The Cajun people of Louisiana have a long, proud and emotionally powerful history and tradition… and they are a strong part of my Mother’s side of the family. She was French-Canadian, and was born within the bloodline of the Acadian people.
The Acadians, more than 10,000 in all, were forced from their own land in Canada by the English (my Father’s bloodline, you see the difficulty :)) beginning in 1755 and for generations searched for a homeland along the coast of America, always moving South, persecuted along the way for belonging to a proud unique French culture. They finally found a place for themselves in the swamps of Louisiana. Befriended by the Native Americans of that region, they created a vibrant and unique culture, including music, food, traditions and finally political power. One of the most iconic meals of the Cajun people is Gumbo Ya-Ya. Ya-Ya means, in essence, everything belongs in the pot, and the pot belongs to everyone… cooking together, making one meal, feeding everyone. Holding all this together is the dark mysterious roux, and thus lies some of the drama of this dish.
2 cups long grain white rice (we Louisiana long grain rice or Jasmine rice)
8 big cloves garlic, crushed
48 oz chicken broth (we boil down bones of whole chicken, usually rotisserie, or we use Imagine or Trader Joe’s free range chicken broth)
2 large onions, chopped
1/2 bunch of celery, chopped (we use the heart, leaves, and smaller tender stalks also)
1 large red bell pepper, chopped
1 can (28 oz) plum tomatoes (we use San Marzano tomatoes from Italy), crushed
1 bunch scallions, chopped
1/2 cup vegetable oil (2/3 cup if not using butter as well to make the roux)
2 tablespoons file’ powder
1 tablespoon hot smoked Spanish paprika
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
2 ounces unsalted butter (if you are using butter as well as vegetable oil to make the roux)
1/3cup of all purpose flour
1 pound of okra, cut into pieces
5 big bay leaves
6 chicken thighs (we use free range, air chilled chicken)
1 pound shrimp (we use wild caught, shell and head off)
1 pound crawfish meat or Langoustines
1 pound crab meat
1 pound of SMOKED andouille pork or chicken sausage
Salt to taste (we use 4 teaspoons, 1 1/2 for the chicken, 1 1/2 for the vegetables and 1 for the seafood)
Black pepper to taste (we use 2 teaspoons)
In a 14 inch pan, slowly heat half the vegetable oil and half the garlic, add the chicken thighs and slowly fry the chicken till browned and both sides show patina. Remove, cool, and chop the meat into bite sized pieces. Set the chicken meat aside.
In the same pan, heat the rest of the vegetable oil and garlic and fry the onions till opaque. Add the celery, bell peppers, okra and cayenne, and cook on medium heat until the okra is soft.
In a large stock pot, place all the ingredients from the pan above, plus the chicken meat. Add to the stock pot the tomatoes, bay leaves, chicken broth and smoked andouille sausage. Simmer for a few minutes, allowing the flavors to marry, and then turn off the heat.
Now we are going to make a roux. Don’t be afraid, all it takes is practice, instincts, and soul. Mostly soul. Okay, what we are going to do is to bring the 2 ounces of unsalted butter (if using butter) and half the vegetable oil, (because we are not actually 100 percent Cajun and we are not grandmothers with years of experience) to a higher and higher heat, using flour to keep it from burning. If done well, it will slowly turn a darker and darker shade of a beautiful patina brown.
Now, truth be told, Cajun cooks do this part first, and then mix all the other ingredients in later. We are going to do the roux toward the end. Why? Until you have made a roux a hundred times, and can do it in your sleep, it’s best to have the entire gumbo prepared, and ingredients ready, knowing that if the roux doesn’t work the first time you try, you can try again with the knowledge that the rest of the cooking is nearly finished and you can put your full focus and good ju ju into it. For the sanity of the cook, it’s sometimes necessary to tweak tradition just a little. And the gumbo will be just as good after all the simmering with the file. Trust us.
In a small, 8 inch pan, heat the butter and half the olive oil. Slowly heat until they are about to burn and then add a large pinch of flour. Stir with a fork until the flour is absorbed, NEVER allowing the fats to foam up. Keep the temperature low enough so that all the future big pinches of flour come at just the right moment so that the fats don’t burn. This process will take 20 to 30 minutes. It’s mysterious.. and can’t be predicted.
Don’t hurry with the flour, it will slow down the ever increasing heat and darkening of the oils. Just a pinch every minute or two, as you almost constantly slowly stir the little puddle of tense lava. As the oils gets darker and darker, it will need less and less flour to keep it in a state of equilibrium. It’s a fine line, a tension, and if hurried it becomes either floury gunk or foaming fats. Sometimes you have to remove the pan from the heat, sometimes you add a bit more flour. You always want to maintain this molten puddle of darker and darker oils, getting hotter and hotter. When it is finally as dark as hot chocolate, you are done.
Now using a ladle, add this roux to the stock pot, slowly mixing it with the ingredients. Allow everything to simmer for 15 minutes, and then add all the remaining ingredients, all the seafood and the file, and simmer on low heat until the shrimp is cooked and plump but not over cooked, and then serve in a bowl with rice.
You have just entered the mystical realm of the Cajun people. Eat while listening to Zydeco music. Don’t forget the cornbread. Allons manger!