Soup of the Day: Faux Gumbo

Cooking gumbo can be a long and tedious process but it’s well worth it if you have the time and energy. I have had the real deal, deep in the heart of Louisiana, cooked by a grandmother who spent the morning in markets and with road side vendors gathering ingredients and then the rest of the day cooking. I have made it myself using the ingredients I could find and Alton Brown’s technique for a painless roux. But it does take all a good chunk of a day to do it right.

I have to ask, though, is it a soup or is it a stew? Interestingly enough, even Wikipedia isn’t conclusive and I don’t really think it matters. Gumbo morphs to its environment and available ingredients and may even take on the personality of the cook. It’s magical stuff and really not that difficult to make. Time consuming, yes. Difficult, no.

But I don’t have a lot of time to cook in the middle of the day.  I have about forty five minutes to get everything diced, sliced and boiling in the pot. That’s why this recipe is Faux Gumbo. It’s missing a roux, filet or okra. But almost everything else is there and you can get a rich mixture of flavors in a very short amount of time.

Here’s the ingredient list:

3 to 6 tblspns of olive oil (any oil really or even butter. Olive oil works best for me though.)
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 red onion, diced
1 white onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
3 stalks of celery, chopped
2 roma tomatoes, seeded and diced (could use a 10 oz can of Rotel instead)
1 jalapeno (control seeds for heat)
Maybe a sprig of fresh rosemary and/or parsley if available.
Several dashes of Cajun seasoning
2 pounds of beef sausage, sliced thinly (I look for gluten free varieties)
1 pound of small shrimp (100 ct)
2 quarts of broth, (vegetable, chicken or beef)
A thickener of some sort which we’ll discuss later.

Now any discussion of gumbo should include the “holy trinity” of Cajun cooking which is onions, bell peppers and celery. Best I can tell, as long as you have those three ingredients in the pot you’re doing fine.  Add any kind of meat or vegetables and some broth along with a thickener and you should be making gumbo.

Over medium heat, combine the olive oil, onions, garlic, jalapeno, sausage, rosemary, parsley and a dash or two of the Cajun seasoning.  Let that cook, stirring occasionally while you finishing prepping the rest of the ingredients although having it all prepped before you start makes things easier. Of course, it makes you look like one of those stupid cooking shows. But it does speed things along.

Add the bell peppers and the celery after the onions cook down a bit. Waiting to add them preserves a little bit of their color and texture.  In other words, your not going to cook everything to death. Let this go for a minute or two so that the flavors start to combine and then add the broth and bring it up to a simmer.

I’ve used this flavor of bouillon the last couple of times I’ve made this and it works very well but any beef, chicken or vegetable broth will work fine.

At this point, start tasting and add dashes of the Cajun seasoning until you like it. Or could just use salt or even pepper. Don’t over do it. There are a lot of flavors available here and ramping up the heat may drowned most of them out.

Let it boil for a minute or two and get the tomatoes and the shrimp ready.  I use frozen, cooked shrimp that I let thaw according to the instructions on the package. But first, we must thicken.

For true gumbo, your thickening options consist of filet and okra and roux. Note that filet and okra are normally not used together but you can if you want. Filet is normally added at the very end of the cooking process and then the gumbo thickens as it sits. Okra needs to cook with the gumbo to provide it’s thickening effects. We really don’t have time for that in this version and we already cut out the roux so it looks like we have resort to less popular means of thickening.

Adding body to a stew or soup can be as simple as adding cornstarch that’s been dissolved in cold water. The more cornstarch you use, the thicker the broth. About a teaspoon of cornstarch per cup of broth is usually going to make a pretty thick soup so I usually back off of that and work up to the thickness I want. Also with cornstarch, the longer it simmers the thicker it will get.

You can also cut out the thickening all together. All the flavors are there and the thinner soup will still work well over rice.

After you have reached your desired level of thickness, add the tomatoes and the shrimp. Let the gumbo come back to a boil and then kill the heat.  Immediately. Do not let it cook any longer. The tomatoes will be fine and the shrimp is already cooked so all it needs is heat. If you continue to cook, the shrimp will turn to rubber and tomatoes will dissolve. Just take it off the heat and serve immediately in bowls with rice.

Is it gumbo? It tastes like gumbo and the pot goes empty quick in a crowd which is the sure sign of a good gumbo. It’s hearty, filling and boasts a myriad of flavors that will induce cravings if you go too long without it. Cooking time: about an hour or less depending on your knife skills (mine suck). I still like the roux-based traditional dish properly thickened with filet but I do believe this faux gumbo will do in a pinch.