As I mentioned earlier, I was stunned by the gumbo I made for Santa Maria’s party. So stunned, that I forgot to photograph the finished dish, which was not nearly as large a crime as the fact that I missed out on her sour-cream coffee cake that she made for the occasion; I forgot to take a bite at the start of the party, and then it was gone before I could seek it out, finished off by some (uninvited) teenagers, but that’s another story.
I’ve been longing to make a gumbo ever since I first visited New Orleans, many years ago. Everything I ate in that city, and I mean everything, was so delicious that I couldn’t believe it. Gumbo came up when I was interviewing fathers for my book, “Man with a Pan.” I was introduced to David Olivier, a native of NOLA, who shared his family’s recipe and methods. I say methods, because how you make the roux is a key part of its extravagant flavor—an unprecedented, at least in my kitchen, combination of earthy and vaguely Asian aromas filled the house as it cooked—and Olivier had a lot to say about making a roux, which is a combination of fat and flour:
How to best make a roux is an earnestly discussed topic. I find it's very easy as long as one obeys the key principal (emphatically and repeatedly proclaimed to me when I was a small child): Don't do anything else while you're making it. Just stand there, stirring the oil and flour over medium to medium-high heat for as long as it takes (typically 20-30 minutes) until it reaches the desired color. Again, the preferred color is a matter of some discussion. I like a darker roux, milk chocolate tending towards dark chocolate.
He also cautioned me about burning the roux—apparently, it can go from good to bad in a second—so I was a little nervous as I made the dish. His note about not doing anything else also weighed on my mind. I was making it the night before the party, and Santa Maria was out. The girls were asleep and I had the house to myself. Everything was perfect for making the roux, unless one of my daughters needed something, a glass of water or another kiss. As I stirred the flour and oil, I held my breath. Luck for me, they slept soundly, and I got that good and dark color and flavor that makes the dish so remarkable.
Because it was my first time making the recipe, I prepped all the ingredients before I started.
I cut up the chicken.
I diced the garlic.
I chopped the onion.
And so on and so on, until I was ready to go. I made the dish without incident that night, and even managed to cook and stir the roux for a good fifteen minutes, before I panicked and moved on. I certainly didn't want to burn it. The next morning I opened the oysters and added them to the dish. It was a huge hit, and I’ll be making it again soon. I hope Santa Maria makes the coffee cake, too. When she does, I’ll be sure to have some before it is all gone.
David Olivier’s Chicken Sausage and Oyster Gumbo
He says “Chicken and sausage gumbo is a pretty standard dish. The addition of oysters is my own preference, undoubtedly influenced by the chicken and oyster gumbo my mother used to make. (Hers was very different in style from mine - and fairly atypical in general, very brothy, I don't think she used a roux at all - but I love the addition of oysters to the standard combination. It adds a lovely complexity. And oysters just generally make most things better.)
- 2/3 c. vegetable oil [note: next time I would use ½ cup]
- 3-4 lb. chicken, cut into pieces
- 1/2 c. flour
- 1 lb. (or a bit more) Andouille sausage, sliced into 1/2 in. discs [I had under a pound and it was still good]
- 1 large onion, chopped [I used a red onion, because that’s what I had in the house]
- 1 green pepper, chopped
- 2-3 scallions, sliced thin
- 2-3 Tbs. parsley, minced fine
- 2-3 cloves garlic, minced fine
- 2 qts. chicken stock [I used homemade stock, and I think it made a huge difference]
- 1/8 tsp. cayenne
- 1 tsp. dried thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 pt. shucked oysters
- 2-3 cups cooked long-grain rice
- 3 Tbs. filé powder (ground sassafras) [note: I couldn’t find this, and it wasn’t missed]
Heat the oil in a large pot over high heat. Add the chicken and brown. (Don't cook through.) Remove the chicken and set aside. Scrape up any remaining browned bits, then gradually add the flour to make the roux.
Stir the oil and flour over medium to medium-high heat for as long as it takes (typically 20-30 minutes) until it reaches the desired color. Again, the preferred color is a matter of some discussion. I like a darker roux, milk chocolate tending towards dark chocolate.
As soon as the roux is ready (if you dally, the roux will burn), add the sausage, onion, green pepper, scallion, parsley and garlic. Continue to cook over low heat for about ten more minutes, until the vegetables have softened and the onions have turned translucent. (You can see a photo of his gumbo at this stage on his blog.)
Add chicken stock, chicken pieces, cayenne, thyme, bay leaves, salt, and pepper and bring to a simmer. Simmer for about 1 hour, until chicken is tender.
At this point, I like to let the gumbo cool, then refrigerate overnight, primarily because it improves the flavor but also because I typically make gumbo for dinner parties and, when entertaining, I like to do most of the cooking ahead of time so that when the guests arrive I have time for more important things—like mixing cocktails.
The next day, skim off any fat. Remove the chicken, strip the meat, tearing it into coarse chunks, and return it to the pot. Gradually heat the gumbo. Shortly before serving, add the oysters along with the oyster liquor. Continue to simmer just long enough to cook oysters through. Just before serving, add the filé powder.
Ladle gumbo into individual serving bowls. Add a generous spoonful of rice, and serve. (Provide Crystal, Louisiana, Tabasco, or other hot sauce at the table for individual doctoring.)
Note: For more food from his hometown, Olivier recommends a couple of local cookbooks: The New Orleans Cookbook by Rima and Richard Collin and New Orleans Food by Tom Fitzmorris. And to learn more about the gumbos he grew up with, check out this amazing interview with his aunt, which even has some nice photos of the finished dish: