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Adventures in Gumbo

Ever wonder how to make gumbo? I know I have! Actually I'm not sure if I ever cared until recently, but I've always enjoyed a stewed meat and vegetable produce served over rice, so gumbo seems like the dish for me. It's somewhat time consuming but not too difficult to make. I don't usually cook for myself, but my bachelor weekend presented an opportunity for me to try it out. Who was I to pass it up? This will be lengthy and filled with images and probably pretty silly, but you might just learn how to make gumbo. Maybe. For reference's sake I was using Alton Brown's shrimp gumbo recipe, though I don't own a dutch oven so I had to wing it a slight amount and use a slow cooker. I'd imagine if you only had a regular pot you might be able to get decent results, but that's at your own risk!

Also one thing you may want to consider is halving that recipe. I used 1:1 ingredients and I have quite a bit of leftover gumbo. If you're only making it for one person halving it would be good if for nothing else than your shrimp bill will go down.

One fairly important aspect of gumbo is something called 'roux'. It's essentially just flour and a fat (some kind of oil, or butter or even pan drippings if you like) mixed together and used as a thickening agent. It doesn't taste like anything (unless you use pan drippings I guess) and it's super easy to make! The gumbo recipe I was using called for me to bake a roux in a dutch oven for an hour. Instead I took Alton Brown's white roux recipe and used that. Simple:
  • 4 ounces vegetable oil
  • 4 ounces all-purpose flour
I forgot to take pictures of me making it, but the results are in that jar photo up there! I stuck it in a jar because I didn't have anything else ready.

Next up clean a pound of shrimp! The recipe calls for head-on shrimp, but Molly Stone didn't have any. You're supposed to use the heads to make a stock/broth thing, but since I only had shells my remedy was to peel them and leave a tiny bit of tail meat in each shrimp. I supposed I wasted a bit of shrimp meat but I needed to flavor the broth. Also since the shrimp didn't have any heads I bought a pound instead of 1.5 pounds.

I had never cleaned shrimp before, but it's actually not that hard. You cut along their belly to crack the shell a bit, then peel the shell off them, then slice down their backside to expose the vein (which as we all know is not actually a vein, but a poo transportation tube, and boy do shrimp love to poop). Now dunk them in a bowl of cool water and sort of swish it around a bunch until the vein comes off in the water.

You can also scrape the vein off under the water, which is advisable since it barely ever just falls off the shrimp. Either way it's pretty gross! Now stick the shrimp in one container and the shell in another. Repeat a million times until you're done!

(Sorry my stovetop is so dirty). Now for the weird part. Take all those shells and gross legs and potentially heads and stick them into eight cups of water (that's 2 quarts) on high heat. Leave it open and let it come to a boil, and then turn it down to low heat and let it simmer for an hour. I left it covered, which I think may have been a mistake because it's supposed to reduce to 1 quart but it stayed roughly the same volume.

Now you have to cook some sausage. Actually you could probably leave this step for later since it doesn't take much time, but I did it here because I wasn't sure what else to do. So, get 1.5 pounds of sausage (any sausage you want, I used hot Italian sausage) and cut them into small pieces. Then stick them into a skillet on medium heat:

And kinda push them around for like five or ten minutes. The idea here is we want to brown the sausages and create a kinda crust around each sausage that will hold in the sausage juices when it finishes cooking in the gumbo. You don't need to worry about cooking them all the way through, but they should be mostly browned. Once you're done you can set them aside in a bowl or something. I covered the bowl and left it out on the counter which seemed like the best option to me!

Now dice an onion. I fucking hate dicing onions. You need a cup of diced onion, which is equal to about half of a decent sized onion. Also if your hands smell like onion when you're done a cool trick is to run your fingers over a stainless steel knife blade (not the sharp side!!) and under water. Stainless steel gets rid of onion and garlic smells for some reason. Just don't cut yourself.

It's annoying how they make you all crybaby. Once my girlfriend put an onion in the food processor and it sprayed a fine onion mist all over the kitchen. I couldn't go in there without turning into Nancy Kerrigan so I only cut onions with a knife now.

Anyway you also want to dice a green pepper (a whole pepper will get you more than the half cup you need), and about a stalk and a half of celery for another 1/2 cup. You also need two tablespoons of garlic, minced, so I chopped up three cloves, which seemed to be roughly the right amount. And finally a half cup of 'peeled, seeded, and chopped tomato'. I bought an actual tomato because I only wrote down 'tomato' on my shopping list, but if I had been more specific I would have just bought a can of peeled tomatoes. Trust me, peeling a tomato is not fun.

Anyway that's all of the veggies plus the roux in my slow cooker. After you finish with the shrimp put your slow cooker on high and pour in your jar of roux. Stir it up a bit and let it warm up and then add the veggies you just chopped. Mix that together fairly well so that the roux coats everything.

Now it's time for spices! Add in the tablespoon of salt (the recipe says kosher salt, but any salt will do), the black pepper, the thyme, bay leaves and...

Cayenne pepper! It only calls for 1/4 a teaspoon, which is probably plenty. If you want a little more heat beyond this cayenne and the spicy sausage (assuming you went with that) you can add more cayenne later. At this point it should look like this:

And your work area might look like this:

Which is good because you are actually done with the major part of the prep! Shrimp is clean, sausage is browned, ingredients are (mostly) mixed. All that's left is that pot of shrimp parts reminding you of their untimely (but ultimately delicious) demise:

Yup, looks like a pot of shrimp shells.

Well great, I've still got like twenty minutes left before this thing finishes doing whatever it's doing. During this time I cleaned up the counter, made food for the cats and dog and made the rice.

The rice is actually a really important aspect of this meal! You serve the gumbo over rice! I totally forgot the proportions for this thing, by the way. I had to look it up on the internet and eventually decided to make 1/2 cup of rice in 1 cup of water. Sure, that seems right. I'll see you whenever, rice!

Oh hey, simmering is almost done. Let's check that pot.

Well okay, it uh, looks the same as it did twenty minutes ago. I guess maybe there's more flavor in the water now though. Sounds good to me!

Get some kind of straining action going. It's important to remember that you are not straining the water out of the shells, you're straining the shells out of the water. That can be confusing if you make a lot of pasta, but you want to save the water, so pour it into a bowl or something.

There's not one thing that doesn't look delicious in that photo! Okay, bring the bowl over to the slow cooker now. By the way, you probably want to periodically check on the contents of the slow cooker from time to time and stir them. The oils might separate from the roux a little. It's not a big deal, but it might be bad if it separates too much.

Since I was dumb and covered the pot I decided to just measure out four cups of broth and pour it in. So pour in one cup at a time, mix it into the gumbo and then repeat until you've added four cups of shrimp water to the gumbo. It should now look something like this:

Got it? Okay now turn the heat down to low and cover it. You want to let it cook, cover on, for around 35 minutes. If you need something to do I suggest watching television. Oh hey, the rice maker is done!

Uh, hrm, okay. Half a cup of rice is apparently not enough. I'm not sure what I was thinking there. Time to make more rice and delay my meal thanks to my own ineptitude.

Okay now the 35 minutes should be up and you can add the sausage and the shrimp to the gumbo:

You can actually put the slow cooker on warm now if you want (or 'off' if you're feeling ambitious) as there will be plenty of heat for the shrimp and sausage to cook. I left it on low just in case though, but you do want to eventually turn off the heat or the shrimp may start to disintegrate, an unfortunate thing that happens to soft meats that are cooked in a slow cooker.

And now for the final ingredient, filé powder. It's made from sassafras leaves and might be kind of hard to find. I actually found this in the spice aisle at Safeway, so maybe it's not too scarce. Maybe gumbo is making a comeback in San Francisco. At any rate, that's a tablespoon, so just throw it in there.

Uhh, make sure you mix it in. It will turn the gumbo from its previous shade of yellow to a sort of light brownish-yellow. It also thickens the broth a bit and adds a sassafras-y flavor. I think you can probably adjust the amount if you want based on your own tastes, though filé is considered to be a pretty big flavor of traditional gumbo.

At this point the shrimp should be mostly cooked (or on the way to disintegration) and the sausage should also be nice and juicy. That means it's time for the rice (assuming it's done).

Then ladle a generous helping of gumbo over that (make sure you take out the bay leaves):

Looks great, if I do say so myself. I feel the need to use a Cajun accent here, but I thankfully fight the urge.

Serving suggestion!


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#1 - your girlfriend Reply
holy crap dude if you are going to blog about our kitchen clean it first our stove looks like someone was recently slaughtered on top of it.

Aug. 9, 2009 (6:29pm EST)

I chewed down as much as I could of it, threw the rest of it out and found the bunk farthest from the loudly snoring Igor.

Aug. 12, 2014 (10:36am EST)

"Bar. On shore."

Aug. 12, 2014 (10:36am EST)

"Igor, indeed," Chaise said. "I like to keep track of my employees. Now, if you please, take a chair while we have a little picture show."

Aug. 12, 2014 (10:36am EST)

"Meaning what?"

Aug. 12, 2014 (10:36am EST)

We did it room by room. Moving furniture, kicking aside rugs, even tried shifting the refrigerator. Still nothing.

Aug. 12, 2014 (10:36am EST)