Years ago, before i had any inkling that it would be interesting to visit a place called New Orleans, i picked up a cookbook at a sale of "withdrawn" library books, called "The Original Picayune Creole Cook Book." I'm not sure why THAT, of all the cookbooks offered, called my name, but i'm sure glad i snagged it. As a reenactor and a tradition-inspired cook, it has come to be one of my favorite vintage recipe books.
It's a window on an important culino-cultural event ... if that's a viable expression. Everyone KNOWS that French cuisine is one of the world's greatest, and in La Nouvelle Orleans time-tested traditions met a previously-unrealized array of novel ingredients to create a new world of great food. This book speaks of the heritage of the city which i consider the best restaurant town i've ever gotten to know.
The arrangement of chapters is interesting: just beyond the Introduction and "Suggestions to Housekeepers" is "Creole Coffee" -- over two small-type pages of description and instruction for that most important support of life and civilization. Just how to make café noir, and to augment it to make café au lait.... From this MOST basic "necessity," the book continues to another primary foodstuff, upon which it would be easy to subsist -- Soup. But not just one chapter on soup -- chapters two through seven progress from "Soups" through "Meat Soups," "Fish Soups," "Lenten Soups," and "The Bouilli" to "Creole Gumbo." (Then it moves on to Fish, etc.)
Oddly enough the book doesn't define "gumbo" and the casual reader will puzzle over why the variations aren't simply incorporated into one of the other categories of soup. It doesn't seem to be defined by any particular ingredient or combination of them; it doesn't always contain okra, or filé (powdered dried sassafras leaves), or seafood, poultry or sausages, but can contain a wide variety. Nor is it always thickened with roux or other grain derivatives, though it generally seems to be. The origin of the name is even in doubt -- some think it's from the Bantu word for okra (ki ngombo), and others from the Choctaw word for filé (kombo). Whatever the case, Gumbo has become an institution.
So with this book as a reference, you will probably think it extremely perverse of me to base my favorite gumbo on an old vegetarian version i picked up many years ago -- but i just like the flavor! I use stock as a base which i stash in the freezer after crockpotting beef or pork roasts or chickens, or after boiling bones. I put in whatever meats i have hanging around the refrigerator or freezer, depending on my whim. I feel that some vegetables are a sine qua non (like onions, tomatoes, celery and okra), and others are a desirable elective (squash and bell peppers). Unless you're skilled at concocting creole/cajun dishes, i strongly recommend the "spicy" version of Tony Chachere's Creole seasoning -- it has less salt in it, so you use less of it and then salt the gumbo to taste. Then of course the bottle of Tabasco or Crystal hot sauce goes on the table, for those who think my recipe isn't hot enough. :-) In the creole cookbook, it's recommended to put rice on the table SEPARATELY, then add a couple of spoonsful to each serving -- the convention of serving gumbo atop a big pile of the stuff probably originated in restaurants ... or poor families. Naturally, when i make this recipe for myself, i don't cook rice for it at all.
GUMBO A LA LOUISE
2 c. chopped onions -- the "hot" kind, not those damned sweet things!
2 T. butter or drippings
6 cloves garlic, or to taste
1/2 c. sliced carrots
1 c. sliced celery
2 c. stock
large can crushed or diced tomatoes with juice
2-4 c. sliced okra -- i often use frozen ones
2 medium diced bell peppers -- i like to use yellow, or one green and one orange
1 c. diced zucchini or yellow squash
1 T. cajun spice (i like Tony Chachere's spicy version -- contains less salt
1 t. paprika
1 lb. peeled, raw (imparts more flavor!) shrimp/prawns
a couple of raw diced chicken breasts, or sliced andouille or chorizo sausage, or diced ham or ... whatever floats your pirogue ;-)
Sauté onions in the fat, stir in the garlic, carrots and celery and cook a little longer. Add the other veggies, seasoning, stock, and sausage or chicken (or both). Simmer slowly till the carrots and okra are almost "done" then add the shrimp, and cook another five minutes. This is one of those concoctions which only get better as time goes by, even if your vegetables kinda disintegrate with subsequent warm-ups....
A NOTE ON FILÉ POWDER: Filé should NEVER be heated in the pot!!! This turns it stringy, and when people say they don't like gumbo, it's frequently because they've had badly-handled filé. The Picayune cookbook recommends adding it right before transferring the gumbo to the tureen, and i've seen elsewhere that the best way is to stir it into the individual bowl. As for myself, i rarely use it at all -- but i have some in case a guest does want it! :-)