Once we are able to safely travel again, New Orleans is at the top of my list, specifically for Jazz Fest which is hopefully happening in the fall. Not only does this city have the most amazing music, art and food, it's home to Commander's Palace. If you've never had the pleasure of eating at this famed restaurant, it's like stepping back in time. Men are encouraged to wear jackets and must wear collared shirts. It's traditional fine dining, also known as Haute Creole cuisine in Louisiana, set in a Victorian mansion with pressed white tablecloths and crystal chandeliers.
Commander's Palace, located in the Garden District, has been a New Orleans landmark since 1893. The winner of seven James Beard Foundation Awards and with a steady parade of renowned chefs - Emeril Lagasse, Paul Prudhomme, Jamie Shannon, Tory McPhail, and now Meg Bickford (the first female executive chef in 127 years!) - it's evolved into a culinary legend.
It's also the source of one of my favorite Louisiana cookbooks, Commander's Kitchen. As you can see from the well-worn cover, it's one that's gotten a lot of use over the years. The Boiled Shrimp Dip is a staple at almost every party I host, and the Gumbo YaYa is my go-to recipe for gumbo.
When I was in culinary school almost twenty years ago in Chicago, one of our assignments was to cook a meal in the restaurant that was open to the public for lunch. When it was my turn, I chose gumbo. The chef approved, and I went on my way to prep. However, most of my classmates had never heard of gumbo before. I was shocked because where I'm from, everyone has heard of gumbo and heatedly debates on who makes the best.
I like to think I helped educate a few young cooks back then, but if you are not familiar with the dish, here's a crash course into Louisiana's most prized dish.
Gumbo is a soup served over rice and consists of either meat or shellfish cooked in a strongly-flavored stock with the "holy trinity" which is celery, bell peppers and onions. The French have "mire poix" which is onions, carrots and celery and the Cajuns have the holy trinity. Both are used as aromatic flavor bases.
In Louisiana, you typically have two types of gumbo: chicken and Andouille sausage or seafood, which can include any combination of shrimp, crab and oysters. I usually keep the meat and seafood separate but in this case, I had a pound of shrimp in the freezer that needed to be cooked. It makes a lovely addition to a chicken and sausage gumbo.
Gumbo is thickened with roux, and I've given you step-by-step photos of the color the roux should get to in the recipe below. Most recipes (Commander's Kitchen included) call for roux to be cooked on a high heat. My preference is to cook the roux at a medium heat for a longer period of time instead of high heat because you run the risk of burning the roux. If you do burn it, you'll see black spots which will be bitter and ruin the roux. Yes, that's right. If you burn the roux, you've got to start over! You must also exhibit patience when making a roux. Getting a roux to the desired color for this gumbo took me about 10 minutes of constant stirring and scraping.
Roux is actually just one of the thickening agents in gumbo. Okra and filé powder, which is dried and ground sassafras leaves, can be used as well. I like a thicker gumbo, and I like the flavor and color that the okra adds to the gumbo, so I actually use both. Commander's Kitchen only uses filé powder. If you like a thinner gumbo, you can always add water if you feel it has gotten too thick while simmering. Alternatively, if the okra and filé powder haven't thickened it enough, just keep cooking it and it will thicken up.
Gumbo is not a dish that you can whip up on a weeknight in an hour. It takes some prep time including chopping lots of vegetables (our virtual Knife Skills class can certainly make you faster at this) and you want it to simmer for at least two and a half hours to give the flavors time to meld. And as in most one pot meals, it always seems to be just a bit better the next day.
Gumbo YaYa gets its name from Chef Paul Prudhomme who claimed that the gumbo was so good it made you say “Ya Ya!" Try this recipe, and you'll be saying it too!
Scroll down for a printable version of this recipe
Adapted from Commander's Kitchen
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 3 hours
Inactive time: 2 1/2 hours
1 small chicken, broken down into parts (you can do this yourself or buy a chicken already cut)
Salt and pepper
1/4 cup all-purpose flour, plus extra for dredging chicken
1/4 cup grapeseed oil (or any oil with a high smoke point such as vegetable or canola)
2 large onions, medium dice
2 bell peppers, medium dice
4 stalks celery, medium dice
10 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 Tablespoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
Pinch of dried oregano
Pinch of dried basil
Pinch of dried thyme
4 bay leaves
4 quarts water
12 oz andouille or other smoked sausage, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 pound large shrimp (you can omit this if you want)
15 oz (1 bag) frozen cut okra
1 Tablespoon filé powder
Tabasco sauce, to taste and for serving
Boiled rice, for serving
3 scallions, thinly sliced
1. Season both side of the chicken with salt and pepper.
2. Dredge chicken with flour and shake off excess flour.
3. Heat the oil in a large, heavy pot (I use my Le Creuset 7.5 quart bouillabaisse pot) until very hot, almost smoking. Sear the chicken in the hot oil until it is golden brown, about 5 minutes on each side. You will likely have to do this in batches as I did, depending on the size of your pot. Remove the chicken from the pot. I like to put it on the lid of the pot turned upside down because you don't have to dirty another dish, and it will collect all of the juices from the chicken.
4. Add the flour to the oil, stirring constantly over a medium-high heat with a wooden spoon until the roux is the color of chocolate, about 10 minutes. Scrape the sides and bottom of the pot constantly as you stir, trying to break up any bit of chicken that are stuck to the pan. Be careful not to let it burn!
5. When the roux has reached the desired color, add the onions and cook for 1 minute. Add the celery and bell pepper and cook for another minute. Be sure to continue to scrape the sides and bottom of the pot as the holy trinity cooks.
6. Add the garlic and stir. Add the cayenne, oregano, basil, thyme and bay leaves and season with salt and pepper.
7. Slowly add the water, stirring constantly to avoid lumps.
8. Add the chicken back to the pot (along with its juices) with the sausage and stir. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to low and simmer for about 2 1/2 hours.
9. Skim away any fat that appears on the surface of the gumbo as it simmers.
10. When the chicken is falling off the bones, remove it from the pan again. Add the shrimp (if using) and frozen okra.
11. Once the chicken is cool enough to touch, remove the skin and bones and shred the meat and return to the pot.
12. Add the filé and stir well to avoid clumping. Adjust the salt and pepper and finish with Tabasco sauce to taste.
13. Serve over boiled rice and garnish with scallions.
To learn how to make more delicious food straight from New Orleans, join us for an Evening in New Orleans on Friday, April 2 at 6:30pm at Lincoln Square for an in-person cooking demonstration. You'll learn how to make and enjoy:
- Oysters Rockefeller Crostini
- Snapper with Crawfish Nantua (Classic Crawfish Tail Cream Sauce)
- Dirty Rice with Andouille Sausage
- Banana Foster Bread Pudding
Gumbo is the perfect one pot meal, which just happens to be this week's challenge for The Chopping Block's private Facebook group. Join, make a one pot meal and share your creations with other home cooks to inspire each other!