Creole cooking is a wonderful thing–you’ve got traditional Mediterranean influences (e.g. French, Spanish, Italian) strong, zesty southern elements (e.g. Carribean, American), and even African flavors. Its one of those styles of cooking that brings a whole lot of great stuff together to make something truly amazing. I wanted to take a classic Creole dish (gumbo) and see if I could spin it in a way that would fit my Thanksgiving menu by adding a bit of autumn to the mix (via butternut squash) as I thought it would be fun change from butternut squash soup.
Now for those of you haven’t had gumbo before, the first thing you need to do is correct this immediately. Seriously! Gumbo is almost stew like–thick, hearty, smoky, spicy, and full of a wide variety of things that’ll warm your bones. Some like to load their gumbo up with poultry (duck, chicken), others beef (veal, brisket), some pork (andouille sausage, hocks), others seafood (a whole variety of shellfish), or just a bunch of veggies. Its the kind of dish that really lends itself to being personalized. And then despite the color, gumbo is not something that’s all about the tomato–many versions won’t even include tomato! Rather, the true star of any gumbo: the stock.
So now, a note about stock. I can entirely understand that not everyone always bothers making their own stock, and that’s fine. Since gumbo however, is very largely about the stock (heck, read the ingredient list–nearly 12 cups of stock are used!), this is one of those occasions where you’ll really want to use a flavorful home-made stock as this will do amazing things for your final result. I used a bit of chicken stock, and since I didn’t have enough handy, I made a batch of smoked pork stock (inspired by a cabbage soup I’d seen a while back) a day ahead to top things off. I’d also considered making shrimp stock (simmer shrimp heads and shells in water for 30 minutes), but not all of my guests were seafood people, so maybe next time. The point is, you’ve got options!
The end result was incredibly tasty and so much better than I could have hoped for. While the butternut squash didn’t come through in as big a way as I would have liked, the smoky pork stock sure did! The andouille, the stock, the deeply colored roux, the bacon–the dark, smoky character was really something and made it really impressive (and well paired with the uplifting sweet flavor of the shrimp). I also was really happy with the texture: thick but not too thick. Aside from the chunky items in the gumbo, this thickness also came from the roux and the okra, two common gumbo flavorers (and thickeners).
As a whole, it tasted deep, nutty, caramelly, smoky, and sweet…and it was eaten in its entirety in record time. This should be a must try for everyone this winter!
- Smoked Pork Stock
- 7 cup water
- ~1 lb smoked hocks
- ~1 lb fresh neck bones
- 2 celery stalks
- 1 shallot
- 1 carrot
- 4 cup chicken stock
- 3 strips bacon
- olive oil
- 1 butternut squash
- 2 leeks
- 2 celery stalks
- 1 red bell
- 1 anaheim
- 6 cloves garlic
- ~3 cups okra
- 1/2 cup flour
- 1/2 cup canola oil
- ground chipotle
- ground cayenne
- fennel seeds
- ground allspice
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 lb andouille sausage
- 0.5-1 lb shrimp
Making the pork stock is quite simple. Fill a good sized pot with water and throw in the very coarsely chopped vegetables along with neck bones and smoked hocks. Warm this to a boil and then cover and drop to a gentle simmer for at least 3 hours. Periodically skim the scum off the surface.
Once the stock is done, strain the liquid and transfer to the fridge overnight (discard the solids, harvesting the meat from the bones for use in your gumbo). Tomorrow, there will be a layer of solidified fat on top of the stock–discard this. Now the stock is good to go!
So now armed with plenty of stock, begin by cooking the bacon, reserving the cooked bacon for later and the grease for cooking.
Chop the squash in half, scoop out the seeds and stringy bits, and rub it with olive oil and a bit of salt and pepper. Roast this in a 400°F oven for about 50 minutes or until fork tender.
In the pan you ultimately intend to cook the gumbo in, make a roux. I used a big dutch oven. Simply heat up your oil and whisk in the flour. Whisk periodically and keep a close eye on it, cooking on medium heat for roughly 20 minutes until it takes on a peanut butter/caramel color. This will add an amazingly complex flavor and act as a thickener for the gumbo.
In another pan, you’ll want to cook the okra. Chop off the stem/head parts of the okra, and then cut long thin slivers and/or cross cuts, sautéing for 15-20 minutes (roughly same time as the roux–perfect!). This step is important because undercooked okra can have a very snot-like texture which will not be pleasant for anybody other than 3 year olds who might still be into that kind of thing.
And with those two pans going, you can get a third going for the vegetables. Somewhat finely chop up the celery, peppers, and pale parts of the leeks, sauteing for roughly 8 minutes, after which you should add minced garlic for an additional minute.
With all three pans done at the same time, now you should whisk the stock into the roux, beating until no chunks remain. Then, add in the okra and sauteed vegetables. Also stir in all of the remaining spices. Finally, scoop and puree the roasted butternut squash flesh, adding that into the pot.
At this point, warm things up to a gentle boil, and then drop to a gentle simmer. Let this simmer for at least 2 hours.
As the waiting game begins, dice up the sausage into bite-sized chunks and brown it in a pan. After cooking through (figure somewhere around 10 minutes), add it into the gumbo. Finally, the shrimp. Those need to be added towards the very end of cooking, or else they’ll turn to mush. So behead, shell, and devein them, adding 10 minutes prior to when you intend to take the gumbo off of the heat. Season to taste before serving.