Are You Game to Gumbo This Mardi Gras?
"Rebuilding New Orleans -- One Plate at a Time" is the tag line in the signature field of chef Frank Brigtsen's outgoing e-mail messages. No doubt these words would look good on a bumper sticker or a t-shirt, but what I love most about this message is that Brigtsen really means what he types; this is a personal mantra and mission statement that oozes out of his pores like whiskey sauce on top of bread pudding - strong, passionate and unforgettable.
I met this disciple of the great Paul Prudhomme during a week-long volunteer chef stint last June. To say that I fell in love with his food is not telling the whole story; I fell in love with this man's infectious passion and determination for the city of his birth, of his life, and he hopes, of his death. He is doing his damndest to stay put and keep cooking the food that for him is like oxygen, and to show the world that New Orleanians ain't goin' nowhere. He lives by those words of his in every e-mail message he sends, but Frank can't do it alone. He needs our help. He needs each and every one of us to be an ambassador of New Orleans, to pay his city a visit and spread the good word at home, and at the stove.
With Mardi Gras, the Mac daddy of all Louisiana celebrations, just a few days away (Tuesday, Feb. 5, not to be confused with Super Tuesday), I reached out to Brigtsen for his suggestions for proper Mardi Gras fare, and here's what he had to say:
Carnival season is a time for simple party foods. Typically, people hosting a parade party will do hearty local dishes like gumbo, jambalaya, red beans 'n rice, along with King Cake, of course. Nothing fancy for Mardi Gras vittles, just something to sustain you through the parade-going.
To that end, Brigtsen shared his recipe for file gumbo, with chicken and andouille sausage. It would be my maiden gumbo voyage, and although I knew I was in for a time-consuming journey and a first encounter with file powder (ground sassafras leaves), I was stoked for the adventure.
A lengthy project indeed -- the recipe takes about four hours to complete- but the how-to details, listed below, are both accurate and reliable. What Brigtsen doesn't tell you is how the dish improves with age. On the third day, I was in gumbo heaven.
If you're game to gumbo, I heartily recommend cooking over the weekend, so that on Tuesday, you're merely reheating -- and eating in style.
Frank Brigtsen's Chicken and Andouille Gumbo
Recipe notes from Chef Brigtsen: There are as many ways to make gumbo in Louisiana as there are cooks. This is a rich, hearty gumbo that can be a meal in itself. One thing all gumbos have in common is the use of a brown roux. Here I use the oil that was used to brown the chicken for my roux, which increases flavor. Notice the seasoning vegetables are added in two stages to provide different levels of taste and texture.
This is a "file" gumbo and I add file powder (ground sassafras leaves) to the cooked vegetables and cook it until most of the stringiness disappears. One great thing about this gumbo is that it can be made year-round because it doesn't require any seasonal ingredients, like seafood or okra. It is particularly good in the cooler months.
1 pound Andouille sausage, sliced into half-rounds, about 1/4-inch thick
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cups yellow onions, into 1/2-inch dice
3 cups celery, into 1/2-inch dice
2 cups green, red and yellow bell peppers, into ½-inch dice
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic
4 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon whole-leaf dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons gumbo file powder (available at Penzeys)
12 cups chicken stock or water
1 chicken, cut into 8 pieces (or 3-4 pounds of bone-in chicken pieces)
About 4 tablespoons Chef Paul Prudhomme's Meat Magic seasoning (alternatively: 3 parts salt and pepper, 1 part granulated garlic)
3 cups all-purpose white flour
4 cups vegetable or peanut oil
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place the sliced sausage on a shallow baking pan and bake until the edges turn brown, 40-45 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.
Heat the olive oil in a large pot over high heat. Add 3 cups of onion, 2 cups of celery, 1 1/2 cups of bell pepper, and bay leaves. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions begin to turn brown, 12-15 minutes.
Add the remaining vegetables: 1 cup of onion, 1 cup of celery, and 1/2 cup of bell pepper. Reduce heat to medium, Cook, stirring occasionally, until the second stage of onions turn clear, 2-3 minutes.
Add the garlic, salt, thyme, black pepper, white pepper, cayenne, and file powder. Reduce heat to low. Cook, stirring constantly, three or four minutes.
Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Add the cooked sausage. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for one hour. Skim off any excess oil that rises to the surface and discard.
While broth is simmering, brown the chicken: Heat 2 frying pans over medium heat (preferably cast-iron skillets). KOD note: I cooked all of the chicken, in batches, in a wok. Oil should be about 1/2-inch deep (about two cups per skillet).
In a shallow baking pan, add 2 cups of flour and 4 teaspoons of the Meat Magic seasoning. Blend well and set aside.
Season the chicken pieces lightly and evenly with the Meat Magic seasoning, about 1 teaspoon for per pound of chicken.
Heat oil until slightly below frying temperature (about 350 degrees.). Dredge the seasoned chicken pieces in the seasoned flour and add to the oil. Fry chicken on both sides until brown and crispy, about five minutes per side. Remove chicken from oil and set on paper towels to drain. Add the browned chicken pieces to the simmering broth and cook, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is fully cooked and tender, 35-40 minutes.
Remove chicken from pot and place it on a shallow pan to cool. When chicken is cool enough to handle, take the meat off the bones and set aside. Discard the chicken bones and skin.
Make a roux: After the frying oil has cooled off a bit, slowly and carefully pour some of the frying oil into a heatproof glass measuring cup. You just want the clear oil, with no browned bits of flour. You will need 3â„4 cup plus 2 tablespoons of oil to make the roux.
Heat a cast-iron skillet over high heat and add the measured-out, drained oil. When oil is hot, gradually add 1 cup of flour, whisking or stirring constantly. Cook, whisking constantly, until the roux becomes the color of peanut butter. Reduce heat to medium and continue cooking, whisking constantly, until the roux is deep reddish brown (chocolate brown). KOD note: This will take about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside to cool for 15 minutes.
Bring the gumbo broth back up to a boil. Carefully pour off any excess oil that may have risen to the top of the roux and discard. Slowly and carefully add the roux to the boiling broth, a little bit at a time, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, 25-30 minutes. Skim off any excess oil that rises to the surface and discard. Add chicken, increase heat to medium, and cook, stirring gently, until the chicken is heated through.
Serve immediately with cooked rice.
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