Growing up in Houston, I was no stranger to chicken and sausage gumbo. The city’s close proximity to Louisiana’s Cajun country insured that I knew plenty of kids with family names such as Boudreaux, Guidry or Hebert, whose parents often had a big pot of the chunky soup simmering on the stove. After an afternoon of riding bikes, you could walk into one of these kitchens, grab a bowl and ladle a portion thick with smoky, succulent meats over a pile of rice. Gumbo is good and during the cold months it was almost as prevalent as chili in my part of town.
With the New Orleans Saints going to the Super Bowl for the first time, the decision about what to make on the big day is simple. Sure, quarterback Drew Brees may be a Texan but my Super Bowl plan is to cook a big pot of chicken and sausage gumbo. And while I’ve long been a gumbo eater for some reason, however, I’ve never been much of a gumbo maker. So when I needed advice, I turned to Ken Wheaton.
Ken Wheaton, who lives in Brooklyn but hails from Opelousas, Louisiana, is famous in certain New York City circles for his gumbo. So much that when his editor caught wind of his prowess, he insisted that Ken include his recipe in his excellent new novel, The First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival.
Ken’s novel isn’t a food novel, per se. Nope, it’s a story about a confused Catholic priest struggling with his faith and vows. And while that may seem like a heavy topic, in Ken’s hands it’s a humorous, heartfelt story that will make you laugh and might even make you cry. But it will also make you hungry for both Cajun food and culture as Ken deftly captures small-town Louisiana life in all its church-going, Zydeco-dancing and gumbo-making glory. And yes, please note that there’s also lots of swearing, drinking and rabbit-stew eating—it’s not a book for the easily offended.
I won’t get into plot particulars, nor will I delve into any other English-major mumbo jumbo that I probably knew at one point but have long since forgotten. But do know this: Ken is an expert storyteller who has an amazing gift of creating a sense of place. And if you’ve been aching to spend some time in Cajun country with some colorful characters, his book will tide you over until you can enjoy the real thing.
Of course, you can also satisfy your hunger by making a batch of gumbo. Because I like to tinker, I messed with Ken’s method just a bit, but I followed his key rules to not add tomatoes, mushrooms or carrots. And while the word gumbo stems from the Bantu term for okra, kingombo, I didn’t add that as well even though it’s quite common to include it for both flavor and its thickening power.
If you’ve ever been intimidated by making gumbo, as I was, don’t be. The hardest part is making the roux (which I now do in the oven so it’s a snap) and waiting for the soup to be ready. And when you tuck into your bowl filled with a rich broth, smoky sausage and tender chicken, you’ll be happy that you made a batch. Your friends and family will thank you, too.
But enough about me, what are y’all making for the Super Bowl?
For the roux:
1 cup of flour
1 cup of canola oil plus a tablespoon
For the stock:
1 4-pound chicken, cut into parts
1 medium yellow onion, quarters
5 whole garlic cloves
2 stalks celery, quartered
2 bay leaves
For the gumbo:
1 medium yellow onion, diced
3 stalks celery, diced
2 bell peppers, seeded and diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 pounds of andouille sausage, sliced
2 sprigs of fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dry
1 tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon of filé powder plus more for serving
Cooked rice, for serving
To make your roux, in a large cast iron skillet, mix together the flour and the canola oil. Place in an oven set at 350 degrees, walk away and let it cook for two hours. No hovering, no stirring, no nothing! After a couple of hours, take it out of the oven and it should be chocolate brown. Now, you can also do it the standing over the stove method if you prefer, but I don’t.
While the roux is cooking, make your chicken and broth. First, season your chicken parts generously with salt, black pepper and Cayenne. Place the chicken parts in a large pot with the quartered onions, whole garlic, quartered celery, 2 bay leaves and 8 quarts of water. Bring to a boil and then simmer for an hour and a half, skimming any foam that rises to the surface.
Take the chicken out of the pot and when it’s cool, remove the fat and pick the meat off the bones and cut into pieces. When the broth is cool, strain and throw out the vegetables. Remove the fat with a gravy separator or by the plastic bag method. To do the latter, you’ll pour the broth into a quart-sized plastic storage bag and once you see the fat rise to the top, snip off a bottom corner and drain it until you reach the fat layer. Do this in batches. You should have about 8 quarts.
Clean your pot (or get another big one if you’re blessed with a large, well-stocked kitchen) and in the bottom of it heat up 1 tablespoon of canola oil. Add the diced onions and let them cook for 10 minutes. Add the chopped celery and bell pepper, cook for five minutes, stirring occasionally. Throw in the minced garlic and cook for a minute. Now stir in the roux and cook it with the vegetables for five minutes, stirring every so often. Add the chicken meat and half of the sliced sausage and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. If things start to get sticky, pour in some water or wine.
Now, slowly whisk in your strained chicken broth to the roux, vegetable, meat mixture. Throw in two more bay leaves, thyme and the Worcestershire, bring to a boil and then simmer for an hour. At this time add the remaining sausage and cook for another hour. Fifteen minutes before it’s done, add the minced green onions and filé powder and check to see if it needs salt, black and Cayenne pepper.
Remove bay leaves and serve over cooked rice with file powder for people to add to their bowls.
Yield: 6-8 servings
Note: This is a soupy gumbo. If you like it thicker, use less liquid and/or cook it for a lot longer than stated here. Filé (pronounced fee-lay) powder is ground sassafras leaves and a dash of it will also help thicken it. If you’re feeling wild, replace the canola oil with bacon grease. Ken also adds tasso (a Cajun ham) to his chicken and sausage gumbo, but I couldn’t find that here in NYC. If you’re in that predicament, however, Ken suggests ordering your sausage and tasso from his hometown butcher, Kelly’s Country Meat Block & Diner (Toll free 1-866-948-MEAT). He says, “I usually order pure pork sausage, but lots of people are fans of the half&half (beef and pork). The andouille is killer. The tasso is awesome. They also have rabbits, too!” Or he likes to use Bruce Aidell’s andoille sausage, as he believes it has an authentic flavor. He also prefers cooking up only chicken thighs and skipping the whole broth-making step and just adds water to the pot as he lets his pot of gumbo simmer forever. Do this if you prefer.
Full disclosure: Ken’s my friend and I’ve been watching him write this novel for many years, so you can take what I say about it with a grain of salt. That said please know I would never recommend something unless I loved it and thought y’all might love it, too.