Anything I know about Cajun food – and specifically gumbo – I’ve learned through Mike & his family in Louisiana. Before they were in my life, I only knew about gumbo from the version my mom made. As a lady from North Dakota, I’m not sure what got in her head that made her think she knew how to take a stab at it but, bless her heart, she did. Many times. While she could make just about any other kind of soup on earth, this wasn’t one of them. This strange concoction of chicken and shrimp and sausage in a broth that, even before I knew better, didn’t seem right.
Three years ago, on my first trip to Louisiana with the boy to see his family, we ate at a place Mike couldn’t stop talking about – Herby K’s. The shrimp buster, he said. You have to try the shrimp buster – with an extra shrimp on it. So I did…and it was great. On the next visit, I thought I’d branch out and try the etouffé – also delicious. As it usually is, the third time was the charm and my menu exploration paid off. Alongside the obligatory cold beer in the frostiest goblet you’ve ever seen came a bowl of seafood gumbo. It was kinda inauspicious, honestly. Thick broth the color of rusty chocolate, seafood bits the same color from steeping in the sauce with a few crab claws peeking out and not a bit of green in sight.
I can’t really even remember what I said when I tried that first bite. Picking out the crab claws with my fingers and messily eating them without a care in the world. I remember ordering more french bread to sop up the liquid – something I still do every time I go there. The depth of flavor. The gumbo tasting like it had been made in the oldest, most seasoned cast iron on earth. A million stirs of a pot resonating in each spoonful. It was at that exact moment that I knew why mom’s gumbo was never quite right.
There was no roux.
The first time I tried to make seafood gumbo at home, I followed a John Besh recipe. In addition to not loving the inclusion of okra – which is a whole ‘nother post – I was dead set on getting a roux the color of the one I had experienced at Herby K’s. For a first timer, this is all but panic inducing. I called Mike’s mom (yes, really) and asked her in as calm as voice as I could…”is it SUPPOSED to be doing this!?” It was…and while it was good, it just didn’t compare. I’ve made seafood gumbo about a half dozen times since then springboarding off several different recipes that has now sort of just become a recipe of my own. Fresh ingredients and a good balance of the trinity are important but, as I realized that day at Herby K’s, it’s all about that beginnings of flour with a little fat.
I can’t express to you enough the importance of the roux. If there was ever a dish that was an analogy about life, it’s gumbo. The roux should be treated with a balance of careful tending to and I’m-gonna-see-how-far-this-can-go-before-it-burns. Constant stirring bordering on obsession. Hovering over it and thinking that you’re just not doing it right until, magically, it’s there and your hard work pays off in an instant. Use the oldest, heaviest pot you have. Leave lots of room for the seafood and the broth – despite my prattling on about the roux, they’re important, too. Oh yeah, have some crusty French bread on hand for licking the bowl – rice is nice but having both is better.
Seafood Gumbo – serves 6 to 8 people as an entree
– The first step – and the most important one – is the roux. You need a large, heavy bottomed stock pot or large cast iron pot for this task. You also need a good bit of patience. Taking the time to get the roux darkened is well worth it. Heat up the oil over medium heat for 3-4 minutes until it is good and shimmering. Add in the flour and start stirring with a wooden spoon. Keep stirring every minute or so to ensure the roux isn’t burning and is browning evenly. Don’t be fooled – this should take between 30-45 minutes. You’re looking for the roux to be smooth and be a dark milk chocolate color.
– Once the roux is to the desired color, add in the celery, onions and green bell peppers. Stir to combine and allow to cook for 5-6 minutes. Add in the garlic and saute for another 1-2 minutes. Pour in the beer, seafood stock and vegetable stock – stir to combine, as well. To the pot, add the thyme sprigs, bay leaves, cayenne pepper, red chili flakes, Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to medium low and allow it to simmer for 45 minutes to an hour – if you can, periodically skim off the foamy stuff that’s going to develop on the top.
– To finish the gumbo, add the crab claws, catfish, shrimp and oysters to the pot. Stir to get everyone swimming in the liquid and allow to cook for another 10 minutes. You want the seafood just cooked through but not tough. Remove the bay leaves & thyme stems if you see them. Taste the gumbo and season accordingly with salt, pepper and additional hot sauce if needed. To serve, spoon some white rice into a bowl, pour the gumbo on top and sprinkle with parsley or chopped green onions for garnish. Serve immediately.
Editor’s Note: The gumbo crowd is about as passionate as the chili and the BBQ crowds. This recipe is my attempt to approximate the gumbo at Herby K’s. Gumbo is like snowflakes – everyone has their own recipe and none of them are the same. I’m just sayin’.