gumbo up to heat one more time, stopping it just short of a boil.  Return the heat to medium low and pull the pot to the side of the burner once again.

You have now added the bulk of the ingredients to the gumbo and it needs to cook.  As it cooks, the gumbo will begin to take in the cooked flour from the roux and discard the oil it was mixed with and that oil needs to be removed One of the reasons for setting the pot to the side of the burner is that as the oil comes to the top it will journey over to the side of the pot away from the heat and be much easier to ladle off.  Using as broad and flat a ladle as you have, begin what will be a long, long process of scooping the grease off as it rises to the top.  This isn't something you need to do constantly, but you will need to return to the pot every 10-15 minutes to do some scooping and you will be doing this scooping for the next hour and possibly longer. 

Now is a good time to start tasting the gumbo.  The first taste will be rich, but a bit flat.  It's going to need salt and pepper and I like mine to have a bit of a black pepper bite.  Start with a healthy handful of salt and at least half a hand of black pepper. Stir them in, wait five minutes and taste again.  If you want your gumbo to start off spicy you can start adding hot sauce and letting it cook in.  I like to use Tabasco because I feel like the acid in the vinegar base helps heighten the other flavors.  You may not feel that way.  In any case, shake a healthy ounce or two in and let it cook for another ten or fifteen minutes and give it a taste.  

At this point of cooking, perhaps three hours or so, you should have a very gumbo like product.  Keep skimming and ladling the fat off and for this last hour of cooking add the sliced and reserved green onions to the pot along with the chicken meat that you pulled off the bones, way back when.  Cook the gumbo for another half hour or so with the green onions in it and then turn off the heat.  You have made your gumbo base.  Let it cool on the stove top until it is less dangerous to handle and then either ladle or pour it into containers that will fit in your refrigerator (where I KNOW you have created space for it).  Try to put the gumbo in a place in the refrigerator where air will pass both under and over the container.  You want to cool the bottom and the top of the gumbo at the same time.

As you would with anything you would cook that has this many flavors, let your gumbo rest overnight so that the flavors begin to meld.  You may notice that even three days after being made the gumbo will taste slightly different than it did when you first brought it off the stove.  

Bring the gumbo out and slowly bring it up to heat in small amounts (or heat all if it if you're having a crowd). When you serve your gumbo have a pot of cooked white rice ready to put in the bowls under the gumbo when you serve it.  When the gumbo is hot you get to decide how you want to dress it up.  I like it with Dungeness crab, both whole legs and body parts.  But I also like it with oysters and/or shrimp just barely poached in the gumbo as it sits and slowly roils just short of a boil.  I also like to add roast duck or chicken, more sausage, or tasso.  And of course, there are those who will want to sprinkle gumbo file (ground sassafras root), although I have never been able to see (or taste) the point in that.  Me?  I like a sprinkle of thinly sliced green onions and a dash of hot sauce right at the end.  You've gotten this far, you know what you want.  Have at it...

Wednesday May 13, 2009 La Cusinga and Me

This words below are from our website describing La Cusinga.  The story, however is much deeper and much richer than these introductory words can describe.  La Cusinga represents a noble and successful effort to preserve this section of unspoiled coast and to keep it alive as a model of what true ecology can accomplish.  The dreams and visions of John Tresemer, the owner of La Cusinga and the Finca Tres Hermanas that surrounds it, have been realized here in what is a true example for all who would preserve and protect what remains of this, or any natural wonder. 

La Cusinga 
La Cusinga Lodge is a coastal rainforest eco lodge dedicated to marine and terrestrial conservation and environmental education. Its location on the southern Pacific coast provides guests with sweeping ocean views and a relaxing beach vacation. In addition La Cusinga is part of a private nature reserve that supplies the visitor with an unparalleled look at Costa Rican wildlife and rainforest. The reserve consists primarily of 250 hectares of virgin rainforest that borders thousands of more acres of privately protected forest. On Costa Rica’s still wild south-western Pacific coast, La Cusinga Lodge borders Ballena Marine National Park which was developed to protect the humpback whales that frequent the coast. La Cusinga Lodge was established in order to share the unique site with Costa Ricans as well as international visitors. Besides getting exposure to rural Costa Rican culture and beautiful vistas, visitors have access to highly prolific areas of primary tropical rainforest and unspoiled coast, all conveniently accessible. 

i returned to La Cusinga this past January, 2009, with a dream in mind.  I wanted to create a cuisine for our guests that would bridge the gap between what La Cusinga offered physically and spiritually, and what they were putting in their bodies when they ate here.  I knew from having previously lived in Costa Rica for over two years that there were organic farmers and that sustainable agriculture was being practiced, but at that time it had been limited in its scope as well as its distribution.  

My first steps upon returning were toward the local Feria to seek out and communicate my ideas with the growers and vendors who could provide me with a local, organic and sustainable product.  The fertile valleys of San Isidro that lie over the coastal mountains and to the Northeast of our Pacific location are rich and productive but are only now exploring the potential that they hold.  

I had in mind a vision that would support local farmers, fishermen and food artisans and one that would recreate (or perhaps, create) a new cuisine of Coastal Costa Rica.  I visit the markets each week to talk with growers and to develop the  relationships that I believe will be mutually beneficial as Costa Rica experiences its rapid growth on an international level
Organic farming is a new and not heavily supported concept in our part of Costa Rica.  It is a brave step for farmers to make, as local communities of both growers and consumers have never placed, or not known to place, an importance on farming organically and sustainably.  I feel a responsibility as a Chef here to be at the forefront of those encouraging and supporting these pioneers  

I came to La Cusinga almost three years ago not knowing what to expect.  My first time through here was characterized by a lack of understanding and appreciation on my part as well as an inability to recognize or connect with the local "flavor" that would make for a coherent package for out guests.  I now feel as if I have made a "connect" with the property and the vision.  I am not completely satisfied and hopefully, never will be, until we are able to produce, right here at La Cusinga, the greater share of the produce we serve.  However, the groundwork has been laid with local farmers and the availability and quality of organic produce is impressive.

Now at La Cusinga I serve a variety of organic lettuces and braising greens.  My salads include wedges or slices of rich red tomatoes as well as sweet !00 and yellow pear cherry tomatoes.  I roast organic beets and marinate them in balsamic vinegar to be served alongside the lettuces and topped with a locally made organic goat cheese.

My soups are made from roasted and steamed local organic vegetables and tiny organic yellow creamer potatoes have found their way onto my plates, nestled against filets of locally caught fish.
I am now using a local organic cocoa powder that still contains the nuggets of cocoa butter unlike the fined cocoa powder in the markets.

And better still, I am able to use palmito (hearts of palm), ginger, cilantro and its sawtooth leafed cousin culantro coyote, mangoes, hot and sweet chiles, mandarina limes and yucca root from our own Finca Tres Hermanas to serve in my dining room at La Cusinga.   The connection from jungle and farm to table is evolving.  May it continue to grow.