Yesterday, Good Friday, I was cooking dinner for some of my favourite people, so I decided to make one of my favourite dishes from my favourite cuisine – New Orleans gumbo.
I used “LaDonna’s” “Creole Gumbo” recipe from the Treme cookbook inspired by the HBO TV series, a beautiful work of art and a wonderful philosophy treatise as well as a cookery manual. I’m slightly sad it’s now somewhat splashed and spattered, but I find all my very favourite cookbooks end up this way.
I probably should have made gumbo z’herbes, a greens-based version designed to suit Lenten dietary restrictions and traditionally eaten in New Orleans on Maundy Thursday.
If you’re tempted by the thought of this, a recipe (along with some interesting thoughts about the dish) can also be found in the Treme cookbook courtesy of “Albert” and Leah Chase of renowned New Orleans restaurant Dooky Chase.
But my guests love seafood and sausage, so I had to go for the classic version.
Like all good cookery projects, this one started with a stock of great ingredients: meat, fish, vegetables, spice.
First, roux and okra. This combination of a French cooking technique and an African vegetable is a sign of the rich mix of influences on New Orleans cusine. Okra can be hard to find in London; the ones I bought at the Turkish greengrocer near where I live came all the way from Mexico.
Gumbo can also have filé powder in its base, an ingredient derived from the sassafras tree and first used by Native Americans, another significant part of the Louisiana melting pot. But it’s almost impossible to source in the UK, so I left it out.
Next, appropriately for an Easter dish, the “holy trinity” – bell pepper, onion and celery. I wish I could have used the extra big and tasty Fenland celery I grew up with during my childhood in low-lying and watery East Anglia, which always reminds me a little bit of the Louisiana wetlands. But it’s out of season at the moment.
Then the rendered sausage. We don’t have andouille or Creole hot sausage in London – “LaDonna” says in her recipe that she’s never seen Creole hot sausage outside the city. So I used my imagination and picked a mixture of Spanish chorizo and black pepper beef sausage.
I made the fish stock from Scottish langoustines, that might just have come from the waters around the Isle of Skye near to where my parents have a cabin.
Gradually the ingredients start to come together. First, the roux and okra are added to the stock, then the sausage, and then the vegetables and shrimp meat.
The pot simmers, and the flavours blend.
Towards the end of the cooking process, I added some shell-on langoustines I’d reserved – in my family, you’re not eating seafood if you’re not getting sticky hands and sauce on your shirt!
Creole spice blend is the final addition, and is yet another ingredient that’s commonplace in New Orleans but hard to find here – so I made my own: black pepper, white pepper, cayenne, paprika, thyme, oregano, basil and what you could call “delta salt”, another part of my East Anglian childhood.
As I mixed these together and smelled the sweet herbs, spice and soft heat, I thought I could sense the Italian influence on New Orleans cooking.
The cooked gumbo rests for a while, and is then reheated and finally ready to serve, traditionally over hot white rice.
I also added some garlic-buttered French bread and a celery leaf and parsley salad dressed with olive oil, white wine vinegar and lemon juice. And it all must have tasted all right as all that was left at the end was washing up.