sassafras leaves

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.

 

 

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