After saying it so many times over the past few weeks, I’m so smitten with the word “roux” that it’s what I’d name my next cat. Though, “gumbo” is a top contender, too.
Paul had been suggesting we make the storied soup for a while before our trip to the Deep South, which was to include a stop in New Orleans, where I imagined on every block we’d come across screen doors propped open to welcoming kitchens, enormous stock pots full of gumbo simmering: “We’ve got plenty, why don’t ya’ll come in?” So I said no, that we should wait to eat all the gumbo we could handle once we got to Louisiana.
Of course I didn’t really believe that would happen, but I could hope. And, at the very least, I knew we could eat at restaurants that served it.
And that we did — practically as soon as we arrived, in fact. Our incredible hosts, Rob and Ellen, after having introduced us to Russel, brought us to Liuzza’s by the Track for po’ boys and gumbo. If I could eat there for lunch every day, a cold glass of Abita Amber on the side, I could possibly make it through the endless hot and humid New Orleans summer. But for a single, warm, March afternoon, it also did the trick. The gumbo had chicken, sausage, and shrimp, which seems like the ideal combination (unless it has more seafood, which I’d always take — but please, even then, don’t scrimp on the sausage). It was the color of a fiery coal, thick enough to coat a spoon but still clearly a soup, with a bit of rice stirred in, rather than a mound that the gumbo had been ladled on top of. I loved that we all plucked whole bay leaves from our bowls, licking them clean and placing them to the side — some may think they’re bullshit, but I believe in bay leaves.
We could have stopped with the gumbo right there and then, I suppose, but we were in New Orleans for another day, so we went searching for more. The next night, Paul and I had dinner at Mandina’s, which has great neon and, the night we were there, both gumbo and crawfish étouffée. While the former is, usually, soupier and the latter more of a stew, as Paul succinctly put it, “both dishes are essentially seafood-laden brown glop served with rice.” Tasty glop, but yes, glop. In contrast to Liuzza’s version, Mandina’s was a thicker soup with lots of rice, as well as more discernible okra slices. No sausage, though.
Back in Brooklyn, facing an impending blizzard and not yet sick of gumbo, Paul dug out a recipe he’d made many years ago, which, as someone quoted in the article about the recipe says, is the “the realest thing you ever tasted.” It had better be: A roast duck, a roast chicken, pheasant sausage, and on and on. It’s a big undertaking, which Paul detailed well here. But, as he mentioned, I was doing a bit more of the gumbo management, which aside from deciding to basically quadruple the amount of holy trinity vegetables, involved reading a lot of articles and recipes before getting starting, particularly to attempt to untangle the mysteries of roux.
When it comes to the long, fascinating history of gumbo, only one things is clear: There are so many different tales and traditions, that just about anything you do with yours is okay. Roux is included in that, so far as I can tell, and as such, there are a lot of ways it can be tackled.
The recipe from 1998 specifies to cook the flour in duck fat (rendered from your whole roast duck, naturally) in a pot on the stovetop, stirring constantly until it’s just at the edge of burning. “You can bake a roux and even microwave it,” the article states, “but he chooses the traditional, labor-intensive way.”
The mention of a baked roux reminded me of an episode of of Cook’s Country, one of the television shows from the Cook’s Illustrated people, during which they blew my mind by baking a roux for gumbo. (They further turned my mind to mush by adding fish sauce, which another great gumbo essay — which beautifully illustrates how varied and personal the dish is — recommends, but since we were making our own shrimp stock, which turned out sufficiently funky, I skipped that.) Paul was also curious about this method, so we gave it a shot, toasting the flour in a dry pot on the stovetop (shown above, untoasted left, toasted right), stirring in the fat, then covering and popping in the oven.
Maybe the oven temperature was off, maybe it just needed more time, but after about an hour, the roux was not the color of an “old copper penny,” as was the measure. Let’s be clear for a second: If there’s anything beautiful about brown glop, it’s the descriptors people use to measure the roux. Like the recipes, the scale varies, but generally goes: white, blonde, peanut butter, chocolate milk (a.k.a. old copper penny), dark chocolate. It sounds like different grades of velvet, or a barn full of horses that just want carrots and for you to pet them.
Still, I grumbled at our pot of peanut butter and finished it off in “the traditional, labor-intensive way.” As I did, I considered the other possible method and wondered: Why would you use a microwave to make a roux? As with most things, it can make the process a bit easier, and certainly quicker (though it can potentially be dangerous). But Paul didn’t have a microwave, anyway (neither do I — space and outlets are limited), so I stirred until we had a rich chocolate milk.
The surprising thing about a dark roux is that it’s not much of a thickener. As a roux gets farther along that color scale, the starch chains begin to break down, and as they get smaller, they do a worse job of thickening. A dark roux will still help some with thickening — it’s estimated a peanut-butter roux is about a quarter less effective at thickening than a white one — but it’s also added for the flavor, and that silky (okay, fatty) color.
To thicken a gumbo, folks may use a roux, or delightfully slimy okra, or filé powder, the dried, ground leaves of the sassafras tree (which also adds a nice dirty flavor). Or they might use a combination of a couple of those, or all three. As in the recipe we started out with, we went with all three. Thoughts vary on when to add the okra and the filé — some recommend adding the okra early in the process (as we did, which meant the vibrant little wagon wheels broke down and vanished in the simmering), while others say you should add it near the end; some add the filé with the vegetables and other spices, while others add it just at the end, or even sprinkled on top of each bowl as it’s served (we stirred ours in when the shrimp went in).
After simmering for several hours in an enormous stock pot (we left the door open and invited a couple friends to come in and eat with us), the gumbo was thick but still soupy — who knows which of the three contributed most to its consistency, or if it was all of them combined. The final product, pictured at the very top of this post, was outstanding.
What approach to roux will I take in the future? If I’m ever around a microwave, I’m willing to give that a shot, and it can’t hurt to try the oven method again. Most likely, though, I’m going to go with the traditional, labor-intensive method. I’ll stand at the stove stirring, the toasty air drifting out the window, enticing friends to join me for dinner.