That’s right, people. We may not have a festive parade, insanely drunk citizens, shiny beads, or a hurricane warning every other week but we do have…
Coconut Cake and Okra Gumbo. Oh. Yea. Baby. Y’all are gonna be real happy after this here meal.
It seems like Gumbo is something that can intimidate people, but it really shouldn’t. Once you get the roux (oil + flour) making down, you can have yourself a bowl of yumminess anytime you get a hankering. Of course, if you don’t have the wherewithal to pull off a good roux then you should just turn around, tuck your tail between your legs, and kiss any sense of self respect goodbye. It takes time, love, and strong forearms, so…head on over to the gym and start pumping some iron!
So what is a roux?
It is a flour and oil base for many sauces and soups that acts as a thickening agent. In the case of gumbo it also provides the color, which can tell your consumers right off the bat how much time and effort (ie LOVE) you put into this dish. The longer the roux cooks, the darker the color and the better the flavor. That is why, minions of Earth, you have to dedicate yourself to this dish mind, body, and spirit. But be weary! Burning the roux will bring Saint Peter himself down from the pearly gates to ensure you of your rejection from Heaven before you even have one foot in the grave.
So now that I’ve frightened you into submission, let’s get started. Get a heavy bottomed (preferably cast iron…in fact, it’s pretty much required in my book) pot, keeping in mind that the entire dish will be made in this pot. So make it big! My Le Creuset is 5 quarts, which is as big as I’ve got.
You need to be prepared to cool down the roux quickly once it gets to a dark brown, so chop up all your veggies before you turn on the heat. You can choose almost anything, but I went with the “holy trinity” (onion, bell pepper, and celery…but then I forgot the celery, cause I’m smart and didn’t make a list when I went to the store) and okra.
So dice finely:
1 large onion
1 large green pepper
If you want some tips for chopping onions nice and small but without taking twelve years, go here. Keep these items separate.
And chop bite-size:
1 yellow pepper
1 red pepper
Keeping separate from:
1 pound okra. If you’re unfamiliar with okra, simply rinse it and chop like so:
Don’t freak out when the okra oozes this weird, slimy stuff as you chop it. It’s supposed to do that, so try not to judge it too harshly. It tends to weird most people out, but trust me: it doesn’t linger once it’s cooked.
Place 3/4 cup flour and 3/4 canola oil in your pot. It’s important to not use olive oil since the “smoke point” is much lower than canola and can cause the roux to burn much faster. No bueno. Whisk them together and then turn the heat to medium. Some books tell you to only use low heat, but that would take you about 72 years. I usually bounce back and forth between med-high to med-low, depending on how hot the oil gets. Now, this next part is important and if you ignore it you will fail:
Stir constantly. I mean it, people. If you could see my face, you would note that it is unsmiling! You need to keep the flour moving (a wooden spoon is best) or else it will burn to the bottom of the pan. Then what? Then NOTHING! You will be cast out for being a complete loser and no one will talk to you. Ever.
It took me about 15 minutes to go from the above (blond) roux to this:
Still not good enough. I find that my eyes try and trick me into thinking that this is ten times darker than it’s starting color, but it’s not. Have a friend come over and inform you that you’re imagination is running wild and keep whisking. Ten more minutes in:
I know. Great picture, right? I’m a regular Ansel Adams. But it is a tad difficult to whisk constantly and take a picture with an iPhone at the same time. Just shows you how dedicated I am!
So at this point the roux was starting to smoke, which is a tell-tale sign that it is going to burn soon unless you spring, cat-like, into action. If you’re really vigilant and want to make it an almost black color, turn the heat down before it starts to smoke and continue cooking at low heat. Some people take hours to make a roux. I am not those people…I had other fish to fry (so to speak).
When you’re satisfied with the color, turn the heat off and immediately add the pepper and onion (and celery, if you remembered it). It’s going to splatter everywhere, so duck and cover once you throw it in. Stir it around and then turn the heat back on, adding a couple of tablespoons tomato paste and some cayenne pepper.
I also throw in some tabasco, just for the heck of it. After all, Tabasco is made in Louisiana, so it belongs in this dish.
Fill up your tea kettle and heat up some water, for later. Allow the roux and veggies about 30 minutes to marinate over medium heat, covered and with an occasional stir. It’s going to look weird, like a bubbling mass of dirt. But never fear– unless you do something stupid, it will taste lovely. Add the okra and cook for another 15 minutes, until everything is nice and soft.
In the mean time you can chop up your collard greens. Rinse the leaves and rip out the ribs. Take the biggest pieces and layer the smaller ones on top so that you have a neat stack of collards. Roll them like a sushi chef and chop!
Set them aside. You can also take this opportunity to brown whatever meat you’re using, if any. I chose andouille sausage, but you can also try shrimp, duck, or chicken.
If you’re doing shrimp then leave them til the end– they only take a few minutes to cook and you can do it right in the gumbo pot.
Now you’re going to fill the pot with the hot water, going to about an inch below the top. You can use chicken stock if you’d like, but water works just fine. Let it come up to a boil, add the meat and reduce heat to a simmer. You can let this cook for another 1-2 hours, the longer the better in most cases. It will become nice and thick (that’s your roux doing its “thang”).
When you’re about 20 minutes from serving time, get your rice cooking and add the rest of the bell peppers to the gumbo. When you’ve got five minutes left, add the collard greens, salt, and pepper.
When you’re dishing this up remember that it is a soup, not a sauce. The rice is there to swim merrily in the depths of your bowl, not be the key player. A 4-to-1 ratio of gumbo to rice is splendid.
PS I can’t go into much detail about the Coconut Cake since I’m tired after all this blogging, but I will say thanks to Baker’s Illustrated for their awesome recipe. I can tell you that it was AMAZING and you must go out and purchase this book right now. Hopefully I can get to that fascinating tale soon!