Sunday, August 20, 2006

Burnin’ Down the House – Weekend Herb Blogging

If you live, or have lived, in the deep South of the US, you’ve had okra. It’s that simple.

It goes into all sorts of stews, such as gumbo, jambalya, things like that. It gets breaded and deep fried, just like those fried green tomatoes we made last week. It gets stewed, alone, with tomatoes, with potatoes, all sorts of things. It get stir fried.

It is indigenous to Africa, and came to the deep South along with the slave trade. It has now become a substantial part of the culture there.

To my surprise, it is also big in Asian cooking, as well as Indian. To me, this vegetable is so tied in to New Orleans that I never gave much thought to other cuisines.

Here are a few links with some more detailed info:

But, you won’t find fresh okra for sale very often in the typical large chain markets, only frozen (which works fine, by the way). Rather, we find it by the ton in the Asian food markets. And at the Asian stands at the Farmer’s Market. I am quite sure most people are using it in stewy sorts of Asian dishes as a thickener. Just as it is used in New Orleans cooking.

I’ve never made gumbo without okra. To me, it wouldn’t be gumbo. The okra imparts a thick, somewhat slimy gelatinous texture to the stew that is part of the essence of gumbo. When you cut the fresh okra into slices, you can see the sticky juice as you carefully pull the pieces apart. That is the stuff that, together with a good roux, turns a watery vegetable stew into thick, rich gumbo.

So, when we began seeing fresh okra in the markets recently, we bought a pile. Probably three pounds of it or so. And got set to make some gumbo. For this edition of , sponsored this week by Anthony of .

In preparation for the gumbo, I had been noticing that my cayenne pepper had lost its punch. The color had changed over time, and there was almost no pungency left. So we got some new cayenne pepper. Fresh. Pungent. HOT!

Now, I did significantly reduce the amount of cayenne pepper I put in this gumbo, keeping in mind the fact that it was new. And had a lot more fire power. With the idea that I could add more later if necessary. But more on that later.

The gumbo always starts with the same procedure. Making the roux. Flour and oil, cooked together until deep and rich in color and flavor. I make a dark roux. Chocolate dark – not milk chocolate either. You’re always flirting with the fine line between dark and burned with roux. I start fast, then slow it down as the roux color deepens. Ending with the heat off and the roux finishing in the hot pan until just the right color. One note – the darker your roux, the less thickening power it will have. You need significantly more of a dark roux to thicken a given amount of stew than a very light roux.

Aside from thickening, the roux also helps give the gumbo that essential deep color. You don’t want a pale, limpid gumbo. You need a deep, dark color. And that is achieved with a dark roux and some seasonings.

Next, I fry the meats. This time chicken and sausage.

Then the veggies go in, using the fat from the meats. Always onion, celery and green bell pepper. It’s the mire poix of the south. With some garlic. Then the okra, meats, broth and the roux – ½ a cup or more, depends on your preference.

Finally it’s the spices. As mentioned, quantities reduced to reflect the new cayenne pepper.

While we were letting the gumbo come to a boil, we tasted the difference between the old cayenne pepper and the new. The old tasted like dust. No fire at all. The new on the other hand – my mouth burned for quite a while.

After that fire had died down a bit, and the gumbo had come to a boil and was simmering, I tasted the gumbo.

You just cannot compare fresh spices with old things left too long in the cupboard. This gumbo was on fire! A fire that started in your nose, went down your mouth all the way to the bottom of your gut. Not too hot for me – but maybe over the line for others. In any event, no Tabasco sauce was going to be needed with this one!

In the end, everyone agreed that after a few bites, the heat was bearable. I though it was awesome. One of the best I’d made, but then my internal organs had already been desensitized by several years of living in New Orleans.

Burnin’ Down the House Gumbo
Recipe by surfindaave
Serves 8

1 cup canola oil
1 cup flour
4-5 pounds chicken thighs, skin removed
3 pounds spicy chicken sausage (raw), cut into pieces
1 onion, chopped
3-4 stalks celery (I like celery!), chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
3 pounds okra, cut into ½ inch slices
2-3 red peppers, cut into pieces
8 cups chicken broth
1 tbsp (fresh) cayenne pepper, or to taste
1 tbsp cumin
2 tbsp dried oregano
2 tbsp paprika
1-2 tbsp salt
(note – some add onion powder and garlic powder as well)
1 tbsp black pepper
several sprigs fresh thyme
3 bay leaves
1 cup chopped parsley
6 green onions, sliced thin, for garnish
Boiled white rice
Hot sauce, such as Tabasco, if desired
Fresh French bread

Make the roux: Heat the oil and flour over high heat, stirring, until it boils. Turn down the heat a bit, and cook, stirring frequently. As the color deepens, turn down the heat more and more, until the roux has almost reached the desired color (think chocolate). Turn the heat off completely, and continue to stir occasionally. Remove to a heat proof bowl and reserve. Save any left over roux in the fridge for the next time.

In a large, heavy pot, fry the Chichen in batches in a little oil until browned on both sides. Remove to a plate as done. In the same pot, fry the sausage pieces until browned. Remove to a plate and reserve.

Drain all but 2 tbsp of oil from the pot. Sautee the onion, celery and green pepper in the oil over medium heat until softened. Add the garlic, and sautee for 1 minute. Add the okra, red peppers, chicken, sausage, chicken broth and all the herbs and spices except the parsley and green onions. Bring the gumbo to a gentle boil, stirring, and reduce heat to a low simmer. Add about 1/3 to 2/3 cup of the roux, depending on taste and darkness. Simmer the gumbo, stirring occasionally, for at least 1 hour or longer. It should be thicken and dark colored. Taste the gumbo and season as needed. Just before serving, stir in the parsley.

Scoop some white rice into shallow serving bowls. Ladle the gumbo around the rice. Place some chicken and sausage pieces around the rice. Sprinkle with the slices green onions, if desired. Serve with additional hot sauce, such as Tabasco, and slices of French bread (for the broth!). Enjoy!

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Anonymous coffeepot said...

I love Okra!

That looks so good.

12:48 PM  
Blogger Kalyn said...

Looks wonderful. I've made gumbo a few times, but after reading your post I can tell I'm a total amateur. I learned a lot. Thanks.

5:25 PM  
Blogger surfindaave said...


Okra is fun to cook with because you can use it so many ways.

Glad I could offer some gumbo tips! It's one of my favorite things to make!

6:37 PM  

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