fig. a: late that night, Michelle sat down and started in on her bowl of gumbo
I suppose our 3rd anniversary celebrations here at "...an endless banquet" could have kicked off with the traditional 3rd anniversary gift (leather!), but we opted for gumbo instead. This means we've now celebrated our anniversary three different ways in three years. It also means that without even realizing it (until now, that is) we've been in the process of creating our very own set of food-related anniversary traditions, suitable for for all those who prefer apples over paper, barbecued ribs over cotton, gumbo over leather (or gumbo and leather over just leather). To recap:
AEB: BBQ ribs
AEB: gumbo (and leather, if you so desire)
What tradition will AEB's fourth anniversary initiate? Stay tuned...
Anyway, there's obviously something about this time of year that gets me thinking about and a-hankering for gumbo, because although gumbo (in all its varieties) is seasonally-appropriate at any time of year, November has tended to be my most consistent gumbo month over the last few years (in fact, the last time I wrote on the subject was almost exactly two years ago). Weather is a factor, no doubt, but this time around it also had to do with the arrival of oyster season. I'd never made a gumbo with oysters before for some bizarre reason, even though a shared love of oysters is one of the strongest commonalities linking the cuisine of Cajun Louisiana with that of Quebec. Why? I wasn't 100% sure, but it probably had/has a lot to do with the fact that I'm such a big fan of oysters on the half-shell that I lack the self-control needed to shuck oysters for any reason other than immediate consumption. This time, however, armed with a new gumbo recipe (shrimp and oyster!) that I was eager to give a test-ride, I pledged to change all of that.
The recipe came from our good buddies the Lee Bros, who we still don't actually know, but at this point, having posted about a number of their recipes, we might as well. As I've mentioned before, a number of the Lees more classic recipes are offered up in pairs: "Tuesday night" versions versus "Sunday night" ones. Gumbo is no exception, and here not only does the "Tuesday night" gumbo amount to a simplified version of the "Sunday night" gumbo, but it's also a 100% seafood gumbo and that's what I was craving. [The "Sunday night" gumbo, by comparison, consists of what you might call a meat-lover's "home run": chicken (in the form of gizzards), beef (1 pound of beef round, beef shank, flank steak, or skirt steak), seafood (1 pound of shrimp, 6 blue crabs, and 24 oysters), and pork (in the form of Cajun andouille, or kielbasa)!] There were things about the "Tuesday night" version that I wasn't crazy about and that I intended to change--#1 being its lack of a roux*--but it also contained a trick or two that I found mighty intriguing.
Shrimp and Oyster Gumbo
1 1/2 lb headless large fresh shrimp (25-30 count)
2 1/2 qts water
homemade shrimp boil [ directions here] or Old Bay seasoning
3 bay leaves
2 celery stalks, chopped
1/2 cup canola or peanut oil
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup yellow onion, diced
1 large red bell pepper, diced
1 celery stalk, diced
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
1 28-oz can chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp thyme, finely minced
24-36 shucked oysters, with their liquor
1 tbsp gumbo filé powder
Peel the shrimp (deveining them in the process, if you prefer) and put them aside in a bowl. Place the shells in a large pot, add the water, the shrimp boil or Old Bay seasoning, the bay leaves, and the celery and simmer over medium heat for 30-60 minutes. Strain the broth and return it to your pot, keeping it warm over low heat.
In a large skillet, add the oil and the flour and make a proper cajun roux, nutty brown or darker, being careful not to scorch the roux at any time. [For complete instructions consult our earlier post on gumbo.]
When your roux has reached the depth you desire, add the onion carefully (the roux is extremely hot and the onion may cause it to spatter a bit) and sauté over medium heat for 5-10 minutes, stirring constantly. Then add the garlic, the bell pepper, the celery, the salt, the black pepper, and, if you desire, the cayenne pepper, and sauté until all the vegetables have softened, about 5-10 minutes.
Add the vegetable/roux mixture to the shrimp broth, stirring (or even whisking) constantly to incorporate it smoothly. Add the tomatoes and their liquid and stir. Bring to a vigorous simmer over medium-high heat, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 30-60 minutes. The broth should reduce a fair bit and the flavors should intensify considerably. Adjust the seasoning, adding more salt and freshly ground black pepper as needed, then add the gumbo filé and stir.
Turn off the heat. Add the peeled shrimp, the oysters, and the oyster liquor (the magic elixir) to the broth and stir. Let stand about about 5 minutes, until the shrimp are cooked through, perfectly tender and juicy. Serve the gumbo in wide bowls over hot white rice with cold beer and a selection of hot sauces.
Important note: For optimal flavor, it's apparently always best to allow your gumbo to "cure" for 24 hours in the refrigerator, but I've never had the will power to do so. If you do, add the shrimp and oysters only after you've reheated the gumbo, lest the shrimp become tough and the oysters bitter (because of the acidity of the tomatoes). Also, if you think you might have leftovers, you might want to cook the oysters by placing them in a strainer and dropping the strainer into the broth to gently cook them (like I did). That way you can just top each bowl of gumbo with a few of the stewed oysters and you won't have to worry about an oyster going AWOL and turning up in your leftovers tasting bitter. This might mean that your leftovers are just "shrimp gumbo" leftovers and not "shrimp and oyster gumbo" leftovers, but, trust me, your leftovers will not be short on flavor.
Serves 10-12 people.
[adapted from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook]
Frankly, I was a little skeptical that that broth and that roux/vegetable combination would successfully become one, but they did. Of course, I simmered them considerably longer than the Lee Bros. did: 30-45 minutes versus 10 minutes. In the end, my Sunday-style Tuesday Night Gumbo took a good two hours to make, twice as long as the Lees' Tuesday-style Tuesday Night Gumbo, but every extra minute was worth it. That gumbo was full-bodied even before the seafood entered the picture. Five minutes later she was positively voluptuous, a true Cajun Queen.
If you've got your reservations about cooking oysters, just do what we did: buy some extra and serve yourself an oysters-on-the-half-shell appetizer while your gumbo is busy simmering. I mean, you're already buying oysters anyway, and if you look around you can find pretty good deals on small cases of oysters from Malpeque and elsewhere, so...
And while you're at it, you might as well buy some extra shrimp--let's say a quarter pound per person--and make yourself a proper shrimp boil for lunch. You're going to need some energy (and some patience) to make that gumbo properly, why not throw yourself a shrimp doubleheader?
fig. b: earlier that day we luncheoned on spicy boiled shrimp
Simple Shrimp Boil
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup white vinegar
2 tbsp (+ a little extra) homemade shrimp boil [again, you can find directions here] or Old Bay seasoning
1 lb shrimp, in shells
Combine the first three ingredients in a saucepan and bring them to a boil. Add the shrimp, stir gently, and cover. Cook until tender, about 3-5 minutes, depending on the size of the shrimp. Drain the shrimp, reserving some of the broth for dunking. Sprinkle one teaspoon (or more, if you like them extra spicy) shrimp boil over the shrimp, toss, and serve with crusty bread and a salad for a light lunch.
[recipe adapted slightly from the back of a McCormick Old Bay seasoning tin]
Now that's fast food. And who can deny spicy shrimp? We sure can't.
* I'm definitely one of those "it just ain't a gumbo without a roux" types of people, but it's more than just the taste--it just isn't any fun to make a gumbo without making a roux, regardless of what night of the week it is.