Composed and styled by Henry Summers, photographed on 4X5 optical film by Jim Lord
Big Fun on the Bayou
Chef Henry M. Summers
Goodbye Joe, me gotta go, me oh my oh
Me gotta go pole the pirogue down the bayou
My Yvonne, the sweetest one, me oh my oh
Son of a gun, we'll have good fun on the bayou
Jambalaya, a-crawfish pie and a filé gumbo
'Cause tonight I'm a gonn see my ma cher amio
Pick guitar, fill fruit jar and be gay-oh
Son of a gun, we'll have big fun on the bayou!
–Hank Williams, "Jambalaya (on the Bayou)"
In fifteen thousand years of human habitation, the North American continent has produced but one internationally important style of cooking. It was, however, one worth waiting for–a finger-licking flowering of a unique confluence of cultures, classes, and races that occurred in and around present-day Louisiana, where the wide Mississippi delta empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
The influence of the Spanish, who arrived there in the early sixteenth century, is reflected in jambalaya's unmistakable resemblance to its Iberian elder cousin, paella. Proud old French names–Antoine, Arnoud, Broussard, Galatoire, and many others–hang like bougainvillea from the marquees of New Orleans' and Baton Rouge's most venerable eating establishments.
The crawfish pie that Hank Wliiams celebrates in his song would be recognized by any Parisian goumand as a New World take on chaussons aux écrevisse. Filé, on the other hand–the dried and powdered sassafras leaves used both as a thickening and flavoring agent–is as distinctive to the region as the Choctaw natives who introduced it to the first Cajun settlers in the seventeenth century.
But no dish is as emblematic of Créole and Cajun cooking as gumbo. Peering into its swarthy depths, you can catch glimpses of many cultures, living and dead. But like its name itself, its leitmotif is essentially African.
The word "gumbo," sometimes styled as "gombo" or "n'gumbo," comes down to us from the Bantu family of languages, and means "okra." So by definition, any recipe that omits okra can't be called gumbo. Onion, bell pepper and celery, often called the trinity of Créole and Cajun cooking, are likewise indispensable.
The author's okra in mid-August showing the different stages of development. Note the beautiful flower.
Aside from the above prerequisites, an amazing assortment of comestibles can and do wind up in the gumbo pot. The bayous provide alligator, cooter, duck, possum, rabbit, racoon, snapping turtle, and squirrel. Cajun-style andouille (an-doo-wee), a smoked pork sausage not dissimilar to Polish kielbasa, and tasso (rhymes with "lasso"), a more heavily smoked pork jerky, are often tossd in for flavor.
But if you 'gator boat is temporarily in dry dock, you will be happy to know that you can hunt down all the ingredients to make a more than passable gumbo in your neighborhood Piggly Wiggly. Many traditional gumbos are made without red meat, depending instead on fish, both saltwater and fresh, and shellfish. Some recipes use neither meat nor fish, giving pride of place to vegetables with pronounced southern accents, such as collards, kale, and mustard greens. Beans and root vegetables, too, often find their way into the pot.
Much of gumbo's savor comes from roux, the thickening agent made by cooking flour with butter, lard, bacon- fat or oil until it becaomes a smooth paste. In the French kitchen, you will find white, blonde and brown roux (roux blanc, roux blond, and roux brun), each becoming darker in color and richer in flavor according to how long it is cooked.
In Louisiana, however, roux is almost always cooked to a deeper shade of brown than would ever be found in France. The gravitas that this adds to a gumbo is undeniable.
The Bigger Easy
Unfortunately, so are the extra calories. The longer a roux is cooked, the less thickening power it possesses. By the time it has been cooked to the burnt-umber shade preferred in Louisiana, it takes two or three times as much to achieve the same degree of thickening as a white or blonde roux.
Since all roux is made from equal weights of flour and fat, those calories can pile on faster than a Razorbacks defensive line on a Longhorns quarterback. So if you aren't poling your pirogue down the bayou to see your chere ami-o at least three times a week for thirty-five to forty-five minutes, this may be something you need to think about.
But happily, there is a heart-healthy workaound, and nobody need be the wiser. Roux's thickening power comes from the starch in the flour. Its flavor comes from the browning of the starch. Arrange a quantity of flour in a heavy-bottomed roasting pan, and place in a 350-degree oven. Stir every fifteen minutes until it is well browned. When cooled, transfer to one of Hank William's "fruit jars"–a canning jar, so de rigueur for imbibing distilled beverages, taxed and untaxed, on the bayou. It will keep a long time, so make plenty for future use.
When you are ready, bring the liquid you want to thicken to a simmer. Put some browned flour in a jar, adding three times as much cold water as flour. Screw on the lid, and shake vigorously until the flour has dissolved. Pour in a thin, steady stream into the simmering liquid, stirring gently, until the desired thickness has been achieved.
When making Cajun-style roux, my favorite oil is peanut. Most nationally distributed brands are highly refined (is refinement implied by Mr. Peanut's top hat and monocle?), and their manufacturers proudly proclaim their products' absence of taste and aroma. But when I'm ingesting 110-calories per tablesoon (the caloric vaue of all fats and oils), I expect to taste every one of them.
A brief Internet search will turn up any number of superior peanut oils. Peanut oil of this type is often available from well provisioned Chinese groceries. The most flavorful and aromatic of these are pressed from peanuts that have first been roasted. Your roux will be fabulous, as will your salads, sautées, and baked goods. And once you have popped corn in it, you will not want to use anything else. (Unlike refined peanut oils, these are made without the addition of anti-foaming agents, so they are less than ideal for deep frying. And anyone with a peanut allergy would be sensible to give them wide berth.)
Peanuts are one of the south's most important cash crops. Roughly a third of our domestic production comes from Georgia. After China and India, the United States leads the world in peanut production. It is little wonder, then, that like the French, our southern cooks have long appreciated the fine qualities of peanut oil.
A successful peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia. Clay, acrylic paint and teeth, by the author.
The following recipe is most unusual in that it uses peanut butter–not the kiddy kind, but the unsweetened variety with the oil on top–in place of roux. In sub-Saharan Africa, where gumbo's roots run deep, ground peanuts have been used to thicken stews of meat, fish, and vegetables for centuries. An additional benefit is that the elimination of wheat flour makes gumbo accessible to those who are sensitive to gluten, as well as to diabetics who are following a low-glycemic diet to control blood sugar and body weight.
It might be amusing to invite your family or guests to guess the secret ingredient. But if they are anything like mine, they will be far too busy mopping up every last molecule of the mysterious sauce to care.
Chef Henry's Peanut Butter Gumbo
1 cup unsweetened peanut butter, oil poured off the top and reserved
1 quart water
1 cup dry white table wine
2 cups okra, sliced, fresh preferred but frozen acceptable
2 stalks celery, thinly sliced
1 large green bell pepper, diced
1 large onion, red, white or yellow, diced
3–6 cloves garlic, sliced or minced
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 pound raw shrimp, shelled and deveined
1 pound catfish fillets, cut in 2" pieces
kosher salt to taste
Tabasco or other bottled hot sauce to pass at table
Filé powder to pass at table (optional)
Boiled rice, Uncle Ben's preferred
Pour the reserved oil into a heavy five- or six-quart saucepan, making up for any shortfall with the oil of your choice. Add the okra, celery, bell pepper, onion, garlic, bay leaf, thyme, oregano and black pepper, and stir.
When the vegetables have begun to take on color, add the peanut butter, water, wine, tomato paste and Worcestershire, stirring until you have a smooth sauce. Simmer twenty minutes. Taste and add salt as desired. Add the catfish and shrimp, simmering only long enough for them to turn opaque. Serve in bowls over fluffy rice. Pass the hot sauce.
The notion that Créoles and Cajuns load up their gumbo with hot pepper is just another damnable Yankee lie. When they cook with it at all, they do so with discretion, and offer bottled hot sauce at the table.
Filé powder can be purchased in some specialty stores and on line. While not essential to a gumbo, its acquisition is well worth the trouble. If you have a sassafras bush, just hang a leafy branch in a dark, well ventilated place. When the leaves are dry, crumble them, and reduce them to a powder in a blender or coffee grinder. If necessary, pass through a fine strainer. In a tightly closed jar, this will last a long time.
Filé powder is passed at table, and added to each bowl at the individual's discretion. Once filé has been added, gumbo must never be allowed to boil again, or it will become stringy. A half-teaspoon stirred into a big ol' bowl of gumbo should be just about right.
Coming soon, jambalya . . .
Chef Henry's octopus jambalaya (vegan)