Monday, July 09, 2018

my first-ever attempt at gumbo (photo essay)

When you've got a coworker who's from Louisiana and who has made clear that he has an "intimate" knowledge of gumbo, you need to tread carefully when making one of his favorite dishes. I hadn't originally planned to make gumbo, but one of our other coworkers (not the Cajun) was leaving our company for greener pastures, and with Friday as his last day, I asked him whether he wanted me to cook some sort of goodbye meal. He put in a request for gumbo in the style recently shown on Andrew Rea's Binging with Babish YouTube channel.

I prepped, slowly but surely, over the course of a week. In the office, I said aloud that I had no idea where to find okra, but that I'd try to find it at Garak Market, which apparently has everything. A third coworker, in response, said he knew of a store in the Itaewon neighborhood that had frozen okra, so I told him I'd pay him back if he could buy some. Luckily, the okra came pre-cut, which meant there was a bit less work for me to do, thank Cthulhu. I didn't know where to go for andouille sausage, either, so I elected to make some, based on Emeril's recipe.* I don't have a sausage extruder, nor do I have any natural casings, but I knew I'd be able to take ground pork, mold dick-like shapes with my hands, then wrap the andouille in cling wrap, twist-tightening the ends to create legitimate sausage shapes.

Prep ratcheted up to a fever pitch as Friday approached, and in the end, after much time and effort and several burns on my left hand, I produced my first-ever gumbo, which was also my first-ever meal prepped in my new apartment. Long story short: everyone loved it, and even the resident Cajun pronounced it edible, although I'm not sure he loved it. His one complaint was that my gumbo lacked an essential ingredient: filé powder, which is ground up from the root of the sassafras tree—the same root that goes into the making of root beer (which also includes eucalyptus and star anise). In fact, I saw that root beer can, in a pinch, be used as a substitute for filé powder—although only as a flavor component. Filé powder is used both for its flavor and for its properties as a thickener. If you use root beer, you also need a thickener like cornstarch (or more okra, which contains a pectin-like compound called mucilage that is as mucus-y as it sounds, and that also acts as a thickener).

So here are twenty pics from all that prep, along with explanations.

1. Sausage in the making! I began with ground pork bought from a local grocery. Emeril Lagasse's recipe, which I was following, had a long list of spices and seasonings, in addition to which was something called "Essence" or "Emeril's Essence Creole Seasoning." A couple days prior, my boss had been out shopping, and he came back to me with a bottle of powdered "Cajun seasoning." When I compared the elements of Essence with the ingredients in the bottled seasoning, I saw they were almost exactly the same, i.e., my boss had saved me the work of making Essence. In addition, the list of non-Essence seasonings contained so many of the elements found in Essence, and in the same quantities, that I simply doubled the dose of Cajun powder and added whichever seasonings weren't part of the Essence—things like cumin and chili powder (and liquid smoke!). Emeril's sausage called for fatty pork shoulder (a.k.a. pork butt, despite being on the opposite side of the pig's butt), but I had bought lean, pre-ground meat, so I added olive oil and mixed that in as a way of increasing the sausage's fat content. (Next time, I think I'll grind some bacon in a food processor.)

So I massaged the spices, seasonings, and oil into the pork, then let it rest overnight, per the recipe's instructions. Below is a pic of the now-rested pork, plus one sausage that I had managed to create by molding 150 g (about 5.4 oz.) of meat into a dick shape, which I then rolled into some cling wrap. The dick was lumpy and uneven, but the moment I began twisting the ends of the cling wrap and tying them them off, the wrap tightened, much like a sausage casing, and caused the meat to assume a perfectly cylindrical shape, much to my delight. Although I used a kitchen scale to parcel out 150 g of meat per sausage, I wasn't able to make sausages of consistent length, as you'll see in subsequent photos.


One last note: Emeril's Essence is listed as "Creole," while the bottle of seasoning that my boss got me—which has almost exactly the same ingredients—is listed as "Cajun." This is one reason why people not from Louisiana are always confusing Cajun and Creole cuisine.

2. Trinity! You can't have a proper gumbo without the Trinity (a.k.a. the Holy Trinity), a Louisiana take on mirepoix (finely chopped onions, carrots, and celery; mirepoix ["meer-pwah"] is at the base of many preparations, including soups and stocks). Trinity is a mixture of green bell peppers, celery, and onions, which is what you see—kind of—below:

3. Maters! I had some aging tomatoes in my fridge, plus some leftover tomato paste, so I boiled the tomatoes to make skin-removal easier, then I skinned them, crushed them, and mixed them with the tomato paste. This component isn't in the Babish version of gumbo, but I decided to add it all the same.

4. Herbs! Fresh herbs are normally added at the end of a long cooking process so as not to reduce their potency—something I didn't realize until only a couple years ago. For a long time, I had labored under the delusion that you should add fresh herbs at the beginning of the cooking process to give the herbs' flavors a chance to infuse into a soup or sauce. Turns out that this is the best way to kill all that flavor. As with salting, herbing is best done as late in the process as possible.

I didn't have many fresh herbs on me, and I knew that Babish's recipe called for fresh parsley. I had some aging Italian parsley, so I took that out, stripped away the dead leaves, then chopped up the rest. That was looking rather meager, so I dumped in a load of dry regular parsley, of which I had plenty. That still looked as if it weren't enough, so I racked my brains, wondering what other fresh herbs I might have. Then it hit me: I had bought celery. I removed a healthy bunch of leaves from the celery stalks, chopped them up, and added them to the parsley. Voilà: job done. I now had plenty of herbs to toss into the gumbo in the final stage, but not enough to add as a garnish when serving. I shrugged and forged ahead. Sometimes, you just have to make do.

5. Okra! Equally loved and loathed, okra's claim to infamy is the snot-like goo that oozes out when you begin to process the vegetable. This goo, called mucilage ("myoo-suh-lidge"), has the thickening properties of pectin, and is considered by many to be an essential part of the gumbo-eating experience. Okra itself is harmless enough; it looks and tastes a bit like the world's blandest chili pepper, but it's the mucilage that makes the vegetable both so feared and so beloved. Here's a shot of the until-recently-frozen okra that my coworker bought for me, in all its snotty, mucilage-y glory:

6. Sausage, now made! You can see I had trouble keeping the lengths of the sausages consistent, but I guarantee that, except for one huge sausage made from the remaining meat (foreground), the links all weigh 150 grams each. Wrapping the meat in cling film and twisting the ends, as we do with candy wrappers, tightens the wrapping and forces the meat into the standard cylindrical shape. I took these links and froze them for several hours to make them easier to cut into the familiar andouille disks you often see in gumbo.

7. The cut! As you see below, though, a few hours wasn't enough to get the sausages completely frozen. Still, the slightly misshapen form of the disks didn't bother me; I suspected that the shapes would even out once dunked into the hot gumbo. I had made about two kilograms of sausage, but for the office, I used only about two-thirds of that amount.

8. Da fruit of da sea! At least, that's what Forrest Gump's dim friend Bubba called shrimp, and that's consistent with the French term fruits de mer or the Italian frutti di mare, both of which mean "fruits of the sea," i.e., seafood—specifically, crustaceans and shellfish.

Sorry for the weird angle of this shot: it was originally a landscape-style image, but I rotated it 90 degrees so I could resize the image to 600 pixels along the bottom, thus giving you a larger image without your having to click on the pic. You'll note there are two sizes of shrimp in the picture. This may well have been the most expensive ingredient in the gumbo.

9. Shrimp stock! In Babish's video, Babish starts the gumbo with whole, shell-on shrimp. The shells eventually come off, and they're set aside to make shrimp stock. Babish puts the shells in a pot along with some vegetable oil; he cooks the shells until they're that shrimpy, pink-orange color, after which he pours in five cups of water and allows everything to cook for twenty minutes. He then strains the liquid to remove the shells, and the result is four cups of hearty shrimp stock. I was starting with shrimp that were either completely shelled (the smaller shrimp) or left tail-on, i.e., with virtually no shell at all. My solution was to take a third of my supply of smaller shrimp, grind them in a blender, fry them up a bit in a pan, then cook them for twenty minutes. The result was a decent, if not quite ideal, shrimp stock, which you see a-boiling below:

10. Da sizzle! I wasn't sure whether I should pan-fry the homemade andouille to give it some color. The problem, obviously, was that pan-frying would release the oil from the sausage, thus arguably leaving me with blander, less flavorful sausage. In the end, I pan-fried only half the pork. I'm kind of glad I did because I liked the color that pan-frying imparted to the meat.

11. More sizzle! A wide shot of both cooking and raw sausage:

12. Da ROUX! Now we come to the heart of it. A roux is generally a combination of a fat and some sort of flour. If you're making a white, creamy Béchamel sauce, you normally start with butter and flour, then slowly pour in milk after you've cooked some of the rawness out of the flour. For gumbo, the base roux is oil—any generic vegetable oil will do—and an equal volume of flour. The longer you cook a roux, the darker it gets (you're essentially frying the flour), and the less of a thickener it becomes. Babish's video suggests cooking the roux on a medium flame until it's dark-chocolate brown, which is fairly extreme.

Here's my roux in its early stages:

You're supposed to stir the roux constantly to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pot and burning. It's burning, anyway, as I discovered: cooking a roux to a dark-chocolate brown produces a lot of smoke, enough to make me paranoid about getting the roux all the way to the suggested color. In fact, I stopped the process about 7/8 of the way through; you'll see how dark the roux was in subsequent pics.

While I was stirring the roux, though, disaster struck: my wooden spoon caught on and then skittered across the bottom of my pot, kicking scalding-hot roux up everywhere. It got all over my left hand, so I dropped the wooden spoon (which was, luckily, too long to fall entirely into the still-cooking roux) and rinsed my screaming hand under cold water... but not before I ended up with four blisters plus a red, scalded patch on my palm. One blister, the biggest, appeared on the very tip of my left thumb, which made gripping anything an exercise in agony, but I had little choice but to keep stirring the fucking roux, through my pain, until it was dark enough for my tastes.

13. Sausages done! Here are the pan-fried sausages, all piled into a container and awaiting deployment. The next step, after making the roux, is to dump in the Trinity plus the okra plus some fresh crushed garlic. You stir that around until the vegetables soften a bit, then you slowly add your shrimp stock. The roux has very little thickening power, but the okra takes over that duty, for the most part, and the result is a stew that's not quite watery, but also fairly liquidy in texture (we're not making jambalaya, so this isn't supposed to look or feel like a thick gravy). With the shrimp stock added, you now dump in your andouille, and you let this simmer for a good hour, allowing all the flavors to marry. I'm still getting used to my new stove, so figuring out how low I could go, flame-wise, was a bit of a chore.

Anyway, sausages:

14. Dumpitol! Below, you see how dark the roux actually got (pretty close to what Babish suggests). All the vegetables have gone into the pot. Now, we stir until everything softens, then we add the fresh garlic, then we stir again until a bloom of garlicky aroma rises from the pot.

15. Bawk bawk! This next photo skips a few steps to show you a mostly completed gumbo. We've added the shrimp stock and simmered everything—vegetables and andouille—for the better part of an hour. At this point, we're dumping in the thickly diced chicken, letting physics do the work of creating nice, soft chunks of white meat.

16. Nearing the end! And now, we finally toss the shrimp in, with less than ten minutes of simmering to go. Part of the fun, in this phase, is stirring the gumbo around and watching the shrimp slowly curl up and redden (pinken?) from the heat.

17. Final step! With only two minutes to go, we dump in the fresh herbs and stir, stir, stir. I had adopted the standard taste-as-you-go strategy for much of this process, and while the gumbo started off tasting a bit strange, it became less so as I added more and more ingredients. The herbs definitely helped to push the gumbo that much closer to Cajun-approved normalcy. In the end, taste-wise, I think I got 90% of the way there. No one's going to call this "authentic" gumbo, but it was palatable enough.


18. Packed and ready to go! Here's a shot of the gumbo, containerized. That was one heavy bastard, I must say: enough gumbo for about ten or eleven people (plus rice, which I haven't mentioned up to now). I had to multiply Babish's recipe by about 2.5 to make this amount, and by the end of the evening, I had nothing left. I did, however, reserve a few servings of gumbo for myself, for later, so what you see in the photo is perhaps 90% of the final amount.

19. Laissez les bons temps rouler! At long last, a shot of gumbo in my bowl at the office. Our resident Cajun said that you're actually supposed to layer the gumbo into your bowl first, before putting down the rice. I ignored this advice.

20. Owie! Finally, a shot of my burned hand, with all the blisters nicely numbered, and with the scalded patch labeled, too. As I joked with my coworker in an effort to make him feel guilty, I suffer for my art.

In all, the gumbo was a complete success among the non-Cajuns in the office. For the Cajun, I think the result was passable. He called it "good," but did mention that the lack of filé powder kept the gumbo from being perfect. I don't mind that criticism; this was my first-ever attempt at gumbo, so I knew full well that it wasn't going to come out perfect the first time around. I can live with that. Next up: crab gumbo!

*It turns out that andouille may be available at the local John Cook Deli Meats in the Shinsa neighborhood, just up Line 3 from where I live and work.


Charles said...

Hooray! I've been waiting for this.

I do have one question, though. You wrote: "As with salting, herbing is best done as late in the process as possible."

Can you elaborate? I've always thought that salting should be done as early in the process as possible.

Kevin Kim said...

I'd have to dig around to find specific videos, but several YouTube cooks talk about the importance of not over-salting, and as a function of that caution, they feel salting should come at the end of a process. Gordon Ramsay has said this with regard to making scrambled eggs, and more and more, I'm hearing this advice when people talk about making burgers: don't salt your burgers until they're in the pan/on the grill/etc., i.e., never mix salt into your burgers when forming the patties.

That latter bit of wisdom strikes me as questionable, frankly: look at how sausages are made. Sausage meat gets a salty hit pretty early in the process, and nothing untoward happens there. When I make my burger patties, I always add the herbs and seasonings at the beginning, right as I'm forming the patties. Can't say I've ever had any trouble with juiciness or texture as a result.

That said, I think I get the reasoning behind salting late: if you over-salt early, you ruin the dish early. You avoid the problem of early ruin by salting late (although, admittedly, you could still end up ruining the dish if you over-salt at that point).

I'll dig around and see if I can find a quote or two.

Kevin Kim said...

This video says I'm full of shit.

This video goes both ways, i.e., it depends on the situation.

Internet sensation Salt Bae Nusret goes by the "Salt first, ask questions later" philosophy.

This and this video agree that, when making tomato(-based) sauce, you salt at or near the end.

Quora has several answers to the question, "Why salt at the end?" See here.

John John McCrarey said...

An amazing effort! My wife #2 was from Louisiana, and I don't think I ever realized what her cajun cooking involved. Although I'm sure she never made her own sausages.

I truly admire your culinary expertise. I am not worthy to even call myself a cook.

Kevin Kim said...

Thanks, John, although I must say I've seen plenty of great food—including great food cooked on a large scale—on your blog.

Charles said...

Interesting. I've seen the first video that you linked to, which I think is probably what prompted me to ask the question in the first place.

So I guess the answer is: It depends. Or that there is no universally agreed upon answer. Hmm.