Gumbo is uniquely American—outstanding, individual, and composed of flavors as different and diverse as you can get. It’s quite literally a melting pot, as a great variety of flavors come together to form a more perfect union.
I love gumbo. It’s smoky and spicy and jammed with flavor—perfect for a chilly day, but delicious any day. After all, does it even get chilly on the bayou?
My favorite restaurant is Heaven on Seven in Chicago. I fell in love with it many years ago when their only restaurant was on Wabash, on the 7th floor, and you had to line up in the hall before 11:00 am if you wanted a seat. It was simply decorated—more diner than upscale restaurant—but who cares about the décor when you’re eating a little taste of heaven? What they say is true—the gumbo is amazing!
Unfortunately, my gumbo is nothing like theirs, but it’s still flavorful. When you’re jonesing for that zesty soup, but you can’t hike downtown to buy a bowlful, make some yourself. That’s what I do.
In my opinion, homemade gumbo isn’t gumbo without Andouille sausage and okra. Neither of those is a staple in my house. The other day I was at Joe Caputo’s and they had fresh okra on sale. I didn’t hesitate—I threw some in my cart, knowing there would be gumbo in my near future. If you can’t find fresh okra, don’t fret—frozen works just fine.
I found the Andouille sausage in the refrigerator section of Jewel—the Aidells brand. There’s no substitute for Andouille sausage in this recipe. It adds spice and smoke to the gumbo. I’ve seen recipes calling for polish sausage or “pork” sausage (which could be almost anything…), but the spices in the Andouille sausage make the gumbo sing (what does it sing, you ask? Jazz and Zydeco, of course). The other ingredients are easy to find: onion, celery, green pepper (the holy trinity of Cajun cooking), broth, canned tomatoes, spices, rice, flour, and other protein (chicken, ham, shrimp, or a combination).
Basically, there are two ways to thicken your gumbo. You can use okra or make a roux. I do both. In my opinion, both provide flavor depth and thickening.
Some of my friends haven’t ever made gumbo, simply because they fear the roux. A roux isn’t difficult; it just takes time. How long? The old joke is that it takes two beers. I’m sure I don’t stir mine long enough, because it only takes one glass of wine, but it works out well. Pour yourself your favorite drink, whether it be beer, wine, hot cocoa, or seltzer. Plant yourself by the stove with a spatula (not a rubber spatula—you need a flat bottomed implement that won’t melt in the high heat), and get ready to stir. Keep that roux moving, and don’t let it burn. Alternate arms, and you can think of it as a pre-dinner workout. The general rule of thumb is to use equal parts fat and flour when making a roux. I used less oil, since this is a soup, and I didn’t want to make it too fattening. You could easily use more flour, and therefore more oil, and end up with more roux, and a thicker gumbo. Since I was keeping my eye on the fat content, I opted for a thinner soup.
The first time I made gumbo the roux took almost an hour—that’s absurd, by the way. I had the heat on way too low. Now I put the heat on medium high, and I stir like a banshee, watching carefully to make sure it doesn’t burn. When it starts to get a very cooked aroma—very nearly almost ready to start burning—I add the vegetables to the pan, and my roux duty is done. This can take as little as 10 – 15 minutes. You want the flour to go from white to brown. I’ve put pictures in this post so you can see the color changing. Could I have gone even darker? Perhaps, but when you’re cooking flour in oil, the distance from “done” to “burnt” is the blink of an eye. Many people cook their roux to a deep, dark brown. I’m not expert enough (or patient enough) to do that.
After the vegetables have softened, add the rest of the ingredients. The soup in this recipe needs to simmer for a half hour or so. If you plan to add shrimp, add it last–it only takes a few minutes to cook.
During this election year, why not take the time to prepare a home-cooked, homegrown American dish?
Windy City Shrimp Gumbo
¼ C. flour
3 Tbsp. canola oil (or other oil that can withstand high heat)
1 C. celery, diced
1 C. green pepper, diced
1 C. onion, diced
1 C. okra, sliced
1 Bay leaf
8 C. chicken broth
1 15-oz. can diced tomatoes
1 12-oz. package Andouille sausage, sliced
1 tsp. paprika
¼ tsp. garlic powder
1 lb. raw shrimp
Make the roux: Heat oil in soup pot. Stir in flour, and stir constantly until the flour darkens to a caramel brown. You want to darken it without burning it. Once it darkens enough, add the next 5 ingredients and cook until softened—approximately 10 minutes. Add broth, tomatoes, sausage, and spices and let simmer for at least 30 minutes.
When you are almost ready to serve the gumbo, add the raw shrimp, and stir until it is pink and curled, about 2 minutes.
Serve with rice and sliced scallions.
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