For the Love of Gumbo and an Ode to Roux

pot of gumbo

Oddly enough, I’m finding myself in the exact same place that I was in March of 2021 regarding a topic for this column. So, with a bit of a cheat, I’m copying the intro from that column and let’s see what random thoughts follow. It will be a surprise for all of us, isn’t that nice?

“Normally when my turn rolls around for this column, I have an idea for a topic well ahead of time. I only have to write every third month, so really, how hard could it be, right? In fact, often I’ll wake up on any given morning and the entire essay pops right into my head fully formed. I enjoy sharing my adventures in farming and there’s almost always something funny that I can stretch into enough words to fill some space. Rarely (ok, never) am I at a loss for words. So, you can imagine my surprise at finding myself sitting here on Deadline Day and I’ve got nothin’. Nada. Bupkis. Not. One. Thing.

collage of gumbo and spicesGiven that, and the hope that imitation truly is the grandest form of flattery, I will borrow an idea from my favorite blogger, Stephanie Pearl-McPhee (aka The Yarn Harlot).  Periodically she’ll publish a blog post entitled, “Random Thoughts on a Tuesday,” which is aptly named as it’s both published on a Tuesday and is literally a list of random thoughts with no overarching theme whatsoever. I always thought it was quite clever on her part to write such a list of entertaining or thoughtful little items. Now I’m realizing it’s actually just quite clever on her part to come up with a way of knocking out a column when you really have nothing to go with. So here we go.”

*If we’re friends on Facebook you’ll have noticed I’ve been on a bit of a cooking binge for the last year or so. I’ve always cooked – after all, Jim and I both really like to eat and, while Jim has many gifts, the kitchen isn’t one of them – but out of nowhere I started thinking about the actual plating and presentation and began taking artsy photos. The result has been people are thinking I’m brilliant in the kitchen when the reality is I’m mostly following a great recipe, which I share. I make some mods here and there, but rarely do I create from totally in my head. (I think we all know there’s already a Carnivale going on in there, so not a lot of room for making up recipes.)

*My cousin Laurie and I had a conversation about “fixing” dinner vs “cooking” dinner which made sense to me. Fixing dinner is opening cans, heating something up, throwing together prepared foods, etc. I certainly do that on a busy day – pizza once a week is a fine thing in my book – but for the most part I do actually cook. Our neighbors and good friends Jody and Steve also love to cook and eat, so we’ve had some grand feasts together. In addition to our first annual Festival of Meat (brisket, burnt ends, deep fried ribs, and some token vegetables), they’ve got a history with the Gulf Coast, so we had a wicked good Mardi Gras this year involving costumes, beads, music, gumbo, greens, homemade bread, King Cake, oh my.

*Speaking of Mardi Gras, I have always loved gumbo and other Louisiana treats since my mom and stepdad went to New Orleans for their honeymoon in 1976 and she came home and started cooking. I still have the first Creole/Cajun cookbook that she gave me – the pages now stained and the cover is pretty ratty, but it’s a prized possession. I’ve always thought I made a decent gumbo, and then I met my friend and colleague Ginger. Ginger is from southern Louisiana and the woman knows gumbo. She brought a batch of sausage and chicken gumbo to our office team meeting and I actually swooned and whimpered a little. Best. Gumbo. Ever.

*Since I then started dreaming of that gumbo, I asked and Ginger generously shared her recipes – she uses a couple as her guidelines – and told me the magic words are lard, bone broth and REALLY good sausage. So, about a month before Mardi Gras I took myself down to Tony’s Meat Market, bought some really good sausage, and started cooking. It was good – better than any version I’d made before – but I discovered that really good sausage in Colorado is not the same as REALLY good sausage from southern Louisiana. In preparation for Mardi Gras, I called her meat market in Louisiana. Shipping was beyond ridiculous (as they ship overnight with dry ice), so to make it worth it I ordered 5 pounds of smoked sausage and 5 pounds of andouille. Go big or go home, right? Yes, it made that big of a difference and was right up there with Ginger’s Best. Gumbo. Ever.

ingredients for gumbo*I’ve learned more about roux in the last year than I have my entire life. If you like Creole or Cajun food, you’re familiar with the phrase, “first you make a roux….” I’ve always thought I made a nice roux, get it to a peanut butter color and toss in that trinity of veg: onions, green pepper and celery, and off you go. Well, lemme tell ya, I was wrong. It started with my friend Joette giving me the cook book, “My New Orleans” by John Besh. His two pages on making a roux are worth the price of admission alone. Forget peanut butter, it’s going for milk chocolate. THEN, add only the onions and now stir that baby til it’s dark chocolate before adding the peppers and celery. It should look like dark chocolate turtle candy with all gooey and caramelly onions instead of nuts. This winds up being about an hour of stirring altogether and I’m now calling it my upper body exercise program. Follow up those tips with Ginger’s recommendations of lard for the roux and bone broth for the gumbo and there’s a depth of flavor that can’t be described. One taste and I start talking like the late, great Justin Wilson.

Having written this far, it would seem I had a theme after all. And I also seem to be ruined for any restaurant gumbo (had some today, just wasn’t the same). And when I mentioned to a friend that the sausage had come from Thibodaux, Louisiana, it turns out her daughter is in college there. Coincidence? I think not. And on her next visit to see her daughter I’ll be sticking a cooler and ice packs in the back seat to bring back another pound or 10 of sausage from Bourgeois Meat Market. Laissez les bon temps rouler!

For the Love of Gumbo and an Ode to Roux
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