Seafood gumbo may be a non-traditional idea for your holiday feast, but if planned as a soup course, this zesty jumble of fish, shellfish, aromatics, vegetables, and the almighty roux can make for an unforgettable meal. As a Gulf-Coast native, I associate gumbo with Christmas and Mardi Gras. There are as many variations of gumbo as there are gumbo cooks, and I’ve rarely sampled bad gumbo prepared by a home cook. (I’ve sampled plenty of bad gumbo in restaurants, though.)
Gumbo is an Inclusive Dish
Pescetarians or just-plain seafood lovers use shellfish or a combination of fish and shellfish in their gumbo. Omnivores (those with the most varied diet) typically add pork sausage or chicken. Cajun-style gumbo traditionally includes wild-game meat such as venison. There is even a gumbo that would appeal to vegetarians: Gumbo Z’Herbes, which is gumbo with various greens–collards, turnips, mustard, spinach, etc.–but omit the customary salt pork for vegans.
The Calculus of Roux
Gumbo is perceived by many to be a mysterious and difficult dish. Making the roux can be anxiety producing. My early attempts to make gumbo required a conference call with relatives in Mobile, Alabama; and, even now, I still will send text messages with a gumbo question or two. Without going into the steps of making roux this time (another post, perhaps), I’m suggesting that you use a ready-made gumbo base. This step will eliminate making the roux, which requires consistent attention, constant stirring, and spot-on judgement for determining when the roux is ready. Burn the roux and you must toss it and start the flour-and-fat browning process again until it’s right.
Two ready-made roux mixes will result in a successful and flavorful gumbo. These include Zatarain’s New Orleans Style Gumbo Base and Tony Chachere’s Creole Gumbo Base Mix. If you have trouble finding either of these mixes at your local market, both are available at Amazon.com. I used the Zatarain’s mix for this post. Even with a prepared gumbo base, stirring is still significant. So much so that I’ve demonstrated the importance of dissolving all lumps that show up when water is added to the gumbo-base mix.
A Word about Aromatics
You’ve heard of the holy trinity of creole and cajun cooking: onions, green peppers, and celery? Well, when making your festive gumbo, feel free to upgrade to shallots, include red and green peppers, and experiment with chinese celery or the red stalks of bok choy. Of course, if you want to stick to the traditional aromatics (as I did for this post), your gumbo can still be a festive brew that is thickset with your favorite seafood, meats, or greens.
|The “Holy Trinity” of Onions, Green Peppers, and Celery|
1 box of Zatarain’s New Orleans Style Gumbo Base
3 cups of water (as indicated on the Zatarain’s box)
2 tablespoons of canola oil (as indicated on the Zatarain’s box)
1/2 cup diced onions
1/4 cup diced green peppers
1/4 cup diced celery
1 28-ounce can of whole Italian tomatoes (those from the San Marzano region are best)
1/2 cup sliced, frozen okra
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
8 ounces of blue-crab, back fin crab meat from the U.S. (the sustainable choice)
1 pound of fully cooked, wild-caught Canadian or Alaskan snow crab claws, thawed (the sustainable choice)
1/2 teaspoon of Gumbo File
Salt and cracked white pepper to taste
Chopped green onion tops for garnishing
- Follow the box directions for the Zatarain’s Gumbo Base. Once you add the water, stir vigorously for 3-5 minutes with a wisk to eliminate lumps from the gumbo base.
- Add raw onions, green peppers, and celery. Continue to stir until even the smallest lumps disappear.
- Add the tomatoes, including the juice.
- With a potato masher or fork, smash the tomatoes a bit to help them break down during cooking.
- Add the okra and stir to distribute vegetables.
- Let the mixture simmer for 30-40 minutes, checking and stirring every five minutes to prevent ingredients from sticking to the pot.
- Stir in the thyme, red pepper flakes (add a bit more if you like a spicy flavors).
- Add back-fin crab meat and the crab claws and simmer an additional 10 minutes.
- Add Gumbo file and cracked pepper to taste. Gumbo should be thicker by now.
- Garnish with chopped green onion tops.
- Serve in deep bowls over steamed rice.