Okra, Chicken and Andouille Gumbo
Words and photography by Judy Allen
Okra, a member of the ancient mallow family whose botanical relatives include the gorgeous hibiscus, has traveled far from its original home in the Nile Valley to establish itself as a respected member of vegetable society around the world.
Okra is adored by cooks in the cuisines of the Mediterranean, Africa, Asia, India and, of course, North America—Southern cooks have been sautéing, stewing, pickling and smothering the not-universally-beloved pod for many years.
Here in the United States—including Oklahoma, where it grows a plenty during the hot summer months—okra is seen most often dredged in cornmeal and quickly deep-fried, more than likely because of the glutinous texture it develops after longer cooking.
However, it is okra and its distinctive texture that helps to bring together a pot of gumbo, which takes its name from okra’s African name, kingombo. Over time, that name came to mean the rich stew the vegetable is best known for—a cornerstone of Creole cuisine.
But gumbo is a melting pot of many cultures: Native Americans dried and ground sassafras leaves to make the thickener called filé; the Creole holy trinity (onion, celery and bell pepper) was inspired by Spanish sofrito; and the French shared their fat-and-flour thickener called roux. According to The Oxford Companion to Food and Drink, some gumbo aficionados “consider gumbo a simple adaptation of the French recipe for bouillabaisse,” a classic Provençal seafood stew. Gumbo as we know it today pays tribute to all of these cultures while it fulfills the role as quintessential peasant food—the best of what’s around.
Gumbo is ubiquitous in homes and restaurants across Louisiana (and, for that matter, the entire South). The rich stew can be made with seafood, crawfish, chicken, sausage or any combination of these ingredients. Lots of local okra and andouille sausage make this particular chicken-and-sausage version a classic and, as in any good gumbo, a deep, rich roux thickens the stew.
After preparing the roux, most of the time spent making gumbo is basically hands-free. You’ll just need to stir the pot occasionally to prevent sticking. When gumbo is served in Louisiana, filé powder is as common on the table as salt and pepper and gives dishes a unique and spicy note.
There are two things that separate a great pot of gumbo from a good one: stock and roux. Do you have to make your own chicken stock? Of course not. But you need to cook the chicken, so essentially the stock makes itself—and homemade chicken stock is a far cry from the canned versions lining supermarket shelves.
Flavorful homemade stock definitely helps, but perhaps the biggest secret to great gumbo starts with the roux, a mixture of (roughly) equal parts flour and oil that is cooked slowly over low heat until it turns dark brown and smells of deeply toasted nuts. Marcelle Bienvenu, a Louisiana cook who once wrote a book called Who’s Your Mama, Are You Catholic, and Can You Make a Roux?, hints that you should “stir the roux constantly until it reaches just the right color— that of a shelled pecan.” A proper roux can take up to two hours to make but the dark, dense mixture adds body and depth to any pot of gumbo, making it a necessity. Roux can burn if it is left unattended so don’t walk off … and get your arms ready for some stirring.
A few years ago I tried my green thumb at growing my own okra. It’s actually a fairly easy endeavor as long as you plant bushes in a sunny place that stays warm from spring to late summer—meaning most Oklahoma gardens. Be prepared for a little upkeep, however, for once the plants start producing the pods grow quickly and are best picked when no more than three inches long, (which means daily or even twice daily, as was the case in my garden!). To freeze the pods for gumbo, stew or other uses, simply cut them crosswise into ¼–½-inch-thick pieces, freeze them on a rimmed baking sheet and then save them in ziptop plastic bags until ready to use.
JUDY ALLEN, creative director of Edible Tulsa, is an award-winning food writer, wife and mom. Texas born but Oklahoma-raised, Judy studied interior design at Oklahoma State University before she decided she would rather be IN the kitchen than designing them. She attended culinary school at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. When her classmates were debating whether to work for Jean- Georges or Daniel, she was trying to figure out how to get to Martha. She became an intern the Monday after culinary school graduation, and continued to work for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia for six years as, ultimately, senior food editor. After blizzards, hurricanes, 9/11 and, ultimately, an enormous blackout, she chose to go back to Oklahoma. Judy has been the food editor of TulsaPeople Magazine for the past 7 years as well as an independent food stylist and recipe developer for other publications. Her work has been published in Cooking Light, Real Simple, Food Network Magazine and Cottage Living. She loves cooking for friends and family and documents her favorite dishes on her blog, TenThousandSnacks.com. Judy lives in Tulsa with her husband and son.