This dish holds a special place in my heart — mostly because it was one of my dad’s favorites, and representative of his love for New Orleans — but also because until this weekend, I never thought I’d taste it again.
Since my dad died, I’ve been scouring his recipes for this one in particular, but coming up empty handed. I was overjoyed when my sister Annie said she found a Cuisine magazine from 1979 that had a shrimp and okra gumbo recipe bookmarked. Bingo!
Being a tinkerer, of course my dad added to this recipe over the years, incorporating extra spices and all manner fresh seafood. We were having trouble remember exactly what he shoved in this dish, but we decided to go with shrimp, scallops, mussels, and andouille sausage for more N’awlins flavor. Upon reflection, we decided we remembered him using clams instead of scallops, but the scallops were actually awesome in this dish. Next time, I’d do both! I reckon you can throw whatever seafood you can find in here, and it would still taste great. The best part is, the base flavors and texture tasted exactly how I remembered it. We had a winner!
This recipe was new territory for me, as I rarely cook anything that takes longer than an hour. Annie and I blocked off a whole day for this, and ended up taking about five hours total. And that’s with two people pitching in! I can’t believe Dad would do this all by himself. If you’re a bit quicker in the kitchen and you’re not making side dishes (we went with jalapeno corn bread and Southern sautéed kale) or throwing back Hurricanes like we were, you can maybe get this done in three hours. Maybe.
Either way, it’s a fairly complex recipe, and we learned a lot along the way. See the full recipe below, followed by our (hopefully) super-helpful tips. Learn from our mistakes, people!
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 2 large onions, chopped
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 24 ounces of fresh okra, chopped (about 4 cups)
- 13.5 ounces andouille sausage
- 1 tablespoon olive oil (or vegetable oil)
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 green pepper, chopped
- 2 red peppers, chopped
- 4 cloves of garlic, minced
- 4 stalks of celery, chopped
- 2.5 quarts of boiling water
- 2 chicken bouillon cubes
- 1 tablespoon of crushed red pepper (use less to cut down on spice)
- 5 teaspoons salt
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
- 2 teaspoons allspice
- 1.5 teaspoons ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon thyme
- 2 teaspoons cumin
- 1-1.5 pound medium shrimp, peeled an deveined
- 1 pound scallops
- 1 pound mussels, steamed and deshelled
- Optional: 1 pound clams, steamed and deshelled
- 2 tablespoons filé powder
- 2.5 cups of rice for serving
- Hot sauce
- Filé powder
- Flat-leaf Italian parsley
- Mix oil and flour in a small saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring frequently, until the roux reaches a dark mahogany color (about 45 minutes; do not burn or undercook). Remove roux from heat and set aside.
- In a large pot or dutch oven, sauté onions in 3 tablespoons of butter until soft (about 5 minutes). Stir in okra and sauté until tender (about 3 minutes). Stir in tomatoes and sauté mixture for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- In a separate pan, sauté andouille sausage in 1 tablespoon of oil until browned and cooked through. Set sausage aside. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in the pan and sauté green pepper, red peppers, garlic, and celery for about 10 minutes.
- Add the pepper mixture to the okra mixture along with water, bouillon, crushed red pepper, salt, bay leaves, Worcestershire, allspice, black pepper, thyme, cumin, and roux. Simmer covered for 1.5 hours. While gumbo is simmering, steam and deshell shellfish, if you have not already done so. Towards the end of the simmer time, begin preparing the rice.
- Add shrimp and scallops to pot and continue to simmer until they are cooked through (about 5 minutes). Stir in sausage, mussels, and clams (if using). Taste the gumbo and add additional spices as needed.
- Remove the gumbo from heat and let stand for 10 minutes. Stir in 2 tablespoons of filé powder. Ladle gumbo into serving bowls and top each with a scoop of rice. Garnish with hot sauce, filé powder, and parsley as desired.
Challenge One: The Roux
Oh, the mysterious roux. Cuisine talks rather gravely of this deceptively simple mixture of flour and oil: “Roux must get very dark brown but not burned; do not undercook.” And most dauntingly, they said this process would take 45 minutes. I read that and scoffed. I distinctly remember my dad making roux in the microwave and showing me the process. Unfortunately, I was probably 15 at the time, so I wasn’t exactly hanging on my dad’s every word. But thanks to Google, I tracked down a guide to microwaving your own roux. And then this happened…
The picture is so crappy because I took it with my cell phone after the initial panic of “oh my god my microwave is filling with smoke” had passed. Turns out I vastly underestimated the strength of my microwave. Luckily, there was no irreparable damage done. Just a smokey kitchen and wounded pride. Dad had to be laughing (and swearing) at me over that one (“God dammit, Emily!”).
Although I was confident that a new blanket policy of 30 seconds at a time would solve this burnt-to-a-crisp problem, Annie and I decided to play it safe and just take the 45 minutes to cook the damn roux on the stove top. I was so nervous that I pretty much hovered over it the entire time while Annie got to chopping the okra. And it’s true that this does pretty much require constant babysitting; I would not have felt comfortable leaving it long enough to get any serious chopping done.
So if you’re a patient person or have a sous chef, by all means make your roux on the stove. If not, I certainly see why microwave roux is a viable option, and I will try it again next time. Everybody just be careful!
The mahogany color is no joke, but it really is right on the edge of burning, so you want to be really careful. Here’s another pic of the color you are aiming for:
Just take it off the heat right away and put it aside when its done. I ended up whisking it before adding it to the gumbo because it got a little lumpy. It was easy to recombine, though.
Challenge Two: Chopping Stuff
There is just so much stuff to chop! It takes forever, and I’m sure it’s extra frustrating without a partner to share the burden. While I was minding the roux, Annie was busy chopping up the bulk of the ingredients, the most disgusting of which was the okra.
It’s slimy. It’s slippery. It’s hairy. Seriously, yuck. Just power through it, though, because in the end it blends right into the gumbo and you don’t have to really taste it, I swear. Even Tony, our resident okra hater, didn’t have a problem with the okra in this dish.
Challenge Three: Filé Powder
This is what Cuisine magazine has to say about the last step of this 4+ hour recipe: “If gumbo is too hot when filé powder is added, it will become stringy and inedible.”
Well, shit. Needless to say, Annie and I were terrified about fucking this up. I had no idea what filé powder even was, but it seemed to hold mystical properties. The enigmatic, hand-labeled canister added to the mystique.
But it turns out filé powder is nothing more than a spicy herb made from the dried and ground leaves of the sassafras tree. It’s a thickening agent that can apparently replace okra and even a roux in gumbo. I guess that explains why this recipe uses relatively little. Though we only added 2 tablespoons to the large pot, it certainly altered the flavor in subtle and indescribable ways. It was definitely a key ingredient in making this gumbo taste like Dad’s.
This recipe was indeed challenging, but let me reiterate that it was completely worth it. A pot of this will warm your bones and feed a small army (of no more than 12 people).
It’s also one of the more expensive dishes I’ve ever made. It’s worth it to watch out for seafood sales or incorporate whatever cheap ingredients you can find (Canned crab? Frozen mussels?). Please comment if you can think of any yummy variations!
True to my Dad’s tastes, this dish is spicy, but not overwhelmingly so. I myself added a good dab of hot sauce to each bowl I ate, but that’s just me.
This is the most rewarding dish I’ve cooked for this blog so far, and I was so glad to share the experience with my sister. It’s given me confidence to tackle more complex recipes, and it’s inspired me to plan my first trip to the Big Easy as soon as I get the chance. Now, who wants to come over for gumbo?