Seafood Gumbo

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Jun 18, 2013 5:10 PM
We love our seafood in Newfoundland and Labrador - and this is a great time of year when delicious shellfish such as snow crab and lobster are in season. So, this month we are offering up a wonderful Seafood Gumbo recipe that will make delicious use of those lobster and crab bodies - and any of the meat you care to throw in. We will discuss stock, roux and intensifying flavour so that you can add more skills to your cooking arsenal. Seafood Gumbo will become a great go-to recipe for you, regardless of the time of year...and roux and stock will form the basis of many great meals for your family and friends!

Gumbo is a flavourful dish from New Orleans that's thicker and more substantial than soup but not as thick as stew. It is served in a bowl over a little "timbale" (mound) of white rice. Several methods and ingredients define the traditional gumbo: it begins with a roux (flour and oil as a thickener - more details on that later); contains Andouille sausage (smoked pork sausage originating in France - hard to find here so chorizo makes a good substitute) and okra (green vegetable) or filé powder (ground sassafras leaves), either of which contribute a viscosity that characterizes great gumbo. Okra is a green vegetable about the size and length of your finger that releases a sort of sap, when sliced, that has the effect of thickening and enriching the gumbo. Okra is frequently available fresh in local supermarkets and we have also found it frozen, canned and even dried. If your supermarket doesn't carry it, try gourmet, Indian or Jamaican markets. If you can't find it, you can either omit it (and still have pretty tasty gumbo) or try adding half an avocado blended until it's very smooth in the last 5 minutes of cooking. Not exact, but pretty close. (We have not found filé locally but you could order online if you wanted to try it.)

Now, a word on stock. You can make gumbo with a purchased chicken or vegetable stock, or even water. But a great shellfish stock is easier than you think - and will be a great addition to your repertoire! You can use tiger shrimp shells (shrimps removed from shells and set aside to use in gumbo), lobster or crab bodies - or a combination.

Start with a heavy-bottomed pot large enough to accommodate the shellfish shells you are using (smaller for shrimp shells, larger for lobster bodies). Over medium-high, heat a couple of tablespoons of oil. Add 1 tsp fennel seed, 2-3 bay leaves, a small handful of peppercorns, half an onion, roughly chopped (no need to remove skin), 2 garlic cloves, just smashed with skin on, and the leafy parts from a head of celery (the stuff you were probably going to throw away) and stir a moment. If you have some fresh thyme, add a sprig or two for additional depth of flavour. A pinch of saffron is lovely too. Add a tablespoon of tomato paste (or ketchup in a pinch) and stir again. Throw in the shellfish shells and fry a couple of minutes - you will smell the fragrance. Top with 6 cups water (or more to cover). Stir to release the browned bits of flavour from the bottom. Add a couple of wedges of lemon - skin on. Bring to a boil and then reduce to simmer for 10-15 minutes. Strain and your stock is ready to use. Freezes beautifully! Once you have tried this, you'll never throw out shellfish shells again!

Next, some advice on making the roux. This is a method to thicken (and flavour) sauces, soups and stews that originates in French cuisine. Equal parts of white flour and some sort of fat (vegetable oil or butter is most common) are cooked together to make a thick paste. You have probably already made roux without realizing it... good old Newfoundland "white sauce" is what the French call "béchamel."

There are four key stages of roux, defined by colour. Start in a regular frying pan over medium heat (not non-stick - use stainless steel or cast iron - or even a small stainless saucepot.) You must stir frequently throughout the roux process. For gumbo, you will need very dark roux so we'll explain what will happen as you cook. White roux is the first stage - made by simply cooking the flour and fat together for 3-5 minutes to cook out the raw taste of the flour and make a paste. For anything darker than white roux, neutral-flavoured oil such as canola, corn or sunflower, works best so you don't have to worry about butter burning or olive oil smoking. The second stage is "blond" roux. You will see the flour taking on a golden hue as you stir - about 10-15 minutes. This adds a subtle roundness of flavour to a dish. Keep stirring and at the 20-25 minute mark, you will have "brown" roux - the colour of peanut butter. (Great for poultry gravy!) You will smell a nutty aroma. Keep stirring and at the 30-35 minute mark, the roux will turn chocolate coloured - this is the "dark brown" stage. Be careful here, stirring almost constantly, because you don't want it to burn. The aroma will be intensely nutty and even a little smoky-coffee. Remove from the heat and set aside. Traditional Cajun recipes will call for adding your vegetables to this and starting the dish in the same pot but it's so easy to burn at this point, we have found a safer method: Start your gumbo in a fresh pot and add the roux towards the end to thicken and flavour. Since making a dark roux is a long process, a great trick is to make it in larger batches, a half cup each of flour and oil, (or batch-up if you like) and freeze 2-3 tablespoon portions in small Ziploc bags, ice cube trays or containers. Another trick we love is that by setting it aside to cool, some of the oil rises to the top. You can safely discard that top oil but still retain all the flavour and thickening power - thereby lightening your dish a little. Don't be tempted to try to towel all the oil out - you need that consistency.

Seafood Gumbo
6 servings

3-4 tbsp vegetable or olive oil
2 onions, diced small
4 ribs celery, sliced 1/4 inch thick - if large, cut in half lengthwise, then slice
2 carrots, peeled, cut into half-inch dice
1 lb cured chorizo sausage, cut into 1/2 inch dice
2 bell peppers, 1-inch dice
3 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs fresh thyme (or 1/2 tsp dried leaves)
1/2 tsp each: dry basil and oregano leaves
1 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp cayenne (more to taste)
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tsp sugar
1 cup (or so) of fresh okra, sliced into half-inch thick rounds (if using canned or frozen, add later with stock)
1/2 cup white wine or dry vermouth
1 (28 oz) can diced tomatoes with juice
4 cups shellfish stock (make up difference with water, if short)
1 lb raw tiger shrimp - if using little NL coldwater cooked shrimp, add just before serving
Salt and pepper to taste
Worcestershire and hot sauce to taste
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley - more to garnish bowls if you like
6 cups cooked rice

*You can add other fish or shellfish if you like - just before serving and warm through. If fish, firm flesh like salmon or halibut will be best. Lobster knuckles or crab is delicious, too.

In a large heavy-bottomed pot, heat oil and add onion, celery, carrot and chorizo. Fry, stirring, about 5 minutes until veggies begin to soften and chorizo begins to render out. Add bell peppers, garlic, herbs and spices and fry another 3-4 minutes, stirring. Add tomato paste and sugar; fry another 1-2 minutes, stirring. If using fresh okra, fry and stir a couple minutes more. Season with a little salt and pepper. Add wine and stir to get browned bits off bottom of pot. Add tomatoes and stock. Simmer 10-15 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add a little Worcestershire or hot sauce if you like. Stir in 3 tbsp prepared dark roux (thickening paste made of flour and canola/corn/sunflower oil, cooked until caramel coloured) and let simmer 10 minutes or so, stirring occasionally, to thicken gumbo. Taste and add more roux if needed. Add more stock (or water) as necessary while cooking. Gumbo is thicker than standard turkey soup, but not as thick as chowder. Simmer gumbo another 10-15 minutes. Add shrimp to cook through - 5 minutes or so. Remove thyme sprigs and bay leaves. Add parsley. Give a final taste to adjust seasonings and ladle into bowls over cooked rice. Garnish with additional parsley if you like. Leftovers freeze beautifully.