Oh MeOhMyOh....it's GUMBO 101!
Gumbo, like many regional dishes, is thought to reflect the melting-pot nature of Louisiana cooking, but its origins are a source of debate. The name GUMBO derives from a West African word for okra, suggesting that the original form of this stew contained just that. Culturally Louisiana is a stand-alone in the US - nowhere else in the States can you find so many regional languages, each with their own idiom and accent, Caribbean and African folklore, traditions based on geography (all graves above ground), and mysticism. Combine all that with the culinary influences, and its no wonder there are many versions of gumbo to be had. I like to think this stew was made with what grew and could be gotten locally - so in the forests and flatlands (home of the Cajuns - who emigrated from the North), the style of gumbo was more rustic and included andouille sausage, game, and was thickened with sassafras/file and flavored with a dark roux. Nearer to the water (where the Creoles settled after sailing from France and Spain), more shellfish, oysters, alligator and turtle showed up, and Creole gumbo was thickened with okra, and flavored with a lighter version of roux.
People often ask what distinguishes a gumbo from jambalaya, as they share so many ingredients. The simple answer - gumbo is a wet stew, served over rice and jambalaya is a dry stew, cooked with rice, much like a paella.
The base of any good gumbo, as those in New Orleans will insist, is a ROUX - the classic mixture of fat and flour that imparts flavor, color and thickening to most gumbos. Other thickeners are used alone or in combination in gumbos, whether it's okra or Gumbo File (ground up sassafras - with the distinctive aroma of root beer).
The next thing that MUST be included in every gumbo is the "TRINITY." Unlike the French who use mirepoix (carrots, onions, celery) as the base of their sauces, the Trinity is comprised of onions, celery and green bell pepper. This trio forms the backbone of flavor of every single creole and cajun dish and sauce. When garlic is added, it's called the "HOLY TRINITY!"
SHHHHH.....here's a little secret about Soheila's gumbo (pictured above). She uses one of the many Instant Roux mixes you can find in all the local markets (she uses Tony Chachere's Creole Instant Roux). She swears it saves her time and cuts the fat. But I think the meditative and wonderful part of making gumbo is doing it old school, with a real roux. She insists on using basmati rice rather than the traditional short grain rice that is called for in all the recipes. She rinses and soaks the rice overnight in water, drains it, and cooks it low and slow in the rice cooker. This way the grains of rice grow extra long with the soaking and taste lovely. I think you can just use the rice you love, and it's all going to taste great! And lastly, she preps her trinity in large quantities, portions out 3 cups into a freezer bag and freezes it for a spontaneous gumbo party.
So let's get cooking! This is food for a crowd (feeds 8) and you can stretch it further if more guests arrive by adding more stock, and being more generous with your rice. Serve with a variety of hot sauces like Crystal or Tabasco, lemon slices, cilantro, green onions, parsley and some ice cold beer. This is a year round dish, sure to please, make-ahead, and bound to be a favorite!