Mardi Gras is next Tuesday and it is time to get in the spirit! French for “Fat Tuesday,” Mardi Gras (mardee-graw) represents the culmination of Carnival Season, a period of indulgence before the beginning of Lent. Because celebrations are prohibited during Lent, all rich food and drink needed to be disposed of. The best way to do this was to consume it during a large party which is probably how Carnival began. Whether you follow a strict religious belief or just like the fun of a huge party, Mardi Gras is a wonderful celebration of life.
While there are Mardi Gras celebrations all over the world, the one in New Orleans is the most well known in this country. Each year the city throws masquerade balls, parades, and king cake parties, primarily occurring during the two weeks prior to Ash Wednesday. The official colors of Mardi Gras are purple, gold, and green and show up in every conceivable manner, most notably in the festive king cakes.
There are hundreds of foods to choose from in the Cajun and Creole cuisines, and today we’re making Gumbo. It is a spicy stew made with a variety of proteins such as poultry, seafood, pork, and beef, and served over separately cooked rice. Okra and filé powder are the traditional thickeners, but if you don’t have them, you can also make a roux from equal parts of butter and flour. Filé (fee-lay) is made from the ground leaves of the sassafras tree and tastes like a blend of thyme and savory. The roots and bark of the tree are used in the making of root beer. Although considered an integral part of Creole foods, sassafras was already being used in cooking by the Choctaw Indians when the Cajuns arrived in Louisiana from Acadia in the 1600’s.
One of the beauties of gumbo is that you can use whatever you like or have on hand to make it. If you don’t have turkey, you can use chicken. If you don’t have smoked sausage or Tasso readily available, feel free to substitute smoked ham or even a hock. Shrimp and crawfish are common additions. Crab, when it is in season, is fantastic in gumbo. Get creative and see what combinations become your favorites.
The habit of using a lot of different spices and herbs started because of a lack of refrigeration. Foods that weren’t smoked or otherwise preserved tended to spoil quickly in the intense heat of the South. Copious amounts of seasoning covered up any hint of spoilage. Thank goodness we no longer have anything we need to hide and can simply enjoy the amazing blending of ingredients common in Cajun cooking.
Along with turkey and smoked sausage, this gumbo features Tasso, a spicy Cajun ham. Usually made from the shoulder, it is seasoned with red pepper, garlic, filé powder, and other spices before being smoked for several days. Used primarily as a flavor enhancer in soups and stews, Tasso has an unmistakable flavor, adds a lot of heat and is a great addition to anything you cook with it. Tasso is hard to find, but worth the hunt. I usually buy mine online and keep it frozen. A little goes a long way.
This recipe is from Chef Ryan Boudreaux of Cajun Chef Ryan. A talented and accomplished chef, he decided to start a blog to share his love of Cajun cooking and his 20+ years of experience in restaurants. A native of New Orleans, he grew up in a family where both his parents loved to cook. After watching Julia Child demonstrate the technique for perfect omelets, he practiced and they became his specialty. He was destined for a career in the kitchen. You should check out his blog for some wonderful stories, lots of delicious recipes, and a taste of New Orleans hospitality!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
As with all Cajun seasonings and ingredients, you should taste everything to judge the amount of heat it contains. You can always add cayenne, hot sauce, or pepper flakes to your meal if you want more spice.
- For the stock
- 5 lb turkey or chicken parts, a combination of wings, legs, and thighs
- 2 large onions, rinsed, unpeeled, and quartered
- 4 stalks celery, cut in large chunks
- 5 carrots, scrubbed, root end removed, and cut into large chunks
- 1/2 bunch fresh thyme, rinsed thoroughly
- 1 gal filtered cool water
- For the gumbo
- 3 cups onions, chopped
- 3 cups celery, chopped
- 1 cup red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
- 12 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
- 1 lb smoked sausage, such as andouille, sliced
- 4 oz Tasso or smoked ham, diced
- 1 tbsp Italian seasoning
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- 1 tsp dried basil
- 3 bay leaves
- 1-1/2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
- 2 (28 oz) cans stewed tomatoes, chopped
- 3 lb okra, sliced
- 3 lb cooked turkey meat, cubed
- 1/4 cup Filé powder plus 1/4 cup cold water, whisked together to make a slurry
- 1 tbsp hot sauce, preferably Crystal brand
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Steamed or boiled white rice, for serving
- Fresh thyme sprigs, for garnish
- To make the Stock: Place the turkey pieces, onions, celery, carrots, and thyme in a large stockpot and cover with the cool filtered water. Bring to a simmer, cover and cook at a low simmer for about 2 hours and up to 8 hours. Strain and reserve the turkey stock liquid; discard solids. Stock can be made far in advance. Refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze for longer storage.
- To make the Gumbo: Place the strained turkey stock in a large stockpot, and add the chopped onions, celery, bell pepper, and garlic. Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat to a simmer over medium-low heat.
- Add the smoked sausage, tasso, all the spices and bay leaves, Worcestershire sauce, stewed tomatoes, and okra. Increase heat and bring back to a boil then reduce heat to medium-low heat. Simmer for 10 minutes.
- Add the turkey meat, filé powder slurry, and hot sauce, and simmer on low about 5 minutes. Do not let it boil. Season to taste with the salt and pepper.
- To Serve: Ladle over bowls of cooked rice, garnish with fresh thyme sprigs, and serve immediately. Pass hot sauce and additional file powder at the table.
- Yield: 8 quarts, about 15 servings