Not exactly “traditional” but this Northern version of the Southern classic is full of flavor!
It is Vermont. It is winter. It is also Mardi Gras, the day of feasting and celebration before the beginning of Lent. I planned to make a gumbo for dinner tonight, and, as usual, had a difficult time finding some of the necessary ingredients. But it all turned out fine! More than fine, this is now one of my new favorites, with a deep and delicious flavor that transports me to the South.
Filé. My first problem. This spice made from ground sassafras leaves appears to not exist in my county in the winter, and okra, another classic in the dish, is a foreign vegetable even at high summer around here!
Learning to love the heat
Although I spent a year of my life in the Deep South when I was much younger, I’m afraid I was so homesick at the time, most of my cooking there involved dishes from my own roots. However, I learned to love gumbos, and other Cajun and Creole dishes, and for the first time in my life, I enjoyed the layers of spicy heat in the cuisine, although I never learned to love the heat of the actual weather.
A dish of its own
This recipe is neither Cajun nor Creole, but a bit of each with a little Vermont thrown in. There’s butter and there’s oil, there’s tomato, and the hope of filé, although not the reality because of the limitations of geography. I experimented with the “baked roux” method that seems to be popular, and happily found it saves a lot of time standing over the stove babysitting the mixture, without sacrificing flavor. It also makes the house smell absolutely wonderful, so I highly recommend it! I’m already thinking of other ways to use this technique.
I used a green pepper, traditional in this, and resisted the urge to make it a sweet red pepper. However, I was a little off tradition by adding a finely minced red Serrano pepper, for just a little more heat.
Although I have seen chicken andouille sausages around these parts, I couldn’t find them this week. So I used a regular hot turkey sausage and added a teaspoon of smoked paprika. If you are using a smoked sausage, just use regular paprika here.
No filé, and I couldn’t even find sassafras tea which was my Plan B! So I added about a half cup of sassafras beer (similar to root beer, a soft drink) along with my stock to add some of that flavor. I was afraid it would make the dish too sweet, but what it actually did was balance out the heat a bit. A Southerner might shake their head at this, and I apologize for taking such liberties, but Yankee ingenuity, frugality, and a touch of desperation was at work here. Plus, I had spent so much time looking for the filé I had to come up with something that might work! I couldn’t let my hunter-gathering be for naught!
Rescue every drop of flavor!
I used wild Gulf shrimp that I purchased frozen, and peeled and deveined them, saving the shells for the stock. Use whatever size shrimp you like here, but remember that if they are really small it will take quite a while to peel them!
To extract as much flavor as possible from the shrimp, I made a stock from the shells and all the vegetable trimmings. There was plenty for the dish, and to use in the accompanying rice as well. Waste not.
This will serve around eight. Deliciously!
1 cup white flour
1/2 cup canola oil
2 tbsp. each butter and olive oil
1 lb. boneless chicken, white or dark, cut into one-inch pieces
8 ounces chicken or turkey andouille sausage, hot, sliced thinly
1 onion, small dice
2 ribs of celery, small dice
1 large green bell pepper, small dice
1 red Serrano pepper, small dice
1 small carrot, small dice (not traditional!)
4 cloves garlic, fine mince
1/2 to 1 tsp. cayenne pepper, more or less
1 tbsp. fresh thyme, minced
1 tsp. smoked paprika (if no andouille, otherwise sweet)
3 large bay leaves, fresh if your market has them
Salt and pepper to taste
2 chopped Roma tomatoes, seeded
1 tsp. filé or 1/2 cup sassafras-or root-beer
1 lb. wild shrimp, 16 to 20 per lb.
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F. Whisk together the flour and canola and place in a 12″ skillet on the medium rack of your oven. This is going to bake for about an hour and a half, and set your timer for 30-minute intervals to mix it up. That’s it, a quick stir every half hour. Set aside. Inhale.
Prep your veggies and protein. This can be done way ahead of time. Save all the scraps from your onion, celery, pepper, carrot, and garlic. Add them to a pot, along with the shells of the shrimp, the stems of the thyme, and six cups of water. Add a bay leaf, and bring it all to a boil, and reduce to a simmer for a half hour. Set aside, and strain just before you start to construct the dish.
Cut up your chicken, and slice your sausage and have them at the ready.
Once the roux is ready heat a large Dutch oven or stock pot over medium high, and add the butter and olive oil. Once melted and hot, add the chicken, brown quickly (you are not looking to cook it through, just caramelize the outside of it) and remove from the pan. Add the sausage, brown quickly, then remove to the chicken.
Add the onion, celery, peppers, Serrano, and carrot and sauté until the vegetables are translucent. Slip in the garlic, cayenne, thyme, paprika, and bay leaves, and cook for a minute or so, until you smell the garlic and spices start to dance. Add the prepared roux, mix well.
Add the chicken and sausage back along with the tomatoes and three cups or so of the stock and the sassafras or root beer. Bring to a boil, cover, and reduce heat. Simmer for 30 minutes or so.
Meanwhile, make your rice.
When the 30 minutes is up, add the shrimp, mix them in for about a minute, then cover the pot, remove it from the heat, and let sit for 15 minutes. The shrimp will gently poach and not overcook.
Serve this over a long-grain rice, traditionally white, but I used a long-grained brown rice, cooked with the remainder of the shrimp/veggie stock.
“Laissez les bons temps rouler!”
UPDATE ON INGREDIENTS:
I found the sassafras leaves yesterday (a day too late for the gumbo) at one of co-ops, where I had searched a few days ago. I was commenting to the fish monger that I noticed she had a recipe for gumbo, as well as crayfish which would have been beautiful in the dish. I asked her where one could find the filé (which was mentioned in the recipe) and she said she did not realize they didn’t carry that spice, and asked if it was called anything else. I told her the spice was made from sassafras leaves, and she told me to wait where I was, shed’ be right back.
She returned with a large jar containing the sassafras.
“It was in the bulk Wellness section!” she laughed.
I bought some to store for the next time, and now I know where to look!
© Copyright 2019 – or current year, Dorothy Grover-Read, The New Vintage Kitchen