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Thursday, June 20

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Fat Tuesday, also know as Mardi Gras, is upon us. And when you're done letting the good times roll, Wednesday begins Lent, when people often give up something they really like. And while I don't roll like that, I'm fine with those who do. But instead of giving up something, I will make it my goal over the next 40 days to eat all my leftovers. I've been so happy to make food the last few weeks that there have been more than a few batches of things that ended up in the deep freeze "for later."

This goal will also happen to coincide with an incredibly busy period at work where if I don't bring my lunch with me, I'm likely to end up skipping lunch or eating a slice of pizza at my desk. Neither of which I recommend on a regular basis. So my desire to eat leftovers will also save me money, which is a good thing, no?

To make leftovers more enticing, I thought I'd start with something that just gets better with age and ties into this day of celebration. I'm talkin' 'bout gumbo, yo!

Ah yes, a thick, rich stew made with chicken, seafood and sausage combined with vegetables and okra (as a thickener) for a fantastic blend of yum that will stick to your ribs and carry you through several lunches, dinners and lean times ahead.

Like most stewy dishes, gumbo begins with a base of stock or broth. Store-bought is acceptable, but homemade is so much better. And since I just happen to have a duck carcass kicking around in my freezer, why not start with that? A chicken carcass (from one of those rotisseries if not a home roasted bird) will also work. But if you're starting with a raw carcass, you need to roast it first to richen the flavors. Which sounds hard, but it really isn't.

Here is what you'll need:
chicken or duck carcass
1 head of garlic
1 medium sized yellow or white onion
2 carrots
2 stalks of celery
1 teaspoon of peppercorns
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon of dried thyme
1 teaspoon of dried oregano
1 teaspoon of dried basil
1 teaspoon of dried marjoram or tarragon

Simply place the bones (and meat if you have it) in an oven-safe skillet or roasting pan, set your oven to 350° F and let it stay there for about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, put 3 quarts of water in a stockpot and bring it to a boil. Once the bird is out of the oven, cut it into a couple of pieces and place it in the water. If you want to make your job easier, I'd suggest purchasing a half-yard of cheesecloth from a fabric or craft store, or you might be able to find it in the housewares section of a larger grocery store or specialty kitchen shop. Cut it so you have one large piece to hold the chicken, a smaller piece (at least 12" square) for vegetables, another 5" piece for herbs and spices and another piece that is 8" square for the shrimp heads and shells (I'll get to those later). Place your bones in the cheesecloth, tie the ends in a knot while leaving plenty of room for water to get between the bones, and drop it in the stockpot. Add more water if necessary to keep your bones covered. Let this cook for 4 hours on very low heat and keep it covered. You want the water to move gently, not vigorously, and you don't want to stir the stock. This will make it clearer and won't really affect the taste. Once the bones are all smooshy, pull out the cheesecloth and discard the bones. The cloth can be washed by hand and set to dry for another use.

Cut the head of garlic in half horizontally, cut the onion into quarters, cut the carrots that have been washed but not peeled into large chunks, and cut the celery into chunks as well before placing everything on the cheesecloth and tying loosely. Add it to the stockpot. Add the peppercorns, bay leaves, thyme, oregano, basil, and the marjoram or tarragon to another piece of cheesecloth. Keep the heat very low and let this cook for an hour.

All of the flavor of the vegetables, spices and herbs are now in the stock so you can pull out the cheesecloth and discard the flavorings. But if you think you're done making the stock, you're not quite there. Which is why I suggest starting the stock tonight and making the gumbo tomorrow. Sure, a couple days of cooking is a lot, but your house is gonna smell so darned good for days on end, and you'll have enough leftovers that you won't have to cook for at least a week if you don't want to. And when you warm this up at work, your co-workers just might put you on their shoulders and dance you around the room singing "For you're a jolly good fellow" ...or they'll just be jealous as they eat their frozen dinners at their desks.

Since we'll be adding shrimp to the actual gumbo, and since buying shrimp with shells and/or heads still on is a lot cheaper than pre-shelled shrimp, we'll be removing the shells and the heads now to make it easier to eat the shrimp in the gumbo later. But instead of throwing away the shells and heads, we'll use them to finish flavoring the stock. (Shrimp with heads may be hard to find at larger groceries, but if you go to Asian markets or smaller ethnic markets you just might find some. They add a tremendous amount of flavor to the stock and since it only takes a couple minutes to cut the heads off, it's worth it.) Take yet another small piece of cheesecloth and place the heads and shells you've removed from the shrimp on it. Tie it up in a knot, add it to the simmering water and let it cook for 30 minutes before discarding the shells and heads.

You're now ready to either cool the stock or begin making the gumbo. If you want to cool the stock, add 4 inches of cold water to your kitchen sink. Dump a couple trays of ice into the water, and carefully place the stockpot into the sink. Stir the stock every 30 seconds or a minute until you can place your thumb into the stock and keep it there for 30 seconds. Now let it continue sitting until the movement of the stock stops. Since it is cooling, the fat should rise to the top and you can either skim it off with a sppon, or with a wad of paper towels. Once you refrigerate it overnight, you should also be able to simply pull off the hardened fat that floats to the top.

If you're going straight from stock to gumbo, turn off the heat, cover it, and let it rest for 5 minutes. The fat should float to the top so you can skim it off with a spoon or with a wad of paper towels.

If you decided that this was just too much work and you can't bear to make the dish now, that's fine. Just put it into airtight containers and store in your refrigerator for 4-5 days or in your freezer for about six months.

When you're ready to make the gumbo, make sure you've got 2-1/2 to 3 hours before you're ready to eat. This isn't a quick dish, so I apologize if you have to wait until next weekend to make it. It's worth it to take the time, trust me. But if you just can't bear to cook for a long time, read the recipe below and follow the abbreviated steps afterwards.

Bring your stock back to the stockpot, cover it and put it on low heat so it will gently warm while you make a roux.

Here's what you'll need to make the roux:
1 cup of oil (safflower, peanut, or vegetable are preferred so you can cook them over a high heat)
1 1/4 cup of flour
1 chopped onion
1 chopped bell pepper
3 ribs of chopped celery
5 chopped green onions
2 chopped and peeled carrots

Chop the vegetables and set them aside in a bowl. In a heavy skillet or dutch oven over medium heat, add the oil and flour. Be prepared to stand here for the next 5-25 minutes. If you've got someone to help you stir, you might want to make them help you because you're going to stir continuously. It may just be flour and oil, but this is what is going to give the most flavor to your gumbo. If you prefer a milder taste, you'll stir for 5 minutes over medium heat until the roux is blond or lightly caramel. If you've got a hearty food soul, you'll let it go until it becomes a dark caramel to almost chocolate in color. Once the color gets to where you want it, or when you're afraid that it is going to burn, or you just can't handle stirring any more, turn off the heat and add in the vegetables and stir until they're combined. This addition will cool the roux and prevent it from burning. The little bit of heat will also loosen the flavors of the vegetables.

Before you add the rest of flavorings to the gumbo, you're going to slowly add the roux to the stock, spoonful by spoonful. Why? Because you have hot oil and flour and once you add that to liquid, you could end up covered in what some people call Cajun napalm. I don't recommend it, so go slowly and you should be fine. Add a spoonful, stir for a minute and then add another spoonful. Once the roux is out of the skillet and into the stock, you're finally ready to make the rest of the gumbo.

You'll need:
2 cornish or guinea hens (or 1 small roasting chicken)
2 tablespoons of packaged cajun or creole seasoning or:
   2 teaspoons of paprika
   1 teaspoon of garlic powder
   1/2 teaspoon of black pepper
   1/2 teaspoon of dried oregano
   1/2 teaspoon of dried thyme
   1/2 teaspoon of onion powder
   1 pinch of cayenne powder
   1 teaspoon of salt (or to taste, you may want to add more at the end)
1 pound of sausage (andouille, creole hot sausage, hot or mild Italian sausage, or even smoked kielbasa)
1 pound of shrimp
8 ounces of crabmeat or two whole blue crabs that have been broken in half and the claws separated
1/2 pound of okra (or 1 tablespoon of filé powder, in case you don't like okra) for thickening the gumbo
3 cloves of garlic cut in half
2 bay leaves
1 bunch of chopped fresh parsley

For serving, you'll also want to prepare some long-grain rice, about 1/4 cup of dry rice per person.

Preheat your oven to 350° F. Cut the hens or chicken into pieces and coat them with the creole seasoning. Slice the sausage into 1/4" thick slices at an angle. Put the chicken and sausage into a skillet or roasting pan and let it bake in the oven for about 20 minutes. Pour off all the fat. Add the sausage to the stockpot. You can either make a rustic gumbo and leave the chicken whole, or you can cut the meat off the bones and add just the meat to the stockpot. Add the bay leaves and any leftover seasoning, as well as more seasoning if it seemed like most of it came off the chicken when you drained the fat. Bring the stock up to a boil and then reduce the heat to low and cook for 45 minutes. Taste and add more spices if needed.

If you're using okra, add it to the pot and cook for 30 minutes. Once the sticky strings from the okra have dissolved into the stock, add the parsley and crab in shells and cook for 15 minutes. Add the shrimp and crabmeat (if you're cooking with just meat instead of whole crabs) and cook for 6-8 minutes until the shrimp just turn pink and are finished. Once the shrimp are cooked, try to skim off any fat from the top of the pan.

If you're using filé to thicken the soup instead, turn off the heat just after you add the shrimp. Sprinkle the filé over the top of the contents, cover the pan, and let it sit for 15 minutes. Stir the gumbo to combine the filé throughout and serve. If you use filé, do not bring leftover gumbo to a boil because it will get stringy and have a horrible texture.

To serve, put a serving of rice in a large bowl and ladle the gumbo over it. Serve with a bottle of Tabasco sauce, some salt, and filé powder in case people want to add more. A dark, smooth Abita Turbodog will go nicely with this dish.

Now if you don't have all this time to make a slow-cooked pot of delicious gumbo but still have a craving for something close, you're not at a complete loss. You may be able to purchase a jar of roux which you can keep in your refrigerator, you can substitute chicken or vegetable stock for the homemade stock, and you can cut up a rotisserie chicken and even use artificial crab meat if you have to for the ingredients. The secret ingredient that will do the thickening for you in this case will be the Gumbo Filé powder, which is actually ground sassafras leaves.

The order of the cooking will change a bit. Put the stock, bottled roux, bay leaves, chicken and garlic in the stockpot and stir to combine. In a skillet, cook the sausage until it is cooked through. Transfer the sausage to the stockpot and drain off most of the grease from the sausage. Sauté the onion, bell pepper, green onion, celery, and carrot in the skillet for about 10 minutes until everything is browned and soft. Transfer everything to the stockpot, stir, and add the shrimp and crabmeat. Turn off the heat, sprinkle the filé powder over the top, let it sit for 15 minutes, and stir to combine before serving. This will still taste good and smell good. And it will even taste better as leftovers than it does the day you cook it. I promise.

If you've been reading this column for long, you may have picked up that I have a particular affinity for New Orleans. It's my home away from home, it's a city where I feel the most creative, it's a city where the energy makes me revived and energized and admittedly makes me feel a bit invincible. And you probably don't need me to tell you that it is a city still struggling to regain its stength.

Common Ground Relief started after the hurricanes hit but before the flood waters receded with just three volunteers and $50. A year and a half later they've been assisted by more than 10,000 volunteers and have raised $1.8 million for either emergency services or long-term, sustainable reviving efforts. They've helped almost a half-million people in seven parishes, they've run three free health clinics, they've cleaned and gutted almost 800 homes, they've created media centers, they've created child-care programs, and they've assisted environmental efforts to help restore wetlands, build community gardens and make soil tenable again. And they still need your help. Their motto has become "solidarity, not charity" but if you're unable to offer a hand in person, offering them money so they can continue the good work would be nice. If you've got a couple extra bucks floating around, feel free to give online.

But no matter how you roll, this week laissez les bon tems roulez!

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Chef / February 20, 2007 5:08 PM

Nice…you are paralleling someone's faith and religion with "eating the rest of your leftovers".

Wow, talk about disrespect.

You could have…nay, you should have written the recipe for this dish without that line.

Shame on you.

The dish sounds good, though!


Taylor / February 21, 2007 11:21 AM

A little sensitive, aren't we? I don't see how you could misconstrue an innocent comment for a disrespectful one.


About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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