Don’t throw away your Thanksgiving turkey carcass!
Note to my horse friends: I don’t follow recipes when I cook, I read cookbooks for fun then make up my own recipes. If you haven’t made gumbo before, the length of this recipe may seem daunting. But don’t be put off by it; gumbo is really easy to make. It is simply a giant stew, the perfect one-pot meal. It is a bit of an all-day process but you don’t have to stand over the stove the whole time. You can be outside with your horses much of the time while the gumbo is simmering.
Growing up in Louisiana, gumbo was a staple in my household and everyone’s households. I first learned gumbo z’herbes during my years working with the famous Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme who opened a restaurant, K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, on Chartres St. in the French Quarter across the street from my office at the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Paul was an inventive cook who added a “mess” of greens to this dish which is mostly based on the traditional chicken and sausage version. He used collard, mustard, and turnip greens, whatever happened to be in season and available to add a deep rich vegetable flavor to the gumbo. I think collards are essential and I often use chard since I grow it. Some cooks use spinach. Any mixture you have in your fridge can be good but buy fresh, not frozen and definitely not canned.
When our first little spell of cold winter days arrived in October amidst a spectacular autumn just in time for our Benny Phafbe dressage clinic at Kathy Coulson’s Hobby Horse Farm in Loveland, I pulled out my large gumbo pots, cast iron skillet, and roux spatula. It was a perfect day to rustle up a batch and have it on the side table for riders after their rides and auditors watching the lessons in the indoor arena which was warm compared to outside but still chilly.
Several participants asked me for the recipe, starting with Carol, who was worried it might be too difficult to cook. It’s not. Though the recipe is long, because much of the process involves simmering the big pot of stew on the stovetop, it leaves plenty of time for us horsey folks to work on it while going out to the barn to muck stalls, turn horses in and out of the pasture, and ride. So don’t be put off by the length of these instructions, which are out of my head, because that’s how I cook! If you haven’t made gumbo before, there are several key terms I will throw in to start.
Gumbo begins with a roux, a deep, dark, and rich base for throwing in the “Holy Trinity”, a term that originated in New Orleans (it’s a Catholic city), referring to a mixture of onion, celery, and bell pepper. The Holy Trinity is a classic flavor base when cooking Cajun dishes. It is typically created by sautéing a combination of diced onions, bell peppers, and celery in vegetable or canola oil to release their flavor, which infuses into the gumbo (or other dishes) before adding other ingredients. Two kitchen utensils are essential for making a roux: a large flat cast iron skillet and a flat scraping spoon/paddle/spatula, preferably wooden but metal will do.
Step One: Make a Chicken Stock
Another essential element is a large stock pot for making the base chicken stock. If you want to be a traditionalist, start with a fresh whole chicken seasoned well and brown it on all sides in the stock pot with the bottom of the pot covered in a thin layer of canola oil. When it is evenly browned and the kitchen is smelling like the delicious aroma that only a chicken stock provides, scrape the debris, or drippings, from the bottom of the pan, leaving them in the pot for flavor. Fill the pot with fresh, cool tap water covering the chicken. Add plenty of salt, at least a tablespoon. Bring it to a boil then turn down to simmer, covered, for several hours. This is a time to go out to the barn and get some things done while it is cooking.
In recent years, I have “cheated” and bought the store-bought roasted chickens and they work just fine and save a little time. Buy a chicken seasoned with salt and pepper or garlic, just don’t choose barbeque flavor. This allows you to skip the browning stage. Do remove the majority of the cooked meat, especially the breast, from the chicken before starting so that you are using mostly the carcass for the stock. Chop the meat into bite sized pieces and store it in the refrigerator to be added to the gumbo later. Overcooking the chicken meat makes it tough and also leaches out all the yummy chicken flavor. The stock cooks in the same manner as above using a whole fresh chicken.
Don’t worry too much about stock cooking time. About 2 ½ hours is ideal but a little less or more is just fine. Just check it a few times to make sure it is lightly simmering, not boiling, and that water is covering the chicken or chicken carcass. Add more water as necessary. Before you are ready to put the gumbo together, strain the chicken and carcass through a large colander and put the stock back into the pot. Chop the chicken into bite-sized pieces and store it in the refrigerator until later. Pick the meat from the bones and throw the carcass away.
Step Two: Making the Roux
Roux is easy to make, a bit like gravy, but there are a few tips to ending up with the richest flavor. This is the one stage of the recipe when you need to pay close attention and stand over the stove for a bit.
First chop a whole onion (I use sweet, but any yellow or white onion is fine), whole bell pepper, and several stalks of celery. Have these chopped vegetables ready on a cutting board next to the stove.
Next, heat a large black iron skillet (Dutch oven works too), adding 1 cup of canola or vegetable oil, heated to shimmering then stirring in 1 cup of flour. Stir constantly to mix and evenly brown the mixture with the gumbo paddle. Keep the heat at medium high, stirring constantly, until the mixture turns a deep dark brown in about 10-15 minutes. Some recipes call for cooking roux for 30-40 minutes but professional chefs achieve a richer flavor by cooking it fast. Just don’t let it burn. Stir constantly! As soon as the roux is the perfect color brown (similar to dark chocolate, not milk chocolate, but not black), scrape in all the chopped vegetables and keep stirring until onions are translucent and green peppers and celery are soft. Put in all “the Holy Trinity”, at once because it dramatically stops the oil and flour cooking, keeping it at just the right color and temperature. Lower the temperature and keep stirring. Once the vegetables are soft, start adding in some of the stock cup by cup, still warm in the pot on the stove, to the roux until it becomes more liquidy. Turn off the heat under the roux skillet.
Step Three: Combining the Chicken Stock with the Roux
Now is a tricky part to mix the roux with the remainder of the stock a little at a time. I use a second stock pot for this to get the proportions right. Wear an apron, use hot pads and great care to prevent splatter and burns, pour the roux and stock into the empty gumbo pot. Use all of the roux and most of the stock until you get the desired consistency of the soup. It should have some body, but not a gravy-like thickness. Sometimes there is a little stock left over which can be frozen for use in future soups and dishes.
Add seasonings which consist of salt, pepper, garlic powder, and red pepper. My favorite is a pre-made mixture called Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning, once available only in Louisiana and now found in most grocery stores. I suggest starting with a tablespoon but adjust gradually to your own taste.
Step Four: As the pot of gumbo-in-progress is simmering, slice sausage. Traditional recipes call for Andouille but I usually use a combination of Andouille and Polska Kielbasa. Add it to the gumbo. I use about a pound of sausage total.
Rinse and shred fresh greens (my preferred are collards and chard) and throw them into the pot.
Adjust seasonings. Last but not least, add the chopped chicken. Near the end, if the oil from the sausage and roux separate, can skim it off the top and pitch it into the trash. There shouldn’t be much.
Step Five: Cook a large pot of white rice to serve with the gumbo. Enjoy!
Large cast iron skillet
One large stock pot
One large gumbo pot
One roux paddle or spatula, wooden or metal
1 chicken (fresh or store-bought roasted)*
1 pound of sausage (Andouille and/or Polska Kielbasa or mixture of the two)
1 bell pepper
Several stalks of celery
Salt and Tony Chachere’s Seasoning ( or simply salt, black and red pepper, garlic powder)
Fresh greens: one bunch of chard and collards. One bunch of turnip greens and mustard greens are also tasty. You can mix and match the greens, using a total of about two bunches.
*I substitute turkey for chicken and it’s an excellent thing to do with your leftover turkey carcass on Thanksgiving! I always make turkey gumbo the day after Thanksgiving!! The gumbo is also superb with pheasant should you have access to these game birds.