Gumbo holds a particularly special place in my heart. Early on in life, it was my go-to comfort food. My dad used to make his mom's recipe for special occasions; it was the one truly traditional Langlois dish, and it had a flavor I will never forget.
But that wasn't the only gumbo I loved. My very first job was washing dishes at an upscale Creole restaurant situated on the Louisiana bayou, and there was always a pot of gumbo simmering in the kitchen, which I ate for lunch and/or dinner every single shift -- no exaggeration -- throughout my adolescence. And when I came out west to Colorado, I moved in with a good friend, a fellow southerner and an excellent cook. He also made excellent gumbo with chicken instead of seafood.
The savory, spiced-up stew, deeply Southern in flavor, has always satisfied my soul, and for some reason -- possibly because of the unseasonable humidity we've been feeling in Denver -- gumbo came to my mind the other day, and I decided to make my own for the first time.
Since my dad is in Europe right now, and couldn't get me his recipe until he got back, I texted my old roommate, who has since moved back down south, and asked for his. "Sure," he responded, "but I feel like learning how to cook gumbo from an e-mailed recipe would be difficult. Instead, we should do it verbally." Making gumbo is a process that deserves respect, he explained. You must prep everything and savor every moment of its culmination. Otherwise, your gumbo will be lacking in spirit.
After getting my instructions over the phone, I went out and grabbed everything I needed, including a bomber of Double IPA from Dry Dock Brewing to give the meal a bold Colorado accentuation. Back at the house, which I luckily had all to myself, I put on some tunes and began. It's hard to describe, but making gumbo felt strangely natural to me, like I had done it before in some other life. It was one of the most fulfilling experiences I've had in the kitchen, and it filled the entire house with a wonderful aroma. It smelled like home.
The gumbo turned out to exactly as I remembered it, which is to say, just right. It was creamy and Cajun, savory with just the right amount of heat, and it brought me back to my childhood. And the beer was the perfect accompaniment: Its strength was all the more soothing, while the bright floral hops stood out, and the sweet malt backbone complemented the creamy hot stew. I've been eating gumbo for days now and still haven't tired of it. I dare say it gets even better over time.
Here's the recipe (courtesy of my old high school chum and best friend Justin Trosclair):
4 pounds chicken thighs 1 pound smoked sausage, chopped 1 large onion, chopped 3 celery stalks, chopped 1 bell pepper, chopped 8 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped 1/2 pound okra 3/4 cups olive oil 1/2 cup flour 2 quarts water 1 tablespoon salt 1 1/2 tablespoon pepper 1 teaspoon thyme 1 tablespoon smoked paprika 1 1/2 teaspoon chili powder 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper 1 teaspoon white pepper 1 1/2 teaspoon file powder Kosher salt, fresh ground pepper and flour on hand 1 cup cooked white rice
1. Saute onion, celery, bell pepper and garlic in a large skillet until the vegetables are soft and onions are translucent. Reduce heat to low and set aside. 2. Season chicken thighs liberally with salt and pepper, and lightly dust with flour. 3. Brown chicken on both sides in olive oil and remove chicken with a slotted spoon and set aside. 4. Reduce heat, and add flour to oil, whisking vigorously to combine. 5. Continue to cook the roux until it becomes brown in color, stirring often for 5-7 minutes, making sure not to burn it. 6. While stirring, add water to roux in a slow stream until it's fully incorporated. 7. Add sautéed vegetables, chicken, sausage, and spices and bring to a boil. 8. Reduce heat, cover and cook for 1 to 2 hours, occasionally skimming the fat as it collects on the top (there will be quite a bit). 9. When chicken is fully cooked, remove and let cool. 10. Remove the meat from the bones and add back to the pot. 11. Saute okra in some olive oil for about 5 minutes and add just before serving. 12. Serve forth with rice and enjoy.