CG #24 New England gumbo

I’m putting aside my seasonal recipes this week, in favor of one of those big pot meals you make for special occasions. It’s based on the famous New Orleans gumbo, but I can’t readily get all the ingredients I need here in the mid Atlantic. I’ve created a New England gumbo which is built around lobster and shrimp. I do add a package of frozen crayfish, although I prefer them fresh so I can peel and use the shelves in the stock.  Okra, which is key to a great gumbo appeared in my farmers market last weekend.  It was organic, beautiful and at $6.50 a quart, it better be!

This is a great party dish with a lot of complex flavors and delicious seafood. It’s packed with vegetables and all you really need is a bowl of fluffy white rice to pour it over.  Like most big pot recipes, you can vary the quantities considerably and make substitutions.  The key are the seasoning powder, garlic, onions, celery and okra.

 Ingredients for New England gumbo

Seasoning powder
2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons dry mustard
1 tablespoon +1 teaspoon dried basil
1 tablespoon +1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon +1 teaspoon onion powder
1 tablespoon +1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon dried thyme
2 ½ tablespoon dried oregano
½ tablespoon black pepper ground
1 teaspoon white pepper ground
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

4 large onions chopped
2 to 3 green peppers chopped
1 bunch celery chopped
½ pounds baby okra (about 50 pods) sliced
3 fresh tomatoes chopped
1 bunch parsley
4 bay leaves
A few lemon slices
1 head of garlic close crushed or ch

The protein
2 ½ lb lobster
2 to 3 pounds shrimp, medium
2 pounds crayfish optional
2 pounds and Andouile sausage (optional if you don’t eat meat).


The Roux
½ cup oil or meat drippings
½ cup white flour

Preparation of New England gumbo
Boil the lobsters for 16 min. In a large pot. Remove the lobsters cool take off the tail and claw meat. Return the shells to the pot and continue simmering to reduce the liquid to a strong broth.
Peel the shrimp and toss the shells into the lobster stock pot.
Lightly sauté the crayfish tails and remove the shells and put them in the stockpot.. If you buy a frozen package the crayfish they will already be cleaned.

Add water to the stock as needed to end up with about 3 quarts.


Roux at the beginning

The key to a great gumbo is the roux.
Heat the oil or the drippings in a large soup kettle. Add the flour and whisk or stir constantly. As the roux turns from a light sand color to a darker brown turn the heat down and continue whisking until the roux is dark brown. Be careful. It is very easy to burn the roux at this stage. Set the roux aside to cool.

Roux Almost Done!

In another skillet melt about 4 tablespoons of fat or oil and slowly sauté the okra, stirring frequently to prevent scorching, until it begins to fall apart. Add the onion and green pepper, celery and garlic, then cover the pan, reduce the heat and simmer until the vegetables are tender.
When the vegetables are tender, heat up the roux and add the seasoning powder. Sauté until the seasoning lets off a fragrant aroma.
Add 3 quarts of the lobster shrimp stock, bring to a boil and add the vegetables, tomatoes, parsley and basil leaves, then reduce to a low heat.

Basil from my garden

Add a few paper thin slices of lemon, and additional fresh herbs as desired. Oregano and marjoram go very well in this gumbo.

Cover the cattle and let the gumbo simmer for 3 to 5 hours.
After about the first hour of cooking check the gumbo for seasoning. Add salt, black pepper, and a little Tabasco sauce if you want.
About one half hour before serving, add the cooked lobster, raw shrimp, partially cooked crayfish and the browned sausage.
Adjust the liquid if necessary.

Gumbo is really a thick soup and it should be served in the soup bowl over a large spoonful of fluffy boiled rice.  This may seem like a lot of work but trust me. It will knock your socks off.  It is also a good candidate for freezing in small portions to eat later, even at lunch.

The Rant

There are two hot issues swirling around the food blogsphere at the moment. One is about whether or not there is a viable alternative to the industrial agricultural model that feeds the world today. The other is about whether or not preparing your own food from scratch is drudgery, and that issue has elicited the most visceral responses.

For me the whole cycle of preparing food, from finding and buying the right ingredients to chopping the vegetables and cutting up the meat and fish to whipping the cream or the egg whites or kneading the dough … they all fall into one of two categories: community or meditation.  Buying and finding the raw ingredients outside of the commercial food system is inevitably an exercise in social bonding. You have to talk and interact with real people. Pretty soon you’re asking questions about their farming practices. And they are asking you about your food preferences. The same sense of community can infuse every other stage of preparing food if there are people around to help out. It’s more fun to sit around together dicing onions and chatting that it is sitting comatose in front of a TV screen with your friends sitting next to you holding a beer.

If there aren’t any people around its a chance for meditation.  I take the repetitive tasks of peeling and dissecting and chopping and cutting up vegetables, meat and fish, as an opportunity to practice a kind of Zen meditation. It’s a time to empty my head of the unfinished tasks and responsibilities that weigh me down, a time to focus on the knife, ingredient and the perfection of my task.

There is an old Zen story that I used to torment my children with. A young man is doing the dishes in his Greenwich Village apartment. He suddenly realizes that his life is empty and has no meaning. He has heard about the Buddhist path to enlightenment and decides that he has to try it. So he goes down to the Shambala bookstore, conveniently in his neighborhood, and buys a book on Zen meditation.

That very afternoon he sits down and tries to meditate, but he can’t really focus, and so he sets out to join the local Zen center. After weeks of meditation he still feels frustrated.  His teacher tells him to go to California where there are more opportunities.

The young man goes to the Tasahara Institute and practices diligently for six months but, once again,n the training is not rigorous enough. His California teachers tell him to go to Japan. The young man goes to Kyoto and enters a Zen monastery.  After a year, the goal of enlightenment remains elusive.

His Kyoto masters send him to India.  He travel  to Delhi, and from Delhi north into the foothills and finally to the tree line.  Just above the trees, in a cave sits the wisest Zen master of them all.  He is small, wizened and bright eyed.  He sits cross-legged and smiles at the young man, who eagerly explains his mission.

The old man looks at the young man for a long time.  Then he  asks, “what were you doing before you set out on your journey?”

The young man thinks back a long time. Two or three years. Then he remembers that he was in his apartment in Greenwich Village doing the dishes.

The old man looks at him and smiles, “Go back and finish the dishes.”

The primitive act of feeding our family in when we are most truly human and most truly in touch with the basic rhythms of the natural world around us.

Preaching is over!

About Christopher Koch

Christopher Koch is a journalist and filmmaker who is now teaching at Montgomery Community College
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