Ben’s best friend came for a visit this weekend. He claimed he had two goals: to hang out with us and to get some seafood. Seafood is plentiful around here, obviously, but can get expensive. It’s a lot cheaper to buy it raw and then cook it at home. It’s also a lot easier to cook at home than to take a 4 year old and a 2 year old to a restaurant. So get seafood turned into sit and wait around for the seafood to be cooked and then help yourself. And I got to do it in yoga pants, so that was fine by me.
We live in Creole territory. Mobile and New Orleans were actually founded by a pair of French brothers, so Mobile’s history is as deeply infused with Creole and French influences as New Orleans. Mobile, in fact, actually is the site of the first Mardi Gras celebrations in the US, having done up their first party something like seventeen years before New Orleans began theirs. Our festivities tend to the tamer side of things, however, and we are much less known for our wild night life. But I digress. Back to the Creole influence.
Ben works at this old, historic church. Many of its current members are direct descendants of its founding members. Their Creole blood runs deep. Every year, the members of their Episcopal Church Women’s Group do a fundraiser where its members make and serve gumbo. This is one of the most exciting aspects of being married to a priest at that church, because the priests are each given two quarts of frozen gumbo to take home with them. I think ours last an average of about two weeks in the freezer. Cooking the gumbo is a several day process for them, and it shows. I had assumed this recipe was some top-secret, closely guarded family heirloom type…until right before Christmas. A friend, who goes to another church in town, invited us over for gumbo at her house. Gumbo that she’d purchased for one of her church’s guild’s fundraisers. Lo and behold, it was the exact same, or at least close enough that I, with my non-Creole blood and limited exposure to gumbo, couldn’t tell the difference.
That gave me some real hope. If two churches in town were cooking the same exact recipe for gumbo, that recipe had to be written down somewhere. And I would find it. I enlisted my husband to search the kitchen for the recipe. He came up empty-handed. But then he brought home an old cookbook the church put out back in the fifties. That had a gumbo recipe in it. That, it turns out, was the exact same recipe that was in the new cookbook they just put out last year. That has been sitting in my kitchen since the books came back from the publisher. Detective (and logical first place to look) fail. But my loss in dignity is a gain for the world of blogs, because I’m sharing it here, in all its gloriousness. Now no one shall have to go without gumbo for want of a recipe.
Makes as many servings as you can possibly squeeze out of it (bread helps)
- 5 TB fat*
- 2 TB flour
- 1.5 pounds okra, cut in small crosswise slices*
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1 can chopped tomatoes
- 1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/4 tsp dried thyme
- 2.5 quarts (that’s 10 cups) water
- 6 crabs*
- 1 lb shrimp, peeled and deveined*
- 2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp pepper
Brown the flour in the fat in a heavy iron skillet. The original recipe says “bacon fat is good.” Take it from me: bacon fat is a bitch to obtain. You can’t just cook bacon and then use that (unless you were cooking a whole lot of bacon, but even then you’d still have issues) because it’s best to strain the fat before the bacon pieces in the fat go rancid. Which means that unless you’re making enough bacon to yield 5 tablespoons of fat, you’re going to have to do the double straining through cheesecloth method a lot to get what you need. I’ve used half bacon fat and half oil and now whole oil and honestly couldn’t tell the difference. Any neutral oil works. When it says “brown flour,” it means brown. You want it to be the color of Hershey’s syrup. This takes a lot of time stirring and watching, but it’s worth it and it’s where the bulk of the work in making gumbo comes in.
While the flour is browning in the fat, pour 10 cups of water into a stock pot. Bring it to a boil and add crabs. This is where I most deviated from the recipe. It calls for 6 whole crabs with the claws separated from the bodies. My understanding of gumbo is that it came about as a way to use up leftover seafood, which meant everything was, I suppose, freshly caught. Which means intact crabs. I am sure there is a place where I could buy whole crabs and complete the necessary surgery to separate bodies and claws. But I’m not there yet. Bruno’s, a local grocery store, seems to empathize with people like me and they sell random remnants of snow crabs in very reasonably priced packages. I got mine for like $6. I just threw them in the boiling water for a few minutes and then pulled them out.
While the crabs/crab pieces are in the water, add the okra and the onion to the roux. I used frozen okra, so it was already cut up and I just thawed it under cold water for a few minutes before adding it. Stir frequently until the onion softens. If you have access to crab bodies and are using them, add them now. If not, add the tomatoes and cook on low for another 15 minutes. Use this time to get the meat out of the crab pieces that were boiling earlier. Keep the water at a low simmer.
Add the shrimp to the gumbo and cook for half an hour more. During this final cooking, make some rice. I use a red quinoa, wheat, brown rice, and wild rice blend I got at Target, but any kind of rice works. Once the rice is done, take a scoop and throw it in a bowl. Ladle some gumbo on top and proceed with caution—it will be really, really hot. Oh, and be sure to remove the bay leaf. I would also recommend having some bread on hand for sopping up whatever your spoon or fork misses.
This, as I alluded to above, freezes very well. I scooped out two ladle fulls and put them into a plastic container for us to have within the next few days, and then cooled down the remaining portion in the pot by putting it into a large bowl filled with ice water. Then I poured it into a freezer bag, drew all the air out of it that I could, flattened it out, and put it on a cookie tray in the freezer. It’ll freeze flat like that, which makes it easier to store since it takes up a lot less room than a quart container would.
There you have it: the not so secret recipe that has haunted me for 3 years now. This is kind of an expensive one to make unless you’re catching your own shrimp and crab, but it’s still a lot cheaper than getting it out. And you can keep your yoga pants on.