by Terry Thompson-Anderson
Just say the city’s name—New Orleans—and most likely your mind will conjure up visions of food and drink. And somewhere in the sensuous mélange of remembered aromas, textures and heat levels, a bowl of dark and mysterious, spicy, brooding gumbo will surely emerge.
New Orleans is credited with the original conception of gumbo, a dish indicative of the famous Creole city. And it’s generally agreed that Native Americans, slave traders and enslaved Africans all lent their hands to the creation of the dish. Okra, a key ingredient in gumbo, used both for its flavor and its properties as a thickener, was introduced by Africans, who brought the ingredient to New Orleans via the Caribbean. Okra was called ngombo or kingombo in the Bantu dialect, and gave the famous dish its name.
Another important ingredient, filé, or the dried, ground leaves of the sassafras tree, was created by the native Choctaws, who ground the powder and sold it in outdoor markets in New Orleans. Filé is typically stirred into the gumbo at the table, to further flavor and thicken the brew. Something to keep in mind: Because okra will attain a ropey or “slimy” consistency if cooked for long periods, adding it toward the end of the gumbo cooking process will result in okra with a bit of crunch left and no objectionable slime.
Gumbo can be made by mixing and matching ingredients with just about any meat, fish or fowl as long there’s a good flavor base, and that base should start with a dark roux and include high-quality stock. Various types of stock can be found in specialty markets, and often seafood stock is sold by reputable seafood markets or is available in gels, which can be reconstituted in water. (If you are making a gumbo with chicken or quail, use a good poultry stock.) Making the roux is a hands-on process, which requires a commitment of time and patience. To save time in making future pots of gumbo, it’s possible to make the roux in large quantities (you could even go ahead and add the requisite “holy trinity” of vegetables: onions, bell peppers and celery) and freeze it in one-pot-sized batches. Thaw before using.