No two gumbo recipes are exactly the same. They vary widely from ingredients to cooking techniques. However, many gumbo experts agree on the importance of the roux, a creamy thickening agent in sauces that resembles dark peanut butter.
“The roux is what makes or breaks a good gumbo,” Niquenya Collins, owner of Cocoa Chili Restaurant & Catering in Chicago says of the fatty mixture, typically made up of flour and butter. “The best gumbo is built on a base of brown roux which has a rich, smoky, nutty flavor profile that helps thicken the gumbo.”
Collins’ gumbo recipe was handed down from her mother, Valerie Fulbright, and is more than 40 years old. It has a chicken broth base and it is loaded with Andouille sausage, chicken, and seafood (crab, lobster, and shrimp-depending on the time of the year) that she says is easy to throw together. Fulbright began making the Southern stew every New Year’s Day to coincide with the holiday, and as a birthday meal for her mother, Collins’ grandmother, Alice Cannon. The gumbo was paired with a freshly baked apple pie and topped with Collins’ grandfather’s home-churned vanilla ice cream (which was often spiked with bourbon). Cannon passed away in 2017 and the family upholds the New Year’s Day meal tradition as a tribute to her life. And while the hearty stew is perfect for the cold winter months, Collins says it was also a common summertime staple when shellfish was more likely to be on sale and plentiful. Luckily, the dish isn’t just for carnivores.
“You can make it vegetarian by using vegetable stock instead of chicken stock, omitting the meats, and adding corn, spinach, and any other veggies desired,” says Collins. “And no authentic Creole gumbo is complete without tomatoes.”
According to Collins, a good roux requires attention and patience. Lose either and you will likely have to start again. She prefers to use butter to make her roux but will substitute olive oil if needed. Collins makes her roux on the stovetop which requires constant stirring over a low flame to avoid burning the flour and butter mixture (some chefs opt for a dry roux which is lower maintenance because it uses the slow burn of an oven-but takes three times as long to prepare). Once the roux is complete, assembling the dish is simple. The Chicago chef says this is a go-to meal for her due to how easy it is to customize the dish. It helps that the meal can be served year round and works well with an assortment of beverages.
“Because of the heat of the warm spices, gumbo is best paired with something light and refreshing like sweet tea, lemonade, or a pale ale,” says Collins. “If the gumbo is less spicy, serve it with a white wine or champagne.”
Collins uses dishes like her Creole chicken gumbo as a catalyst to spark learning. Her Chicago restaurant features Afro-Caribbean soul food that is designed to educate people on the complexities and beauty of the Black diaspora. Menu items feature dishes passed down through Caribbean and African generations with different influences from the African American experience. They include a Senegalese poulet yassa, Jamaican jerk chicken and Caribbean salmon with mango salsa, which Collins describes as her way of showing up and serving her community.
“Food is a universal connector that allows people to come together and be nourished,” Collins says about why what she does is more than just about cooking. “Food allows people to come together to be nourished. Not just physically, but also mentally. Food can help people grow especially if they see themselves and their history reflected in it.”
This is what she thinks about when making and sharing her gumbo. It’s more than a stew. It’s 40 years of her family’s struggles and triumphs.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 60 minutes
Yield: 8-10 servings
1. Heat olive oil over medium-high heat in a large (12 inch), heavy cast-iron skillet.
2. Add chicken and cook through until brown all sides; approximately 4 or 5 minutes on each side.
3. Add andouille sausage to pan with chicken and sear on both sides; approximately 2 minutes on each side.
4. Remove proteins from heat and set aside. No need to drain the pan.
5. Begin prepping the roux. In a large (5.5L to 7.5L) stock pot, melt butter or heat remaining oil
6. Whisk in flour until smooth
7. Switch to a wooden spoon and stir continuously over medium-high flame until a deep brown colour is achieved reminiscent of dark peanut butter; about 15 to 20 minutes. The roux should no longer smell like flour but instead have a slightly nutty aroma. Do not burn!
8. Add in onions, capsicum, celery, and garlic; then cook for about 5 to 7 minutes, stirring frequently until veggies are softened and fragrant
9. Stir in cooked chicken and sausage to the mixture and cook for 1 to 2 minutes
10. Pour in chicken stock, stewed tomatoes, okra, and all spices.
11. Simmer over medium heat, covered for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally
12. Salt and pepper to taste
13. Serve over white rice and garnish with spring onion and gumbo file