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Feature Tue Feb 21 2012
Considering that it would be sacrilegious for me to skip writing about Mardi Gras since I am a born and raised Cajun girl, I thought I couldn't miss the opportunity to write about the quintessential Cajun dish: the gumbo. Unlike any other Cajun dishes, gumbo is the best yet most difficult thing to perfect. If you ask any Cajun how it's done, the first thing you'll hear is, "Well, first you start with a roux, cher." Roux (pronounced roo) is the ubiquitous stock in Cajun cuisine. Oil and flour, browned to the color of coffee, slightly entertaining the fine line of burnt. Mais cher (that's pronounced "may sha," stay with me), that's the start of everything good and right about a gumbo.
Hoping that Cajun cuisine had finally made its way to Chicago, I thought I'd take a visit to Big Jones in Andersonville to taste chef Paul Fehribach's version of low country, Cajun, and Creole, which included the holy grail of gumbo and boudin. Boudin ("boo-den") is rice dressing stuffed into casing. It looks like a sausage, and technically, the name boudin refers to cold cut, but it's not sausage. Unlike every other sausage I've met in my life (gutters people, gutters), once you steam it or boil it, you can actually squeeze out the rice dressing and spread it on a nice chunk of bread. But I digress. The menu seemed spot on: Gumbo Ya-Ya, Crawfish Boudin, Andouille, there was even a reference to chow-chow on the menu (a spicy relish) and no one's ever said chow-chow here in Chicago without meaning a breed of dog. I felt at home. I immediately went in for the Gumbo Ya-Ya and Crawfish Boudin and a side of hush puppies for sharing. If Big Jones had got it right, I would be like a Californian boy stuck in Kansas.
But before I give you my version, I'll give you the I-don't-know-a-darn-thing-about-Cajun-food version. The boudin came out as three falafel looking fried balls served with pickled relish and spicy mayo. The hush puppies were nicely dense and just fried right with a side of amazing dill sauce, and then there was my bowl of dark, meat filled gumbo with a side of rice. Had I not known that boudin (at least in my part of town) is never fried, I would've thought that this was the best boudin I ever had, it had the right of amount of crawfish and seasoning to it and the piccalilli, a slightly sweet relish, was a nice accompaniment. The hush puppies had a good texture and flavor and my friend's pulled pork sandwich looked delicious.
But the gumbo. I've had some interesting gumbos around the country, and I've learned that if it isn't made south of I-10, I'm in for an interesting interpretation. (That's exactly why Cajuns don't do pizza.) From the look of it, I knew the flavor was going to be strong. And it was incredibly strong in flavor, color and body. Without knowing what it was, I'll say that either the roux was overcooked and there was too much sassafras and maybe, just maybe, there might have been chicory in it. I had my hopes built up that Big Jones would finally bring me a cup of gumbo that would vaguely remind of home. And a side of proper boudin would have made me call my mother and say, sorry, I'm never coming home. The effort was good and better than some I've seen before, but it didn't measure up, and to protect the image of my home state, sorry Big Jones, this wasn't gumbo. So I decided I'd give the old stirring hand a revisit and make my own the way my mother taught me.
But before I go on, since I've been wanting to say this to a many chef in Chicago, I'll say it here: "What the hell is blackened chicken and why do you put the name Cajun in front of it?" Whew.
When it comes to gumbo, it's all about technique, patience, and roux. First, you start by chopping up your holy trinity, 1 cup of onion ("onyion"), 1/2 cup of bell pepper and 1/2 cup of celery. Then, if you're doing a chicken and sausage gumbo, which isn't as good as a seafood gumbo but much cheaper, you first brown chicken thighs and drums (skin off) in your soup pot. (Make sure you have two links of chopped smoked sausage ready to go as well). The second step is the first do or die step. But first, grab a beer or two and make sure your phone is near you. You're going to be at the stove for a while. To make your roux first make sure your fire in on low and the pan isn't too hot. Then pour 3/4 cup of corn or vegetable oil (and no you cannot substitute olive oil) into your pan and slowly blend in the cup of white unbleached flour (no substitutions here either. If you do because you can't eat gluten or something, I'm not to blame). And start stirring... and keep stirring, and stirring, and stirring. The mixture should slightly sizzle at first but then it should never sizzle again, if you do, your fire is too high and you run the risk of burning it, which means starting over. It will go through three stages over the course of about 45 minutes: white, peanut butter, and diluted coffee. It will take forever to move from white, but wait it out. Here's a really bad time-lapse video of my version:
Once you have your roux done and are slightly buzzed, immediately add your chopped vegetables and cook that down until translucent. The mixture will sizzle and thicken; it won't look pretty but keep going. Once that's done slowly add heated water or chicken stock (I don't measure so just fill the pot up as if you're making soup). This is do-or-die point number two. If you're lucky, it will all blend into a nice brown color. If something's off the roux will separate from the mixture. This can be salvaged by cooking it down in the stewing process. Add your chicken, chopped smoked sausage, a few bay leaves, dash of worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper, cayenne pepper and any other Cajun spices you have and let it slowly roll until the meat falls off the bone. The consistency should be brothy, the color should be dark brown and there should be just a dash of heat in it. Serve it with a white rice (in the bowl, not on the side), potato salad and garlic bread.
PS: there should be a 70 to 30 gumbo to rice ratio. I smile when I see anyone not from the South eat gumbo with me. If you can eat it with a fork that's equivalent to putting ketchup on hot dogs here. Your gumbo should look something like this (slightly darker is better and my roux could have used a little more cooking, but I had run out of patience):
So, in honor of my home state's biggest party today, head on over to Heaven on Seven or The Southern and grab yourself a hurricane and po-boy and enjoy what we call the joie de vivre. Laissez les bons temps rouler, Chicago! And if you attempt a gumbo, good luck cher!