Perfect, lustrous Deep South Cajun Gumbo – a life-draining ordeal

A Jekyll Island inspiration: the gumbo they don’t make

When we lived outside Atlanta, one of our favorite weekend getaway spots was Jekyll Island, billed as the “jewel” of Georgia’s “Golden Isles.” That gets no argument from me. Every inch of some twenty miles of beach is open to the public – the State of Georgia owns the whole island and operates it as a state park – and we’ve been there often enough to discover its nooks and crannies, and how to settle into a state of utter calm and completely unwarranted bliss.

We love Jekyll.

There are several good restaurants on the island, but we tended to gravitate toward the Rah Bar, an indoor-outdoor seafood bistro sitting on a dock on the Intracoastal Waterway: Dungeness crablegs, shrimp, and crawfish were its main fare, but you could also get a hot dog or a pulled pork barbeque sandwich. Often as not, though, we opted for the Low Country Boil – all of the seafood above, with corn on the cob, potatoes, and Andouille sausage on a big platter to share.

The Rah Bar, attached to Latitude 31, on the intracoastal waterway, Jekyll Island, Georgia (photo Ned White)

The Rah Bar, attached to Latitude 31, on the intracoastal waterway, Jekyll Island, Georgia, where they don’t serve gumbo (photo Ned White)

But they don’t make gumbo, which would be a perfect feature on their menu. Why don’t they make it?

Because it’s too hard.

So here’s your chance to show off your chops and make something that’s really really hard.

Real genuine honest gumbo

Real genuine honest perfect gumbo (photo Ned White)

Okay, so making this dish is a nearly unbearable ordeal. But the payoff is gigantic. (I love the bit of blather on some of Hannaford’s paper bags: “Most people think of grocery shopping as an unbearable ordeal…” I don’t know who they talk to, but I actually like grocery shopping at Hannaford, and many other places, too).

Why is it such an ordeal? It takes a solid three hours of prep and cooking, and most of that time you can’t sit down – you’re actually chopping and sautéing and stirring like mad with no break, pouring and combining and more stirring…

In the end, you will have Deep South (New Orleans, Cajun) gumbo at its truest, most genuine, most honest – unlike anything you will ever get in restaurant (because they often skip the okra!). You will be heroic when you serve this to friends and guests. You will be heroic if you eat it by yourself. This is the truest, most honest recipe I know, and it goes back generations into an era of the old South when most people had time to work this hard (joylessly, with no thanks) to feed family and friends.

I can see bumper stickers: “I made gumbo and lived!” I did yesterday, and have the photos to prove it.

Okay, so what’s in it? Anything is allowed – including varmints and recent roadkill – but the usual is seafood and sausage. Shrimp, oysters, and Andouille sausage are traditional, and are included here. The veggies are carrots, celery, onion, medium-hot chiles, and sauteed cut okra. And lots of other stuff, too. Including Filé powder, which I suspect is not on everyone’s spice rack, but essential for this dish. But the key ingredient, and the one that may have you cursing me, is the roux.

Here we go:

Real Perfect Cajun Gumbo

Preparation time: forever (okay, 3 hours).  Serves: 6-8 people.  Advice: get plenty of rest the night before, have some refreshment nearby, put on soothing music and don’t answer the phone because you’ll sound angry.

You’ll need: lots of bowls and several pots and pans, plus —

  • 1 1/2 to 2 lbs. raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 4 8 oz. cans oyster meats, or 3 dozen raw oysters
  • 1 lb. spicy Cajun-style Andouille sausage, raw or cooked, chopped into pieces
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 large onion, 2 large carrots, 1 celery stalk all finely chopped
  • 3-4 large medium hot chiles, like Anaheims (or 6-8 small jalapenos), split, seeded, and finely chopped (wear gloves when handling them)
  • 3 cups cut okra, fresh or frozen (frozen is best this time of year)
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 3 qts. fish, seafood, or shrimp stock, (including broth from the oyster cans)
  • 1 tbsp. fish base (by Better Than Bouillon) if desired
  • black pepper to taste
  • 1 1/2 tbsp. Filé powder (Zatarain’s has it  – you may have to hunt for this… it’s pronounced fee-LAY))

Make the roux, and this is where it helps if you are strong in your stirring arm and calm in your soul: in a large skillet, combine  the butter with the flour over low heat, and whisk steadily for about 20 minutes until the roux is very dark. Yep, 20 minutes! The roux will start to turn color after 7-8 minutes, and quite dark at 15 minutes. But keep whisking!

Now, sauté the veggies in the roux. Add the onion, carrots, and celery, and cook over very low heat for about 10 minutes until the veggies have softened, stirring nearly constantly. You’ll need a firm steel spatula to scrape the pan to keep the roux from sticking or burning. Now set the pan aside and heave a sigh of relief.

Fry the okra.  In another skillet, unoiled, cook the okra over medium-high heat for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. The okra will ooze a whitish, gooey liquid from its seeds. Brown the okra lightly on all sides, then scrape them from the pan into a bowl, trying not to include the whitish goo.

You have now been stirring and scraping without a break for 40 minutes! Congrats!

Sauté the chiles and sausage. In a large dutch oven or stockpot, heat the tbsp. of olive oil and add the chiles, stirring until they’re fragrant, which is about 1 minute, and then set aside in a bowl. Now add the sausage pieces to the pot and brown them for a few minutes (if it’s raw sausage, about ten minutes), stirring frequently, then transfer them to the bowl with chiles.

Stirring time: now 50 minutes!

Heat the stock. Add the wine and just 1 cup of your seafood/fish/shrimp stock to the same pot, and boil until the stock is reduced by about one-quarter. Then add the rest of the stock, including the broth  from the canned oysters, and bring it to a boil. Lower the heat and let it simmer, uncovered.

It just got a little easier. Hang in there…

Combine the whole shebang! Now add the roux mixture with veggies, and the reserved sausage, chilies, and browned okra to the broth, and cook gently for 20-30 minutes, stirring frequently, until it’s very hot but not boiling. Then add the shrimp and oysters, turn off the heat, and stir very gently. Finally, stir in the filé powder. (This is what gives the gumbo much of its unique je ne sais quoi).

That’s it! The gumbo will be dark brown, soupy in texture, and beautifully lustrous. Serve this over Basmati rice or just by itself as a hearty soup meal. However you serve it, it should be with pride, if not something approaching smugness. Refrigerate or freeze what’s left over.

So so good... (photo Ned White)

So so good… (photo Ned White)

There you have it. Next week, back to Colorado’s Pinyon Canyon and a special guest recipe!






Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is a writer, novelist, crossword puzzle constructor, traveler through 49 states, and at times a danger in the kitchen. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.