I was born and raised in New Orleans. I haven't lived there since I was 21 years old. And yet no matter where on this planet I may hang my hat and rest my weary bones, New Orleans will always be the place I most think of as home, even though I doubt I will ever live there again. As the only child of gourmand parents, who generally took me along rather than hire a baby sitter as they ate there way through New Orleans' restaurants-- both a huge number of venerable New Orleans eateries long favored by our family and my parents' picks of the most likely to be fantastic of the new openings. (Then and now, restaurants open all of the time in New Orleans and eating out is a very popular activity. New Orleans diners are said to be second in demandingness only to Parisians. But if you can please New Orleans, you have arrived in the big time of the restaurant biz.) Both of my parents were also experienced and highly capable cooks and fresh local seafood was always a huge part of our diet. From crawfish, crab and shrimp boils, where huge pots of seafood, spices and veggies are cooked up over a gas burner out in the back yard or on the carport, to classics like oysters Bienville (which I mentioned as a favorite food in a 4th grade essay) to raw and fried seafood to the local pot au feu called jambalaya. (Jambalaya is an infinitely flexible recipe, as it originated as a way to use up leftovers. Boil some rice, add spices, aromatic vegetables and whatever leftover meat or seafood you have-- a little bit of this, a little bit of that is ideal. When the water is absorbed and the rice is tender, it's jambalaya. Shhh-- don't tell the Zattarain's people.)
Not that I have anything at all against Zattarain's. Today people all over the United States can enjoy a taste of New Orleans in the frozen food aisle thanks to Zattarain's reasonably authentic and reasonbly good frozen dinners. Does it taste a bit like what you might eat in New Orleans? A bit. But Zattarain's frozen jambalaya is to the real thing only slightly less removed than Kraft Macaroni and Cheese is from a casserole of hand rolled macaroni, baked in a rich, creamy cheese sauce and redolent of generous servings eight freshly grated cheeses. (Sometimes I'll eat the Zattarain's if I don't have time to cook. I will not eat the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese with the Tang-colored sauce mix.) But when I have the time to cook, and especially if I have a bit of extra money, I take a trip back home by making a pot of seafood gumbo. It's not Exactly my grandmother's recipe, it's not exactly my father's recipe. I'm not sure if my Mom has a gumbo recipe-- though she makes an exquisite crawfish etoufee. The recipe below is just MY recipe for gumbo. It can easily take all day to do all of the prep and cooking. Take your time. The result will be well worth it. And yes, I'm well aware that there is $50--$100 worth of ingredients in that pot when you get done. If you are broke make jambalaya. With whatever you have or can scrounge. But when you're flush? That's the time to make gumbo!
2 lbs shrimp
crab (here in the Northwest I use one Dungeness crab. on the east coast I would use two or three blue crabs. in New Orleans I would try to get a couple of pounds of small gumbo crabs. if you can’t get fresh you can add a pound of lump crab meat at the very, very end instead)
1 cup cooking oil
1 cup white flour
2 lbs fresh okra + oil for frying
2 large onions
2 large bell peppers
2 bunches green onions
1 can tomatoes
6–10 cloves garlic
First, make the roux. Measure out your oil and your flour and heat a big soup pot on the stove on high heat. In about 5 mins when the pot is Really hot add the oil and flour all at once. WHISK! It will smoke but keep whisking and leave the heat alone. In a minute or two it will feel like your arm wants to fall off and the smoke will begin to clear. Keep your eyes on the Roux. When it looks like a hershey bar color, turn the heat to low.
Add the two pounds of peeled raw shrimp to your roux and cook over low heat for about three minutes, until shrimp pink. Remove from heat. Meanwhile, in a separate large skillet cook the okra, chopped, in a few tablespoons of oil. (I never measure this). You have to cook the okra for a long time. It will be done when it STOPS making long gummy strings, after about 45 minutes. When the okra is done, add it to the soup pot with the shrimp cooked in roux, which is set aside and not on the heat at this point.
Now, add some more oil to the skillet and fry off all the other vegetables for 5–10 minutes until lightly browned. Add the fried off vegetables to the soup pot. Add the tomatoes and garlic, both chopped. (Note i said to chop the canned tomatoes — just run your knife through them right in the can and to Chop, NOT mince, the garlic.) If you are using crab in the shell, add it to the pot along with about two quarts of water and two or three bay leaves. Simmer over low heat for about an hour, then serve over hot white rice.
Where did you grow up and what is your favorite comfort food?