The pursuit of the win-all football trophy by the Ravens in New Orleans got me thinking about the delectable food in this Louisiana city. I also recently viewed on the Cooking Channel an episode of “Throwdown with Bobby Flay” that inspired me to research how Creole and Cajun compare in terms of their origin and more specifically how they compare in relation to gumbo.
New Orleans is named after Orléans, a city on the Loire River in France. New Orleans is a city full of diverse cultural heritages. The city is notably famous for its cuisine, music, festivals and its distinct French architecture. (For me, it is mostly a food destination!). While the city was built on the banks of the Mississippi River, I remember sitting on some steps outside of the Café du Monde eating beignets looking UP at a freighter passing by on the water. Pretty cool.
Creole cuisine is a style of cooking originating in Louisiana that blends French, Spanish, some Portuguese and Italian, Native American and African influences as well as general southern cuisine. It evolved in the homes of pre-Civil War well-to-do European aristocrats. Many ingredients that the European used were not available locally so the Creole chefs made use of the abundant seafood available on the Louisiana coast. Creole gumbo is made entirely with seafood and can be described as refined, delicate, even luxurious.
Cajun cuisine arose from the French influence of provincial cuisines of peasantry. The Cajuns came from Acadia in Nova Scotia in the 1690’s to the Southwest corner of Louisiana, known as Acadiana. There they learned techniques to best utilize local meat, game, fish and produce from the swamps, bayous, and prairies. Think of meals prepared in one huge black cast iron pot; coined by some as “the table of the wilderness”; creative adaptations of indigenous foods. Cajun gumbo is often prepared with meat or fowl and is sometimes referred to as filé gumbo. The two cuisines are very similar in ingredients and seasonings. Personally, the most flavorful gumbos I love are a combination of both and that is how I prepare mine.
Although it is the roux that creates the base or sauce of the gumbo, okra is certainly one of the most essential ingredients that elevates this dish to its potential. Gumbo comes from the Bantu African word for okra ~ kingombo. Okra is among the most heat and drought tolerant vegetables in the world but because this unique plant is damaged by frost, it is an annual in the agricultural Zone (7) that I live. Okra was introduced in North America in the early 18th century; Thomas Jefferson grew it and the French cooks loved it. Germination from seed is 6 days to 3 weeks. When mature, pods rapidly become fibrous and woody (excellent to use when dry in floral arrangements!). If you grow it, edible okra should be harvested within a week of being pollinated – no more than a one inch long pod. For those who do not eat okra (why bother with gumbo, I ask?), filé powder (ground sassafras) can be substituted as a thickening agent or when okra is not in season. Frozen okra is available year round but like all okra, it MUST be sautéed prior to adding it to the gumbo.
So, back to Bobby Flay’s show. Bobby challenged a New Orleans native who is locally famous for her Creole gumbo. The ‘Throwdown’ was then later judged. The first part of the episode focused on how each chef prepared the roux. Poppy (the only name given, I suspect to partially screen her identity), the New Orleans native, created an intense, rich seafood gumbo. No measurements were provided on the show as she prepared her dish. You can easily wing it if you are comfortable making a roux and adding gumbo ingredients. Poppy’s roux was made with a combination of equal parts oil and flour. She cooked it a long time (how long – fact not revealed) until the sauce turned a dark brown for color, thickening and flavor. ***TIP: The key to success is not to leave the pot – the roux can easily burn and needs to be stirred constantly. Her secret to the whole concoction was to add raw onion by itself to the roux first. The natural sugars are released to turn the color from a milk chocolate to a dark bittersweet chocolate-brown. Next, she mixes in celery and green bell pepper. A bit of crushed tomatoes are then added to turn this beautiful creation a russet, reddish-brown. The color, not the measurements, are her gauge for the perfect Creole sauce.
Time for the shellfish – in go the ‘gumbo’ crab (smaller females with the roe, broken in half). Meanwhile, slice and sauté the okra before adding it to the pot; otherwise the dish will become slimy if it is added raw. Add the seasonings – thyme, garlic, bay leaves then the shrimp stock. Let simmer for 1-2 hours. Add shrimp 5 minutes prior to serving over cooked rice.
Bobby Flay prepared Creole gumbo as well. He combined a variety of shellfish not typically used in gumbo AND added sausage. So theoretically, it was both a Creole and Cajun gumbo. His roux was equal parts butter and flour; cooked for 5-7 minutes until it became a light caramel color. Add 6-8 cups shrimp stock to the roux and simmer about 20 minutes. Slice and brown spicy andouille sausage in a separate pan. Remove the sausage and ‘sweat’ the vegetables (carrot, celery, garlic, onion, and red pepper) in the same pan. In another pan, sear scallops over high heat and then add all the seafood to the sauce at once. He used whole shrimp (leaving the heads on), raw, shucked oysters (they poach in the sauce), raw clams in the shell, flaked crab meat, and the sausage. Add the vegetables and seasonings – parsley and cilantro. Okra was not in the dish but rather coated with cornmeal and deep-fried, and then served on top as a garnish. Nice touch but certainly not traditional. Bobby also served his dish on the show with blue cornbread instead of rice.
My Creole/Cajun gumbo is a revised creation of the “Throwdown” recipes and GUESS WHO WON? – ME!
Ali’s Creole/Cajun Gumbo
- ½ cup peanut oil
- 4 T. flour
- 1 large onion, diced
- 1 large red bell pepper, diced
- 1 pint canned crushed tomatoes (I use plum tomatoes that I canned in the summer)
- 1 lb. andouille sausage
- 2 cups boneless, skinless chicken thighs*, cut into large dice
- 1 lb. fresh okra, sliced
- 6-8 cups seafood stock, preferably homemade
- 1 T. filé powder
- 1 T. paprika
- 1 T. salt
- 5 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 lb. large shrimp, unpeeled**
- 1 tsp. fresh thyme, chopped
- ¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped
- 6-8 cups cooked white rice
- 1/2 lb. jumbo lump crab meat\
*Many chefs believe that fowl and meat are never added together in this dish. Just an opinion – dark fowl meat for me adds a savory heartiness in gumbo.
**Purists believe that the shells left on shrimp while cooking will accentuate the flavor. ‘Tis true. Your guests can peel their own with their fingers – it is a casual dish at my table.
- In a heavy Le Crueset pot over medium-high heat, combine oil and flour. Stir constantly until the roux is a dark brown, approximately 10 minutes.
- Stir in the onion and cook for 3-5 minutes more.
- Stir in pepper and add tomatoes. Cook until the roux is dark reddish-brown, approximately 5 minutes.
- In another large skillet, cook sausage over medium-high heat until lightly browned.
- Remove the sausage, add a little more oil if needed, and lightly brown the chicken.
- Remove the chicken, add a little more oil if needed, and sauté the okra.
- Add filé, paprika, salt, garlic, sausage, chicken, okra and stock to the roux. Mix well.
- Bring to a gentle boil, stirring often. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until meat is tender, approximately 1-1/2 to 2 hours.
- Once meat is tender, shrimp, thyme, and parsley.
- Cook until the shrimp is pink, about 5 minutes.
- Serve over individual bowls of cooked rice; garnish with flaked crab meat and parsley.
When it is the summertime, I may tweak this recipe by using softshell Maryland blue crabs cut in half that we catch off our dock. I may even try it with oysters. You can make it your own with oysters and crab but DON’T forget the shrimp. IT’S A HIT!