I’ve just returned from the land of ‘The Big Easy’ — New Orleans — a southern city filled with jazz, southern comfort food, people from all walks of life and so much history it’ll make your head spin.
Three hundred years of history to be exact. New Orleans is celebrating its 300th birthday this year, also known as its tricentennial. In good southern fashion, you can be sure the city is going to have a grand celebration that’ll most likely last all year long.
Gumbo is a dish that dates back to the 18th century. It not only has a lot of history but can also have a lot of variations after three hundred years of cooking. Gumbo is a simple dish with a complex history. Influenced by the Native Americans, Africans, Caribbean, Spanish and French, its actual origin might be up for debate but the truth is it wouldn’t be gumbo without the influence of each cuisine.
Back in the 19th century if you found yourself dining inside the city of New Orleans you’d probably be enjoying a bowl of Creole gumbo. Creole gumbo has tomatoes in the dish, giving it a red color and was most know as “city food.” Cajun gumbo was mostly eaten outside of the city, becoming known as “country food,” and the gumbo was without the tomato, keeping the rich brown color from the dark toasted roux used as the base for gumbo.
There are many differences between the two, Cajun vs. Creole, but both also have lots of similarities and come from a French-influenced background. One thing both cuisines have in common is the use of thickeners for their gumbo. There are basically three choices: roux, okra or gumbo file powder. I’ll be honest, I always thought up until this trip that gumbo always had okra as a main ingredient. It turns out it is optional. If you have a roux based gumbo you don’t always see okra in the dish. Okra was just used as a thickener and not necessarily for flavor.
Gumbo file is the dried leaves of the sassafras plant. If mixed with water it turns into a gummy thickening agent, hence why it’s used in the gumbo dish. Typically not found on the shelves of our northern local grocery stores you can order online or if you’re looking to just get some of that gumbo file flavor you can substitute with dried powder thyme, just be sure to use another thickening agent.
Below you’ll find a recipe that I’ve adapted from many other recipes I was given while on my trip. It’s simple and easy to follow. Enjoy it southern style over a bowl of cheesy grits or atop some boiled rice.
Cajun Chicken Gumbo
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups diced onion
1 cup diced bell pepper
1 cup diced celery
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
1 tablespoon dried ground thyme
1/2 tablespoon paprika
1/2 tablespoon dried oregano
1/2 tablespoon dry mustard
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
3 cups chicken stock
4 cups roasted chicken, shredded or diced
1 cup sliced andouille sausage (optional)
2 bay leaves
Cooked rice or grits for serving
- Heat oil in a heavy bottom pan over medium heat. Add flour and stir constantly until a peanut butter colored roux has formed, about 20 minutes. The roux might become lighter in color before getting darker and may become thinner before getting thicker. Add onions and cook until softened, stirring occasionally. Add bell peppers, celery and dried spices, along with a pinch of salt. Sweat until the vegetables are soft then add the garlic, cook for 1 more minute. Stir in the chicken stock, pulled chicken, sausage and bay leaves. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer for 25 minutes. Add Worcestershire and season to taste. Serve over rice or grits.