In light of my claim that this blog will serve as a space with very few guidelines, I present a recipe I have been working on perfecting for a few months now—a vegetarian gumbo for two. Admittedly, I have made this recipe with shrimp in the past, but I think it’s more interesting in its vegetarian form. Besides, if you want it with shrimp, crawfish, andouille sausage, etc., you can just add those ingredients at will to what I have here. Simple.
With this as well as most of my recipes, I’m not very good at exacting spice measurements. I’ve tried my best to provide some basic figures, but I would always suggest you spice to taste by adding little by little (really, this applies to any recipe). If anything, use the spice measurements I have given as proportional guidelines—i.e. if the recipe calls for 1 tbsp curry powder and 2tbsp cumin, it would be ideal to strive for a 1:2 ratio of curry powder to cumin, even if you don’t make exact measurements of 1 tbsp and 2 tbsp respectively.
Ok, excess theory and methodology aside, here’s the ingredients list:
Ingredients for Vegetarian Gumbo
- 1/2 large onion
- 4 stalks celery
- 2 small bell peppers
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1/2 tsp paprika
- 1 tsp of cayenne pepper
- 1 tsp of dried sassafras leaves (aka filé powder)
- 2 bay leaves
- dash of dried parsley
- salt and pepper
- 2 cups okra
- 1 cob of corn
- 1 cup of green beans
- 1 13.5oz can of diced or crushed tomatoes (I like mine with green chilies added)
- 2 cups stock
- 1/2 cup flour
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1/8 cup vegetable oil
For the roux
To begin, we’re going to cut up all the vegetables. First, the onion, celery, and bell peppers (aka the holy trinity of Cajun cooking) should be chopped up rather finely.
Next, I like to slice the okra into approximately 1/4-1/2 inch-wide pieces. On the subject of okra, if you’re averse to its sliminess, you can soak the fingers in a vinegar-water solution before slicing them to reduce a little bit of the slime. Since this was the first time adding both green beans and corn to the recipe, Amber chopped the green beans into inch-long pieces, and I simply cut all the corn kernels off of the cob.
Making a Roux
Roux is a thickening and flavoring agent made by cooking flour and fat (butter, oil, etc.) in a pan, usually over relatively high heat. It gives gumbo its rich, dark color, as well as its hearty, earthy flavor.
Over the course of learning how to make gumbo, I have sifted through dozens of recipes1 to learn how to prepare the best roux possible. Oftentimes, gumbo recipes do not include roux preparation as part of their instructions, which I have found immensely frustrating. Unless you choose to use a pre-made jarred roux (don’t), then you need to know the steps and ingredients involved in making a roux.
Roux is perhaps the most interesting and most intimidating part of preparing gumbo. I can say from experience, however, that it’s a lot easier than it seems. That said, keep in mind that patience and consistency are key to making a good roux.
Adapted from a French cooking tradition, Cajun roux is typically made with oil or bacon fat and flour. For my recipe, I have chosen a hybrid of Cajun roux and French roux, which is traditionally made with butter and flour.
Again, to vent my frustrations at finding a good set of roux instructions, you’ll often find roux recipes that are designed to produce enough roux for gallons and gallons of gumbo. These recipes are often hard to pare down, as it would require cutting them in 6ths, 8ths, even 12ths to achieve the desired proportions. So, I think I have provided above the right measurements for a roux that will produce just enough gumbo for two hungry people. It’s easier to increase proportions, so you shouldn’t have any trouble using this recipe if you need enough roux to produce gumbo for four, six, eight, etc. people.
Begin by placing a medium sized pan on the stove top and turning the burner up to high. I’ve read that cast iron cookware is the best for making a roux, so if you have a cast iron pan available, by all means use it. The only tip I would add is that you want to use a pan with a decent sized lip, in order to prevent any spill over as you will be constantly stirring extremely hot substances.
Once you can feel a good heat coming off of the pan, add the butter and oil. Let the butter melt about halfway down, and then add the flour. Immediately begin stirring the mix together. Note that at this point, you will not be able to leave the pan alone—not even for a second!—for the next 15-25 minutes, i.e. until the roux is complete.
For stirring the roux, I’ve seen it recommended that you use a metal whisk (which I am using in this first picture), but I have found that a wooden spoon (which I switched to halfway through finishing this roux) works just as well, if not better. Whatever you choose as your stirring device, do not stop stirring until the roux is complete. The key to a smooth, not-burnt roux is consistently stirring and gradually decreasing heat as the mixture darkens.
Once the butter, oil, and flour have combined to form a pasty, off-white substance, the roux will quickly start to darken. In the photo above, the mixture has started to sizzle and bubble, which I would allow it to do for a minute or two before turning the heat down to medium high. Continue stirring, and your roux should soon take on a light brown shade.
Now, turn the heat down to medium, and continue stirring. In the photo above, you may notice that the roux has started to clump. This is not an issue, but if you really think the mixture is too dry, you can add a little bit more vegetable oil as you go. In a minute or so, you should achieve the desired texture and color for the roux.
Once you’ve got a smooth, velvety, chocolate colored roux, turn the heat down to medium low, and grab your holy trinity of vegetables. Add these, along with the garlic, to the roux mix and stir it all up really well.
Adding the Vegetables
I also like to add the sassafras leaves to this mixture, as the juice from the vegetables helps to rehydrate them and bring out their aroma and flavor. For this batch of gumbo, I used sassafras leaves that I purchased at a local spice shop. However, I believe the sassafras used in gumbo is traditionally powdered and is known by the name filé. I have yet to find sassafras in this form anywhere in Montréal (admittedly, I haven’t looked very hard), but I’m sure it can be found at many grocery stores.
When the vegetables are tender, you can turn off the heat. The mixture is ready for the last step.
At this point, the hard work is done. All that’s left is adding the stock, the spices, and the rest of our vegetables. Transfer the roux-holy trinity mixture to a large pot, add the stock, other veggies (including canned tomatoes), and spices, and set the pot on the stove on high heat. Stir the mixture occasionally as it heats up, and when it starts to boil, lower the heat to medium.
Each time I make gumbo, the texture varies a little, but generally it should be thick enough to fall off of a spoon in strings. If you prefer a less thick soup, just add more broth, and if you prefer a thicker soup, adjust the roux measurements to make more of it.
Traditionally, gumbo is served over rice. This time, however, I didn’t feel like making rice, so Amber made some corn bread muffins instead.
This batch of gumbo made enough for dinner and two bowls of leftovers the following day.