Food Thickener: The Final Step in Making Gumbo

Struggling to make sense of the religious disconnect in the news, I tried to offset it with a food analogy that works – Gumbo. A stew that originated in the south, the Creole gumbo is a blend of several cultures (West African, French, and Native American) and culinary influences (Spanish and German). The success of all the variables coming together is in the final step, the addition of a thickening agent.

A food thickener or agent is usually added at the end of cooking to enrich the stock. There are several options to condense the cooking liquid: reducing the liquid to a concentrate in order to intensify its flavor (such as a wine reduction); bringing it to a velvety-smooth consistency by adding cream, whisked egg yolk or yogurt; or adding a starch, such as cornstarch, tapioca, arrowroot, or flour.

There are three ways to thicken gumbo, but the most commonly used method is to add roux. Roux, which is made with equal parts flour and butter and slowly cooked over low heat, is added to hot gumbo stock. The starch in the flour breaks down to become gelatinous, and gives heft to the stock without altering the flavor. Mastering the roux is key to making a good gumbo. The roux starts out as pale-cream in color, and is the base for béchamel or white sauce for soups. When the flour and butter continue to cook further it turns a warm toffee color. This darker roux is less of a thickener than its paler counterpart, but imparts a nutty flavor associated with gumbo.



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The other two methods of thickening gumbo stock are using filé (dried sassafras leaves) or simply letting okra and the vegetable trifecta of onions, bell pepper, and celery cook down. There are meat gumbos with Andouille sausage, chicken, and turkey or shellfish gumbos with shrimp and crab. Gumbo is both haute cuisine and an everyday meal. My interpretation (as I cannot call upon a family recipe) of the dish was made with essential gumbo ingredients that I had at hand.


Shrimp Gumbo

Flour – 4 tbsp

Unsalted butter – 4 tbsp

Shrimp – 1 ½ lb, with heads and shells

Vegetable oil – 3 tbsp

Onion – 1, diced

Garlic cloves – 3, minced

Okra – 10 pods, sliced lengthwise

Bell pepper – 1, diced

Celery – 3, diced

Tomato – 1, diced

Bay leaves – 2

Dried thyme, oregano, basil – ¼ tsp each

Cayenne pepper and paprika – ¼ tsp each

Salt and pepper – ½ tsp each

Green onions – 3, chopped (garnish)

Cooked Rice – as accompaniment


  • To make the roux: Heat a cast iron pan. Add the butter. When it melts, add a tablespoon of flour at a time, stirring and incorporating it into the butter. Keep stirring on simmer. As the roux cooks, it loses the floury taste. The color changes from white to cream to brown, and the aroma from sugar cookie to toffee. Once it has reached a deep brown, remove the roux from the heat. Keep aside.
  • Shell and de-vein the shrimp. Reserve the heads and shells. Make a shrimp stock by adding the heads and shells to 4 cups of water. Bring to a boil. Cook on low for about 20-25 minutes. Skim off the scum that rises to the surface. Keep aside.
  • Heat the oil in another pan.
  • Add the onion to the hot oil. Sauté until they are lightly browned.
  • Add the garlic and okra and sauté for a minute.
  • Add the bell pepper, celery, and tomato to the mixture. Cook on low for about 5 minutes, stirring so that the okra is crisp.
  • Add the herbs, salt, and pepper.
  • Add the hot stock and continue to cook for about five minutes. Add the roux a little at time, stirring continuously so it is incorporated into the stock.
  • Add the shrimp and cook for a minute on each side. Remove from heat as soon as the shrimp turn firm and pink in color.
  • Serve with cooked rice. Garnish with green onions.







Salt: Refined vs. Unrefined

When I made falooda, I also made mint chutney for pani puri, a customary pairing with falooda and a food cart staple. The tangy flavor in the mint chutney comes from an unusual source: black salt (kala namak). Black salt, mined from lakes in North India and from Himalayan salt mines, has a piquant flavor due to the presence of sulfur compounds. It is this pungency (sulfur has a rotten egg smell and savory taste) that gives many of the South Asian street snacks their inimitable salty and savory taste.


Salt crystals come in multiple shades (grey, pink, and yellow) and commandeer shelf space in grocery aisles even though dietary guidelines limit our daily intake to 2400mg (about one teaspoon of salt). However, salt is a necessity at a basic cellular level, perhaps explaining our craving!

Black salt, sea salt, rock salt, and even the expensive fleur de sel are unrefined salts. Their unique flavors come from natural impurities found in areas from where they are mined (briny from oceans and seas, earthy from marshes and ponds, or volcanic). Unrefined salt is used for pickling, curing, and seasoning.

Table salt is a refined salt, stripped of all natural impurities. Iodine, which is a needed nutrient, and anti-caking agents are added back to it. Refined salt is used to season food, but cannot be used for pickling (discolors the briny solution) or curing (iodine stains food).

Kosher salt is de rigueur choice in kitchens. The large kosher salt crystals can be shaped to make a food parcel.The baked salt pack seals in the moisture, which  makes for a tender chicken, fish, or new potatoes dish.

Chicken cooked in a Salt Crusted Pack

Kosher salt – 2 ½ cups

Egg whites – 2, beaten

Chicken – 2, skinless legs

Tomato paste – 2 tbsp

Pepper – 1 tsp

Parsley or cilantro – 1 bunch

Parchment paper

Oven temperature 425°F

  • Wash and pat dry the chicken.
  • Mix the salt and egg whites together, until you get a wet sand texture.
  • Mix together the tomato paste and pepper.
  • Place half the salt mixture on a sheet of parchment paper.
  • Cover one side of the chicken with the tomato paste mixture and herbs. Lay it down on the salt mixture.
  • Add the remaining paste on the side facing up.
  • Pack the remaining salt over the chicken, burying it completely in a salt mound.
  • Bake in the oven for 35-40 minutes, until the salt has hardened.
  • Remove from the oven. Carefully (I did this so I could use the crust for my second chicken leg) break the hardened salt crust. Brush away any salt that clings to the chicken.
  • The chicken should be moist and cooked.

When Life Gives You Lemons…

The moment I heard the weather predictions were for another dismal snow season, I immediately began thinking of ways to prolong summer. Lemon is a quintessential summer association. As A. (visiting this weekend) and I read through my mother’s lemon snow pudding recipe, we were both struck by how efficiently the one lemon in the recipe was used. Inspired by this economical use, I decided to craft a whole menu to highlight lemon’s unmistakably tart flavor.

Riffing off the refreshingly sweet-sour nimbu pani (lemonade) of my youth, I made the digestif Limoncello. Inspired by my travel to Sorrento’s lemon groves, where the large, bright-yellow lemons are used in making this distinctive liqueur, I bought 12 fresh lemons. Scraping the zest was tedious, but I knew to be patient – the rind-soaked spirit would be ready in five weeks. The digestif would be a delicious reminder of summer warmth, and would see me through any harsh winter.

Since I was now left with 12 rind-less lemons, I decided to use the fruit to stuff a whole chicken that I planned to roast. The roasted chicken had only a mild hint of lemon, but the acidity from the juice helped to tenderize the chicken and make it moist. However, the same lemon added to the fresh stock, made with the giblets, was one of the tastiest I’ve had. The tartness of the lemon offset the fat, making the stock light and aromatic. The lemon brightened up a winter dish, and we used the moist meat the next day for a light summer salad.

That feeling of lightness carried through to the delicate lemon snow pudding. I was inspired by the clever use of separating both the eggs (yolk and white) and lemons (juice and zest), and how both separate parts came together harmoniously in the final dish. The egg white meringue and the lemon juice formed an airy base, while the yolk and lemon rind in the custard rounded off the silky flavors in this lemon meringue-like pudding.

Roast Chicken with Lemon

Whole chicken – 1, (4 lb)

Lemon – 1

Fresh herbs (oregano, sage) – 1-2 sprigs

Butter – 1 tbsp

Salt and pepper – 1 tbsp. each

Oven temperature 375°F

  • Remove the chicken giblets (in a plastic bag) from the cavity of the chicken and wash the chicken well.
  • Pat the chicken dry with paper towels.
  • Slice the lemon into half and squeeze out the juice. Reserve.
  • Mix the butter, herbs, salt, and pepper together. Spread the mixture over the chicken.
  • Put the squeezed lemon half into the cavity of the chicken.
  • Bake for 80 minutes, (20 minutes per pound) in total, with the final 20 minutes at 425°F for a golden skin. Check with a meat thermometer to see it has reached an internal temperature of 170°F.


Lemon Snow Pudding with Custard

Egg white – 1

Sugar – 1 tbsp

Lime – ½

Gelatin (unflavored) – 1 tsp

Lemon yellow food color – optional

  • Fill a large pan with water.
  • Mix the lime, sugar, and gelatin with one tablespoon of water in a saucepan that will fit in the large pan. Place it in the large pan.
  • Bring the water to a rolling boil, while continuously stirring the mixture in the smaller pan.
  • Once all the sugar and gelatin have dissolved, remove from heat. Cool.
  • Whisk the egg white in a bowl, either with a fork or an electric whisk. Continue until it becomes firm. Tip: when you tilt the bowl, the egg white should not slip out.
  • Add the cooled lemon mixture, whisking it carefully, into the egg white mixture.
  • Add a drop of the yellow coloring.
  • Refrigerate until ready to be served with custard.

For the Custard

Egg yolk – 1

Milk – 1 cup, warmed

Sugar – 1 tbsp.

  • Boil water in a larger pan.
  • Whisk the egg yolk in another pan.
  • Add sugar and warmed milk to the yolk. Mix.
  • Place the egg mixture pan in the larger pan. Stir continuously. This method, where the heat is not in direct contact with the ingredients, is called double boiling and prevents the egg mixture from curdling. In about 5-6 minutes, the mixture thickens. Tip: dip a metal spoon into the mixture. Run a finger on the back of the spoon.  If it leaves a mark, then the custard is ready.
  • Cool the custard.
  • Scrape zests into the custard.






Do I Need A Wok? What Can I Make With Chicken?

My friend remarked that I tend to favor the wok for most of my cooking (at least in this blog!), and wanted to know if there is any advantage to using a wok over something like a round-bottomed sauté pan.

I find that the design of a wok is more versatile for different styles of cooking. For example, all the finely slivered vegetables of a stir-fry dish come into contact with heat at almost the same time, rendering them crisp and perfectly cooked. The round bowl-like base of a wok  heats up quickly, and all that is required is deft movements of the spatula to lift and mix the ingredients to distribute the heat evenly through them. By the same token, sautéing vegetables or cubes of chicken are similarly effective, with an added advantage. The spacious rim of the wok acts like a warming tray, allowing you to pile almost-cooked vegetables on the side as you wait for ingredients that need a little longer time (chicken) to finish cooking. Once the chicken is cooked, slide down the vegetables from the rim and mix – easy! The shape of the wok’s base also allows one to use less oil, and cooking healthy flavorful meals is something I strive for daily.

Tools and equipment are only as good as how often you use them. Use what you have, and if it works, don’t swap it out. N. went off to her summer job with last year’s grab bag of basic kitchen equipment (see: Outfitting A Student Kitchen). Experience has taught her that she could save money and remain healthy if she cooked most of her week’s meals over the weekend. (I totally approve, of course). Her question for this summer was: What are some ways to use the ubiquitous chicken breast?

The following are versions of recipes that I have used over the years. I adapted them here to use the four chicken breasts that come in a packet. All the recipes use just a few fresh ingredients (as it is wasteful to buy many types of spices/sauces for a short-term summer stint), with fresh aromatic herbs highlighting the simple flavors. Additionally, they can be all prepped, cooked, and frozen on the same day.


Chicken with Red Peppers

Chicken breast – 1, cubed

Red pepper- 1, chopped

Onion – 1, chopped

Garlic – 3, peeled and sliced

Basil or parsley – ½ the bunch

Oil – 2 tbsp

Salt and pepper – to taste


Heat the oil in a wok or pan.

Add the onion and cook until soft.

Add the garlic and cook until lightly browned.

Add the red peppers and chicken and stir-fry until the chicken is browned. Lower the heat and cook for about 15-20 minutes, turning and checking that the pieces are uniformly browned.

Add the herbs and season to taste.

Serve with pasta.



Baked Chicken with Parsley

Chicken breast – 2

Egg – 1

Garlic – 3 cloves, minced

Breadcrumbs – 2 tbsp (can use stale bread that has been toasted/baked and crushed)

Parmesan cheese – 2 tbsp

Parsley – 2 tbsp, chopped

Oil – 3 tbsp

Salt and pepper – to taste


Whisk the egg and add in the minced garlic.

Add the whole chicken breasts to the egg and garlic mixture. Cover with saran wrap and leave it in the refrigerator for about three hours.


Heat the oven to 350°F.

Place a foil-covered pan with the oil in the oven.

Mix the parsley with the breadcrumbs, and season with salt and pepper.

Lift the chicken gently from the egg mix, keeping as much of the egg and garlic coating on it as possible.

Place it on the breadcrumb mixture. Cover generously.

Put in the heated foil-lined pan. Cook for 25 minutes each side.

Serve with vegetables.




Grilled/Broiled Chicken

Coat the last chicken breast lightly with oil. Season both sides with salt and pepper.

Broil in an oven for 20 minutes on each side.

Serve with broiled whole tomatoes (topped with Parmesan cheese and basil) cooked alongside the chicken (20 minutes).

Alternatively, cut the broiled chicken into strips and add to a Caesar salad.