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Feature Tue Feb 21 2012

How to be a Cajun in Chicago this Mardi Gras

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.

2.20.12 009

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.

2.20.12 011

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):

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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!

Andrew / February 21, 2012 12:54 PM

I've had plenty of fried boudin balls in New Orleans. I assume that's what Big Jones is aiming for with its boudin.

Brandy / February 21, 2012 3:47 PM

Probably so Andrew and they definitely were good! Believe it or not, I've honestly never seen them done that way. You can't go wrong with frying things can you :)

p / February 21, 2012 5:18 PM

OK... so wheres the best Gumbo in Chicago?

Gary / February 21, 2012 10:30 PM

The best gumbo in Chicago? Easy... it's on my stove four or five times a year :-) I grew up in south Mississippi actually but it's close enough to the Louisiana line to be big gumbo territory there, too. So, yes, I know making the roux is close to a two-beer process. I start with chicken and the shells and heads from my shrimp to make the stock, then use the chicken meat, some smoked sausage, crabmeat and shrimp in the gumbo. So you got to buy shrimp with the shells and heads and peel them. And, FYI, the closest thing to a good Deep South smoked sausage that I've found in Chicago is Bobak's Hot and Spicy Maxwell Street sausage. It's great for red beans and rice, too.

m / February 22, 2012 11:15 AM

i live in chicago and new orleans - big jones does great iterations of not only new orleans cuisine, but coastal southern food in general. i must point out that there are plenty of places with fried boudin balls on the menu down here in nola. furthermore, one of the great restaurants in the city, cochon, by chef donald link, a cajun himself, does fried boudin and, more importantly, a gumbo that is as dark as that in the pic from big jones. that's certainly closer to the best gumbos down here than the pitifully pale version pictured lower down in your post. all the complex base flavors in the roux come from longer cooking and the resulting darker color. i didn't get to try the big jones mardi gras menu as i'm down in new orleans most of this month (sent it to plenty of friends when they released it and encouraged them to go in my place), but i have to disagree with the assertion that it's somehow not an authentic cajun menu - not all boudin comes in a link. and darker gumbo is better, imho. (i'd also question your phonetic suggestion of how to pronounce boudin, but that could be a whole topic of its own.)

Paul Fehribach / February 23, 2012 12:17 PM

I appreciate your visit and your comments, but obviously I disagree with them myself. Even the CajunGrocer.com web site you reference has boudin balls for sale. I've always understood fried boudin balls were an entertaining/party thing while the boudin in casings is a roadside butcher shop or grocery thing you eat in the parking lot with cracklin's, but I degress. We served pork boudin in casing for a good while and it's just too difficult for guests to eat at a table without making a mess of themselves before they're off to the theater. As to the gumbo - for years I made a lighter version and a few years back I decided to go darker because of gumbos I had at restaurants in Breaux Bridge, Port Barre, Lafayette, and New Orleans (Cochon's crawfish gumbo is black. BLACK.) Now I understand when some folks from this or that region in the South feel particular pride in this dish or that dish, especially when they make it themselves and their family has a history of that dish, but that ignores the great regional diversity of Southern cooking, and even the variations from house to house as everyone has their own version. So I accept that my gumbo is not YOUR gumbo; it's not even trying to be. But I will take the endorsement of the Cajun woman (born and raised in Lafayette with a last name from the refugees who first settled the swamps) who asked me to make gumbo for her wedding next month, the former Captain at Commander's Palace who puts mine with the best in that city, and the many, many Cajun who do find home in my cooking. Frankly, you betray your bias in the comments when you say that the best gumbo in Chicago is on your stove. You believe that and that's your opinion and that's great, however it doesn't make great writing when you use a publication such as Gaper's Block to promote yourself as the Great Gumbo Guru of Chicago. It's awesome that you make a gumbo you love and you should continue making it. You cannot, however, assail the authenticity of my gumbo, because you are flat out wrong and for all the wrong reasons. It would be better if you were happy that I am introducing a generation of Chicagoans to real Cajun cooking (amongst the many other regions of the south) and have inspired many of them to travel to New Orleans and Cajun country themselves. I have never claimed to make the best gumbo in Chicago and never will make that claim; it's absurd because taste is a deeply personal matter and that seems to be the point you are missing.

Brandy / February 27, 2012 5:13 PM

Paul, thank you for reading and I appreciate your feedback. Your points are very valid and I appreciate the love you have for Cajun food. You seem very knowledgeable on the subject, and I respect that you are trying to bring such a great culture to this eclectic food city.

I agree that there is a wide range to tastes and styles to gumbos, and I apologize if you feel that I tried to assail the authenticity of yours while claiming that my gumbo was the best (which, for the record, I never made that claim). While I have no doubt that you know depths about Creole and Cajun cooking and are a skilled chef, the consistency nor the flavor didn’t match my expectations relevant to the gumbos I have been eating my whole life. At the end of the day, regardless of regional diversity, there is a distinct execution and flavor that defines a gumbo that I just didn’t experience. The other dishes I had on your menu were great as I pointed out, and I look forward to returning in the future.

This conversation also brings up a great point on the misrepresentation of what is Cajun verses what is Creole. New Orleans is largely Creole and there is a distinct difference in taste and texture between the Cajun style. Many people, through being misinformed, equate Creole with Cajun and it is my hope that with conversations like these the true authenticity of what is Cajun will be properly captured and recreated throughout the country verses being lost to the metropolitan interpretation and marketing of culture.

If you are around South Louisiana in October this year you might be interested in checking out the World Championship Gumbo Cook Off in my home town of New Iberia.

Thanks again for bringing your knowledge of the Cajun culture to Chicago. I am honored that the cuisine I grew up with incites such passion in our readers.

Kate / March 1, 2012 11:44 AM

Thanks for the great article Brandy! I live in Andersonville and have only recently visited Big Jones. I also found the Gumbo quite bitter/burnt, so I am happy that you agree! I guess I'll have to try to cook my own and see how that turns out compared to what I had at Big Jones. :) Thanks for the recipe!

cliff / March 6, 2012 2:45 AM

Hey Brandy! Interesting read, and, of course, interesting reactions. Anytime "home cooking" is involved, there will be strong opinions on what's right, what's not, and what's best.

I grew up in GA, so the closest I ever got to "real gumbo" was some cousins that lived outside of Metairie. The one thing I remember from their gumbo is that they used okra as a thickner in addition to roux. So it really wound up being much, much thicker and more of a chicken, andouille, and seafood "stew". In fact, it was almost a gravy!

Of course they still served it with a big bowl of white rice, file powder, and a bottle of Tabasco on the table.

Your article has inspired me to try to recreate that tasty dish sometime this week.

And to get to Big Jones and give 'em a try as well!

Thanks!

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