For want of a shoe, the horse was lost; For want of a horse, the rider was lost.
For want of a rider, the battle was lost; For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost.
And all for want of a nail.
Even though I was born and raised in Louisiana, my family having settled there in the 1720's with the original land grants, I don't consider myself strictly Cajun. My family wasn't part of the Acadian exile from Nova Scotia. They were German potato farmers. Nope. No romance there.
Still, having deep roots there, whenever I think of comfort food, I think of gumbo. And so does my Hoosier husband who took Cajun cuisine much further than I, a native, ever did in my whole life: he's eaten alligator. No. It doesn't taste like chicken. So when we went gluten-free, the first question he asked--even before bread--was "Can we still do gumbo?" The happy answer is, yes, Virginia, there is delicious gluten-free gumbo. Even my father says so, though I stand willing to concede that he's sparing my feelings. Dads do that.
Because I share my roof with Hobbits of varying stature, I make monster quantities and reheat on demand, demand being often. This is my version of convenience food. And though I know my grandmother would probably cringe, I use a 22 qt. pressure cooker to make short shrift of a project that would take much longer simmering in a cast iron dutch oven. To date, I haven't confessed this to my grandmother from whom I get my cooking and gardening compulsions, as well as my nose. Sorry, Maw Maw. I still use my cast iron cookware for everything else though. Like roux, for example. Nothing beats cast iron for excellent roux.
Now I have to say that, in all fairness to me, what happened was the mouse's fault. Really. I know I was supposed to put a glue trap down in the basement at the first signs of intrusion, but I got side tracked, my brain being on hiatus about that time. After a busy morning of getting up to go grocery shopping, then an afternoon of homeschooling and taking co-op orders, I decided to make some gumbo. Which should have been a quick task with a pressure cooker. Uh huh. I keep this big mama down in the basement because it is so big, that's the only place I can comfortably store it. After I brought it up and started cleaning it, I noticed The Problem. The mouse had eaten the little red safety valve out of the lid. All for the want of a nail...
I stewed on this dilemma for a while, believing that I surely could figure out a stop gap measure until the new safety valves (notice the use of the plural form) I frantically ordered over the internet came in. A cork would do it. Surely. Let me point out that the take-home lesson, boys and girls, is that a cork will not satisfactorily substitute for a safety valve in a pressure cooker. Oh, for about 15 minutes after the control began rattling, it held. In hubris, I decided it would hold for the other 15 minutes I wanted. Sheer hubris. As I turned in smug complacency, I was rewarded with an astonishing fountain of gumbo. All over the stove. The inside of the hood. The wall behind the stove. Oh, yeah. The wall behind the stove. Oh, but the fun was just beginning. As I began cleaning up this indescribable mess, I began to hear the snap, crackle, and pop of the clearly non-functional GFCI circuit behind the stove. I dashed down to the basement, screaming to all and sundry to clear a path so that I could throw the breaker. Shortly thereafter, as I was wedged into the microscopic margin between the wall and the stove, changing the old GFCI for one that actually works, I kept repeating to myself that one day I'd find the whole thing funny and we'd all laugh. Tool Guy didn't have to wait for "one day." He found it funny and laughed right away.
But back to gumbo. In Louisiana, gumbo is a lot like potato salad. There's a basic universal recipe and then every family has their own version, tailored to their tastes. I grew up with a very simple chicken and andouille sausage gumbo. When I started making it myself, I added all kinds of things that aren't authentic, like mushrooms. Feel free to ignore any inauthenticities you may notice. Or better still, tweak it for your preferences.
Roux, about a half cup per two quarts of liquid
3-5 lbs. chicken pieces
2-3 lbs. sausage, cut into slices or chunks
salt and pepper to taste
1-2 bay leaves, depending on batch size
Now, 'sha, you staht witch-u roux.
Sorry. Blast from the past. These days, the voices I hear call each other "youse guys" and talk about buying "pots" to fix their cars when they break down. Back to roux. I've played with different flours: sorghum, sweet rice, millet, jasmine rice. Everyone will likely have a different favorite, but I've settled on jasmine. Whatever size batch you're making, the ratio of flour to oil is roughly 1:1 and my oil of preference is lard, though olive oil is fine, too. Using less oil and more flour makes it brown faster; using more oil takes longer to brown, but you have more control over the exact shade the roux becomes. Browning too quickly can tip the balance from "done" into "burned" before you can stop it and you have to start all over. There's no salvaging burned roux. Wheat flour roux browned to a copper shade best suits my tastes, but I've seen roux that looks like oily chocolate, which is too bold for my palate, surprising given my appetite for dark chocolate. In gluten-free roux, however, either one of these states equates to "carbon." In my experience and taste, a warm honey-shaded roux will make a good rice flour gumbo without having bitter undertones. You'll have to experiment. Good roux is one of those artisan things and is dependent on practice and preference.
Pour the oil into a cast iron skillet and begin to heat. As it warms up, stir in the flour. Roux is labor intensive and will need constant stirring, especially as it becomes browner. I start on high heat to get things going and then turn the temperature down as the flour starts to brown and I need more control. This usually gets me roux in about 20-30 minutes. Some cooks put their "trinity" (onion, celery, and bell pepper) in the roux as it gets dark since that will slow down the cooking. My trinity goes limping: onion and celery and I put it in the gumbo proper.
While my roux is going and before it needs continual attention, I saute green onions, celery, and mushrooms, then toss them with the chicken, bay leaves, sausage, and enough water to cover into the pressure cooker. I run this stuff through the pressure cooker in 30 minutes, fish out the solid pieces, and strain the broth while the chicken pieces are cooling for deboning. If the broth is too scanty, I supplement with some of my homemade chicken broth. Then I throw everything back into the cooker. Check the salt and pepper status at this point, since the sausage will share its seasonings with the gumbo, and so add any salt and pepper after it is cooked. Next, I pour the excess oil off of the roux and add enough roux to the liquid to make it thick enough for our tastes...again an individual variable...we like a medium-bodied gumbo. I cover and pressure it again just long enough to start the control rattling. This gets the roux thoroughly incorporated into the broth. If you're doing this in a cast iron dutch oven, you'll need to simmer on very low until the incorporation happens, watching to make sure the roux doesn't burn on the bottom. Toss all the meat back into the gumbo.
Serve over hot rice. Serves a family of Hobbits.
We may have crossed the threshold into spring, but until it's hot enough to sweat, it's cool enough for gumbo.