Traveling Gournet: Radical Gumbo

Not long ago, four couples were having drinks before dinner, chatting about this and that while nibbling on almonds roasted with smoked paprika and homemade bread with cheeses. As often happens, the discussion turned to food and cooking, and from there to gumbo, with its myriad intricacies and variations. At one point, one of the men announced that he no longer made his own roux or browned the meats and poultry for his gumbos. In the not-too-distant past, such a shocking admission would’ve been met with hoots and catcalls – and some would have even demanded that his gumbo license be revoked. But the reaction this time was very different.

One by one, all those assembled admitted that they sometimes, often or always took such shortcuts when making gumbo. The scene was a kind of group confessional – a 12-step program for cooks. (“My name is Tom, and I use bottled roux in my gumbo.” Followed by: “My name is Sue, and I don’t brown the sausage or chicken for my gumbo.”)

Perhaps the experience was therapeutic, perhaps not. But you can count me among those who usually use bottled roux and sometimes don’t brown the meats and poultry when making gumbo. But on those occasions, I know that I’m taking a shortcut and that I could make a better gumbo if I put more time into it. In my opinion, bottled rouxs are perfectly satisfactory, although rendered pork, chicken or duck fat, in place of the vegetable oil in commercial versions, will produce a tastier roux. But there’s no substitute for browning meats and poultry. None. If you doubt that, just think about how different a boiled chicken tastes from a roast chicken.

Making a gumbo is nothing more than a process of layering and blending flavors. If a flavor as distinctive as the caramelized surface of browned meat and poultry is omitted, the final synthesis will be compromised. Meats and poultry for a gumbo can be browned on the stovetop but oven roasting is much less trouble. After roasting, simply remove the meat from the bones and use the bones and skin to make a stock for the gumbo.

That is the process I followed recently for a gumbo I made from a domestic duck. Roasting also yielded a quantity of extremely flavorful duck fat that I used in making the roux. The duck fat provided a richness, an unctuousness, that you just don’t get from vegetable oil.

The other ingredients in this recipe are fairly standard ones in contemporary gumbos, with the exception of dried shiitake mushrooms and dried okra. The shiitakes add another layer of meaty flavor to the gumbo and contribute to the richness of the broth. I have served the mushrooms in the gumbo but they’re an unexpected element and their texture can be off-putting. So, in this recipe, I cook them in the stock until they give up their flavor and then I strain them out.

I first came upon the mention of dried okra in a 19th century Louisiana cookbook. Prior to the advent of refrigeration and freezers, drying was a much more common method of food preservation. Dried okra would have made okra gumbos possible even in winter. I was so intrigued by the idea that several years ago I began growing and drying my own okra, both green and burgundy varieties. I have dried okra in a low oven, as well as on a tray fitted with a rack in front of a fan, and both work well. I assume that a food dehydrator would also do the trick In addition, sun-dried okra is sometimes available in Middle Eastern food stores.

Oven-dried okra browns and takes on a nutty aroma and flavor that’s quite nice, even as a chewy snack. It isn’t difficult to understand why parched okra seeds have sometimes been used as a coffee substitute. I have tried grinding dried okra in a food processor but have found limited success. As with dried shrimp, dried okra adds a tremendous depth of flavor to a gumbo, more than could be achieved with the fresh version, although there’s no reason why both dried and fresh okra couldn’t be used in the same recipe.

My project for the coming summer is to dry okra over wood smoke. My hunch is that smoked okra would be a wonderful gumbo ingredient. If my project is successful, I’ll report on it here next year.

Duck, Andouille, Oyster, And Dried Okra Gumbo
1 domestic duck (5-6 pounds)
12 cups water
1 stalk celery, with leaves
6 cloves unpeeled garlic, smashed
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon thyme leaves
1 ounce dried shiitake mushrooms
1 pound andouille, sliced
1/4 cup rendered duck fat
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 medium onions, diced
1 bell pepper, diced
1/2 cup dried okra
kosher salt to taste
freshly ground black pepper to taste
cayenne pepper to taste
2 dozen oysters with their liquor
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/4 cup chopped green onion tops

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Remove neck and giblets from duck cavity and rinse duck. Reserve liver for later. With a sharp knife, remove wings and legs with thighs; with kitchen shears, separate back from breast. Place the 6 portions, plus neck, heart and gizzard in roasting pan fitted with a rack. Salt generously and roast in preheated oven until browned; about 1 hour.

Remove legs and breast to a tray to cool. Transfer remaining pieces to a large pot. Strain rendered fat into a bowl and set aside. Scrape up any debris from roasting pan and add to pot. Add water, celery, garlic, bay leaves, thyme and shiitakes, bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer. When legs and breast are cool enough to handle, remove skin and add to pot. Using a sharp knife, separate meat from bones and set aside. Add bones and any juices to pot, cover and simmer for 1 hour or more.

Meanwhile, add sliced andouille to roasting pan and return to oven, stirring occasionally, until browned; about 30 minutes.

Remove andouille and set aside. When duck broth is ready, strain into a heat-proof container and keep warm. Reserve duck carcass.

In a heavy pot large enough to hold finished gumbo, heat 1/4 cup of the rendered duck fat over high heat, add flour and cook, stirring constantly, until dark brown; about 10 minutes. Turn off heat, add onions and stir. Add duck stock and bring to a boil while stirring. Add bell pepper and okra. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes or more. Add andouille and simmer for an additional 30 minutes.

While gumbo is simmering, sauté duck liver in butter and toast a slice of bread. Mash liver with a fork, season with salt and pepper and spread on toast. Enjoy with a glass of wine – the cook’s reward!

Cube reserved duck meat, pick meat from wings, back and neck, dice heart and gizzard and add to gumbo. Season to taste with salt and peppers. Simmer for an additional 15 minutes and skim fat from surface. Add oysters and their liquor and bring back to a simmer until oysters curl; about 5 minutes. Check seasonings, add chopped parsley and green onions. Serve with steamed rice. Makes about 6 to 8 servings.

Dried Okra
1 pound fresh or frozen okra

Spread okra on a baking sheet and place in a 275-degree oven until dried, about 1 hour or more, stirring occasionally. Yields about 3/4 cup of dried okra.

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