Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya

bowlofgumboGris Gris Gumbo Ya Ya is the first song on the first album by Dr. John The Night Tripper. Up until that time he was Mac Rebenack but in 1968 he began a process that changed him into Dr. John the Night Tripper. The name came from an infamous voodoo shaman and the combination of New Orleans rhythms with psychedelic explorations produced something new. Gris Gris, his first album, was not unlike a pot of gumbo in that it attained a greatness that was far more than the sum of its parts. My friend Jaynen taught me how to cook Gumbo the right way. You see gumbo is a process rather than a recipe. You don’t come home from work and decide to whip up a quick Gumbo. It requires a commitment of time and effort that doesn’t always fit in with the hectic pace of life that has overtaken us at the dawn of the twenty first century. Jay learned how to make gumbo from her mom, who learned from her mom etc. etc. and I don’t think that a written recipe ever existed as far back as they were making gumbo in her family.

rice+gumbopotsYou start with a roux, but not the delicate liaison from French cooking. Good gumbo has at its base a dark roux that takes somewhere between an hour and too damn long to slowly get to the correct color. If you were a Cajun grandma and had been doing the roux for long enough you may, if you were lucky, have developed the patience to go for a black roux but in my wildest dreams I can’t imagine getting to that stage. The darker you make your roux the greater your status in the Cajun culture that values patience and experience more than expedience and profit. I believe that Jay made her roux with half bacon fat and half oil. I would sit at the kitchen table and shoot the breeze while she stirred the roux in an ancient cast iron skillet. I don’t remember measurement going on, it was all a matter of texture and consistency and memory and feel. When the house had filled with that nutty aroma from the patiently worked roux she would add her onion and celery and bell pepper right into the roux, letting each and every grain of the now richly browned flour start to absorb the flavors of the aromatics as they sweated. I remember garlic at some point and shrimp stock made from the heads and shells of the fresh shrimp that her folks had brought up from Port Arthur that day. I remember bay leaves and some thyme, a dash of Tabasco and maybe some Worchestershire. The murky dark brown gumbo that Jay made was love incarnate and the flavor was unlike anything I had tasted up until that point. I have worked on this recipe for around 20 years and I think I have it down but it still doesn’t hold a candle to Jaynen’s.

The Aromatics:
2 medium white onions, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
2 ribs of celery, diced
1 bulb fennel, diced
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 jalapeno peppers

The Herbs and Spices
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tbs Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp dry thyme
2 tsp herbs de provence
2 bay leaves
2 tsp Old Bay Seasoning
File powder to finish

The Juice
1 cup Dark Roux
2 quarts chicken, seafood or shrimp stock
1 cup dry white wine
2 quarts water

The Substance
1 lb andouille sausage
1 lb shrimp, cleaned and shelled
1 lb mahi mahi, cut in 1” cubes
1 lb redfish, cut in 1” cubes
1 pint oysters

The Process
douget'srouxJaynen: if you are reading this please stop here. This is where I make my confession. I use prepared roux. I prefer Douget’s Roux from Beaumont but I will use any reputable dark roux in a jar. I can usually find them in the supermarkets in Austin but there are several sources online. I tried and tried and never got to a dark enough stage without trouble and it really takes the one onerous chore out of the process. I know this damages my Coonass street cred but I don’t want people to be scared away by the roux and never get to the Gumbo.

Once your roux is ready saute your aromatics in a heavy bottom stock pot, preferably one that your mom bought you as a housewarming gift when you moved into your first real house. My innovation to the standard recipe is the fennel, which adds great depth of flavor and is a perfect compliment to the seafood. As the veggies start to get soft add half of the herbs and spices, give it a quick stir and then add the roux. This step is key to developing the flavor of the gumbo. You want each and every granule of flour to absorb as much concentrated flavor as you can. Things will get a little messy at this point as the roux begins to absorb the moisture from your aromatics. Cook this for a few minutes and then start adding your liquid. I start with a few dashes of tabasco and worchestershire sauce followed by the wine, which should be added cold. Stir with a heavy whisk until you get a smooth paste and then add the stock and water. I don’t use all stock because the nutty flavor of the roux needs to come through and the mojo from the remaining ingredients needs someplace to go, especially the andouille.


Look at the big chunks of Tasso in the Andouille

Most of the andouille you see in the grocery store is just plain old smoked sausage. It will work in a pinch but if you have the means to get real andouille you won’t be disappointed. In it’s real form andouille is a sausage made with ground pork and big chunks of tasso ham, which is the spiced smoked ham of Cajun Country. For my money this sausage is the key flavor component. Add it to the pot when it comes to a boil and turn the heat down to a bare simmer. When viewing Gumbo as a process you need to adjust the seasoning as it cooks. Add the remaining herbs and spices about 30 minutes in if you feel it is necessary. Cook the gumbo for a good hour or hour and a half until the floury taste is gone. When your base is ready it is time to add your seafood. This will only take a few minutes to cook so add it all at once and turn the heat up. When the Gumbo comes back to a simmer turn off the heat and ring the diner bell. I like to serve it over rice but not too much.

At this point I need to mention Filé Powder, which is ground sasafras leaves. This is the same plant that gives us Root Beer or Sasparilla and is added at the end to gumbo to add a little thickening and give it that unique Gumbo flavor. This is a matter of taste and most Gumbo you get in commercial establishments has no filé in it so if you can’t get it no big whoop.

Enjoy this dish, both cooking it as well as eating it. If you follow the process, have some friends and family around and enjoy the day you will be rewarded with a bowl of joy and the admiration of all those who sample your wares.

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3 Responses to Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya

  1. Richard Cockrell says:

    I like to add in the liquor from the oysters with the onions,etc., so that flavor also can get to every bit of roux. And don’t be ashamed, Douget’s makes a damn good roux. I;ve used it, and I like it a lot.
    I had a coonass gramma tell me that she makes her roux in the microwave now, it gets good and dark, but doesn’t burn. iI haven’t tried it yet..

  2. radioabby says:

    I remember a massive pot of Jay’s gumbo that had blue crabs in it. That was the best, sucking all that delicious gumbo out of the crab shells. That was memorable. YUMMY!

  3. valerie b says:

    Mmmmmmmmmm, wish we had some of that Gumbo here in NYC – cold and rainy today. I’ll have to get Mitch a cookin’…

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