In my family, seafood gumbo is the ultimate dish to prepare and eat. Gumbo is always an event, because it's absolutely delicious, labor intensive, and loaded with familial memories. Not a complicated dish, it has definite quirks. You must prepare a dark brown, (or black, if you're a gumbo master) roux, which can take an hour or two of constant stirring. And there are the shrimps, massive amounts of them, which require teams of people, peeling and deveining until you feel your sanity start to slip. The kids had the job of peeling shrimp, and I'm convinced that the major reason people have children in my family is to ensure a steady pool of shrimp laborers. Until my mom died, I never put the gumbo together. I never had that honor. I just peeled shrimp for hours until I wanted to scream, while my mom and her sisters argued the finer points of sauteeing the vegetables, or the proper color for the roux. Try peeling 20-40 pounds of shrimp. The last time my cousins and I did that amount, about 15 years ago, we wound up fighting and throwing shrimp at each other. When I was a child, gumbo was a cheap dish to prepare. My grandmother would go to the docks and buy shrimp for less than a dollar a pound. And she caught her own beautiful blue crabs. Now, gumbo is quite pricey to make. I made a pot of it for Thanksgiving and wound up paying almost $200 for the shrimp and crab. Small wonder that I rarely make it now.
We eat seafood file gumbo, not okra gumbo. And don't even think about putting sausage in our seafood gumbo! It overwhelms the sweet shrimp flavor that we work so hard to achieve. File gumbo is a Cajun dish, whereas Creole gumbo uses okra. File, (pronounced as fee-lay) the dried leaves of the sassafras tree, is used to flavor and thicken gumbo. File can be hard to find outside of the Gulf Coast, but Penzeys and Whole Foods are good sources for it. Each person sprinkles the proper amount of it on their serving of gumbo, just before they eat it. But, care must be taken not to add too much, or the gumbo will get stringy. File is actually a spice, but I'm going to treat it as an herb, to submit this recipe to Weekend Herb Blogging. WHB was founded by the marvelous Kalyn at Kalyn's Kitchen, and this week WHB is home with Kalyn in Utah. Stop by her site and see the round-up of herby recipes from around the world. It should be up on Monday.
A very dark roux is essential to a Cajun gumbo. At the very least, it should be dark brown. And it must not burn. My mother and grandmother made a roux that was almost black. Roux can be made very quickly by heating the oil until it's smoking, then adding the flour. My mom did that and could make a dark roux in about 10 minutes. The term "Cajun Napalm" is often used to describe what it feels like when hot roux splashes on your skin, so I make my roux slowly. It starts out white.
After an hour, it was dark enough for me. The dark roux adds a nutty flavor and aroma that plays off the sweet shrimp and crab. It's marvelous. Don't think of going to the bathroom or answering the phone while you're making it. Stir, and stir.
Add the veggie mixture to the boiling stock and stir. Then, cook this for about 45 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. At this point I put the pot of broth into the fridge for two days (which made it better) and added the seafood on Thanksgiving.
I made 12 quarts of marvelous food for the gods, if I do say so myself. It was gone after 2 days. I did share with others--honest.
Shrimp and Crab File Gumbo
Makes 6-12 Servings (I tripled this amount)
Note: Shrimp stock is best, but if you don't have it--use water. If your peel your own shrimp, save the shells (even better if you have shrimp heads) and cover them with cold water in a large pot. Cook for about 30 minutes, then strain the shells out. I freeze batches of it every time I peel shrimp.
2 cups chopped onions
1½ cups chopped green bell peppers
1 cup chopped celery
2 whole bay leaves
2 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon thyme
¼ teaspoon oregano
¾ cup vegetable oil
¾ cup flour
1 cup tomato sauce
5-1/2 cups water or shrimp stock
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1-1/2 pounds crabs, bodies and claws
2-3 pounds shrimp; deveined and shelled
(use shells to make stock )
dash of Tabasco
Put the flour and oil in a heavy skillet over medium high heat. Stir constantly until it turns dark brown. Be very careful not to splash any of the roux on yourself as you cook it. Do not let the roux burn. Adjust the heat lower if it looks like it may burn.
When the roux is done, immediately begin adding the chopped vegetables to the roux in the skillet. Saute For about 6-8 minutes, stirring constantly.
Have the stock or water ready and hot in a large pot. Bring to a boil and begin adding the roux vegetable mixture to the boiling stock, stirring after each addition. Add the salt and the tomato sauce. Note: If I don't have any shrimp stock and have to use water, I add about 1pound of the shrimp and a can of crab meat and cook it for flavoring the stock. Cook about 1 hour. Taste to see if it needs more salt. This base can be refridgrated until you're ready to eat the gumbo. In fact, it tastes better if it sits for a day or so.
When you're ready to eat the gumbo, bring stock to a boil and add the peeled shrimp and crab. Cook for about 10 minutes, then turn the heat off and let it sit for a few minutes more. Serve over hot rice. Sprinkle file over the top, being careful to add and sample. If you're heavy handed it will make your gumbo too thick.