Now I don’t hail from any deeper south than the southern corners of London - the ‘parish’ of Surrey if we’re going to be precise - but that didn’t stop me a week or two back, when we still knew what it was like to feel a little heat and see a little sun, from dreaming some dreams of the Deep South of the US of A and imagining a dish or two with a Southern bent.
With some early well flavoured but swift to deteriorate peaches at my disposal, the wherewithal for a Peach Pie in fact (doesn’t the name alone just make you want to drawl?), I looked for a warm southern precursor to all that peachy sweetness and my gumbo pot beckoned.
It’s harder than you think to tie down a gumbo. Nobody seems to agree on what the word Creole denotes let alone on a definitive recipe for this gem amongst its cuisine. But it seems to me that it derives its basic techniques from the niceties of French classic règles and that a mirepoix is a mirepoix is a holy trinity, even if a French one includes carrots and a Louisiana one sweet peppers,
a 'holy trinity’: onion, celery, peppers (green might be better) with some interloping tomatoes
and a roux is a roux is a roux, although a gumbo roux is a decidedly more mahogany shade than I would normally aim for.
So armed with basic technique, an interest, a bit of research and a recipe that I care for but am prepared to work on, I have reworked my favourite method. Even if the result from a Tokyo born, Surrey bred, never-been-to-Lousisiana-in-my-life cook cannot be said to be truly authentic (those who hail from Louisiana are fiercely protective of authenticity and being prepared within state lines is for some non-negotiable), it tastes pretty darn good to me.
A few substitutions are necessary, you are going to be hard pressed to find an andouille sausage anywhere in the UK for starters, but it is not beyond our wit to find a smoked and spicy Spanish version that has pedigree in that part of the world too or to find another route to a smoky flavour.
some smoky sausage
crispy fried bacon
The result is a deep, nuanced, multi-layered dish, one that takes the idea of slow cooking to a pretty high level if we are just talking time taken to prepare it. A dish that, depending on how you choose to make it, is inclined to dirty up a fair few pans (you could manage with just the one but I prefer to build it layer by distinctly cooked layer) but, as with most things on which you spend a bit of time, the results are worth the effort. Better still, most of those who really know this cuisine seem to acknowledge that this dish just gets better for keeping a day before you serve, so you can be as chilled as the beers if you are eating with a crowd. It doesn’t require dressing up, you can put newsprint on the table instead of a cloth, it is not real 'purdy’ but it is a star all the same.
I am not going to detail the recipe - my mongrel take on a Creole/Cajun classic is not in any way definitive and gumbo recipes for greens or pork, fruits de mer and fowl are widely available for those who want to hunt them down - but for those of you with an interest, here are the ingredients that I used and some signposts for how I treated them and I don’t think this version is too far removed from 'authentic’, whatever that might mean.
a 'mirepoix’, softened, with a few additions
all ready to simmer in a roux thickened stock
Mix them all together, allow them a little time to acquaint themselves one with another, old fashioned style, treat them gently and garnish with some herbs and some sweet little onions at the last minute and this dish will reward in full.
a fully garnished gumbo looking about as good as it is able
Serve in a large flat soup bowl with some plain boiled rice and plenty of hot sauce on the side!
“New Orleans Creole cuisine evolved from many sources and it continues to grow. Like jazz, it was not invented; it grew gradually” ~Jerome Fein