Friday, March 9, 2007

Seafood Gumbo

High on the list of favorites of Cajun cooking are the soups called gumbos. Gumbo exemplifies the influence of African and Native American food cultures on Cajun cuisine. The word originally meant okra, which is a word brought to the region from Western Africa. Okra, which is a principal ingredients of many gumbo recipes, is used as a thickening agent and for its distinct vegetable flavor.

A filé gumbo is thickened with sassafras leaves, a practice borrowed from the Choctaw Indians. The backbone of a gumbo is a dark roux, which is made of flour, toasted until well browned, in fat, or oil, not butter as with the French. The classic gumbo is made with chicken and the Cajun sausage called andouille, but the ingredients all depend on what is available at the moment.

Cajun cuisine originates from the French-speaking Acadian or "Cajun" immigrants in the Acadiana region of Louisiana. It is what could be called a rustic cuisine — locally available ingredients predominate, and preparation is simple. An authentic Cajun meal is usually a three-pot affair, with one pot dedicated to the main dish, one dedicated to steamed rice, skillet cornbread, or some other grain dish, and the third containing whatever vegetable is plentiful or available.

The aromatic vegetables bell pepper, onion, and celery are called by some chefs the holy trinity of Cajun cuisine. Finely diced and combined in cooking, the method is similar to the use of the mire poix in traditional French cuisine — which blends finely diced onion, celery, and carrot. Characteristic seasonings include parsley, bay leaf, "onion tops" or scallions, and dried cayenne pepper. The overall feel of the cuisine is more Mediterranean than North American.

Cajun cuisine developed out of necessity. The Acadian refugees, farmers rendered destitute by the British expulsion, had to learn to live off the land and adapted their French rustic cuisine to local ingredients such as rice, crawfish, and sugar cane.

Cajun Dark Roux

The Acadians inherited the roux from the French. However, unlike the French, it is made with oil or bacon fat and more lately olive oil, and never butter, and it is used as a flavoring, especially in gumbo and etoufée. Preparation of a dark roux is probably the most involved or complicated procedure in Cajun cuisine, involving heating fat and flour very carefully, constantly stirring for about 15-45 minutes (depending on the color of the desired product), until the mixture has darkened in color and developed a nutty flavor. A burnt roux renders a dish unpalatable. The scent of a good roux is so strong that even after leaving one's house the smell of roux is still embedded in one's clothes until they are washed. The scent is so strong and recognizable that others are able to tell if one is making a roux, and often infer that one is making a gumbo.

Ragin Cajun Gumbo

This recipe makes a big batch, but it easily scales down for smaller portions. Some people like Okra, some don't, so if you omit the Okra, or cut back on it, just add more vegetables of your choice, and some File powder so it thickens correctly.

The Stock

4 quarts Chicken Stock
4 Quarts Shellfish Stock
8 ounces onions, chopped
4 ounces celery with tops, chopped
4 ounces carrots, chopped
2 heads garlic, cut in half horizontally

Sachet d'épices

In a small cheesecloth bag or tea ball, place:

1 teaspoon or so black peppercorns, cracked
A few parsley stems
1 bayleaf
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried basil leaves

The Roux

1-1/4 cups flour
1 cup oil

All the rest

2 cut up chickens
1-1/2 pounds sliced andouille sausage
4 pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 pound can of Blue Crab Meat
2 pounds okra, sliced
3 onions, chopped
1 bunch green onions with tops, chopped
2 bell peppers, chopped
5 ribs celery, chopped
5 Cloves of minced garlic
3 bay leaves
1 bunch fresh parsley, chopped
Creole seasoning to taste
Salt to taste
Tabasco, or to taste.

Simmer the stock with the vegetables, and the Sachet d'épices for a couple hours to let the flavors meld. The longer it simmers the more character the stock develops,

Sprinkle the chicken pieces with Creole seasoning and brown in the oven. Slice the sausage and brown.

Sauté the onions, green onions, bell pepper and celery add them to the roux, then mix into the stock.

Add the Chicken and Andouille.

Add the bay leaves and Creole seasoning to taste and stir. Bring to a boil and immediately reduce to a simmer; let simmer for about 45 minutes. Keep tasting and adjusting seasonings as needed.

Add the okra and cook another 30 minutes or so then add the shrimp. Give it another 6-8 minutes or so, until the shrimp are just done, turning pink. Be very careful not to overcook the shrimp; adding the shrimp should be the very last step. (Okra acts as a thickener, if omitted make sure to add some File Gumbo Seasoning.)

If there is any fat on the surface of the gumbo, try to skim off as much of it as possible

Low Carb Gumbo Alternative

This dish is anything but low carb because of the flour roux, and rice, but serving it over spaghetti squash rather than rice is a great low carb substitute.

When creating low-carb versions of your favorite dishes, you won't be happy unless the texture and thickness is close to what you expect. For example, with gravy - do you want it watery or do you want a nice thick gravy? If you can't have starch what do you do for thickening?

I came across this stuff while dieting to use as a substitute for flour, and cornstarch, it is called ThickenThin not/Starch thickener which works like cornstarch. It's easier than using starch. Just dump it in the Gumbo instead of the roux, and stir it in. It has more thickening power than flour so use half as much. Add a 1/4 cup of olive oil to make up for the oil that was omitted in the making of the roux. The product isn't a soy derivative, it is made up of various vegetable gums.

This product works great, but you will miss the nutty taste that is created with the traditional roux, but it allows you to cook with one cup less oil, no carbs from the flour, and when you are low carb dieting you will swear it is very close to the original.

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