Normally I steer clear of our local southend Safeway (the mouse droppings on the shelves of the Asian aisle are kind of a deal-killer), but this weekend I knew I needed ingredients that I wouldn't find at just any Seattle market. Filé powder, for instance, and okra. Well, it turned out the seafood department was having a sale on Dungeness crab—$4/lb, which is half-price. Just about everyone in that cavernous place was there for the same reason as me: the weather's finally turned cold in the PNW and it's time to make gumbo.
While I didn't need crab—I've still got a few bags left in the freezer from my summer dives—I had to have fresh gulf shrimp, not the frozen spot prawns I've saved from the spring shrimping season. There were a half-dozen of us in line at the seafood counter and after a little chit-chat it was pretty clear we all had similar designs. It was also clear that I was the only born-Yankee in the bunch. One lady was originally from Baton Rouge, and the couple behind me called Shreveport home. There were some strong opinions about our endeavor. Even the guy behind the counter doling out the crabs and shrimp had something to say on the subject. A woman who was buying enough seafood and sausage to feed a congregation looked at me skeptically.
"You know how to make a roux, honey?"
"Sure," I said, trying to exude confidence in this crowd of gumbo connoisseurs. "Fat and flour, equal parts. It's all in the stirring."
She shook her head. "Love, baby. You've got to make it with love. It's a soul food thing."
Next stop was the sausage cooler. I had my heart set on Andouille. A woman dressed to the nines looked at my basket and guided me in another direction. Hot links, she advised. The couple from Shreveport ambled past and I hailed them over. They'd been talking about a secret ingredient in their stock. "What about these smoked ham hocks?" I asked, holding up a package of hocks. Someone else sidled up. He wanted to know if I was making a seafood gumbo or not. I said I was. "Put those hocks back," he nearly barked at me. "They're no good for a seafood stock." A lively argument ensued between the Shreveporters and this "born and raised in Orleans Parish" partisan about how to make the best stock. I made a mental note to try the hocks next time for a meat gumbo.
And there will be a next time. To be honest, this was my first gumbo and I wasn't exactly sure what I was making. I got inspired by a recipe in the current Food & Wine by chef Donald Link of Herbsaint in New Orleans (in a feature about a bunch of great party meals) and made a few changes for this West Coast forager's version. There are also plenty of resources on the Web, like this site and this one. Everyone up and down the Mississippi has their own family recipe. But the bottom line is this: You can make gumbo just about any way you want, provided you use okra and a roux. There's even disagreement about the traditional use of filé, which some say is a strictly winter ingredient when fresh okra isn't available. If there's one ingredient everyone agrees on it's this: love. Lots of it.
Dungeness Crab and Gulf Shrimp Gumbo
1-2 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 onion, diced
1 rib celery, diced
1 small carrot, diced
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 lb shrimp, shelled (reserve the meat for later)
1 large or 2 small Dungeness crabs, cooked and cleaned (but not peeled)
2 quarts chicken stock
3 bay leaves
Saute the shrimp shells in oil until red and starting to brown. Stir in tomato paste and cook one minute. Add diced vegetables and saute another minute or two, stirring, before adding stock. (At this point you might want to substitute some clam juice for part of the chicken stock; I didn't have any on hand and wasn't about to pay $2.69 for an 8 oz. bottle when I get the clams and their juice for free.) Toss in the bay leaves and bring to a boil, then reduce heat. While the stock is simmering, peel your crab, adding shells as you go. This will help to flavor your stock if you opt out of the clam juice. Save the claws and a couple sections of unpeeled leg for later. I tear off the impossible-to-peel "pinkies" and throw them in whole. Simmer the stock for an hour or two, then strain and set aside (see photo at left; photo above shows the ingredients strained out of the stock).
Heat 1/2 cup of oil over moderate heat and slowly whisk in a 2/3 cup of flour. Stir regularly for 30 min. The roux should turn yellowish, then a golden brown. You may need to raise heat to get the final deep brown. Scrape into a dish for later.
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, diced
2 ribs celery, diced
1 can crushed tomatoes
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 lb okra, sliced into 1/2-inch rounds
1 heaping tsp chili powder
1 heaping tsp paprika
1 heaping tsp dried oregano
1 heaping tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp white pepper
1 tbsp filé powder
hot links or other sausage
Saute onion, celery, and garlic in heavy pot until soft. Add the roux and cook over moderate heat until bubbling. Slowly stir in the stock and tomatoes. Reduce heat to low and simmer for an hour or two. In a skillet, saute the green pepper and okra in butter or oil and add spices. Deglaze with a splash of water or stock. Add to gumbo pot. At this point I also add the reserved crab claws and sliced hot links, then let simmer another hour. Just before serving add the shrimp and crab meat. Cook a couple minutes and ladle over rice with a sprinkling of chopped scallions. Serves 8.