on going slow, commitment, and roux
There’s something so simple, so basic about gumbo that it’s easy to forget just how damn long a proper gumbo takes to cook. That delicious cacophony of sausage, chicken, peppers, onions, and okra mixed and simmered in a highly spiced roux and broth– that doesn’t come quick or easy, which I found out the hard way yesterday. If I thought I had made gumbo before, I was dead wrong. This dish is something that takes a whole lotta time and a commitment to being in the kitchen that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone but the most committed (or crazy) of home cooks.
That dark brown color you see there? I’ve never made a gumbo that dark before, and that’s all because I had never made a proper oil roux before, either. This recipe, taken from Donald Link’s incredible Real Cajun cookbook, called for a serious roux, that had extra depth of flavor due to the fact that you fry the chicken for the gumbo in the oil first.
For this first part- you basically fry up your chicken pieces (I used 6 skin- and bone-on chicken legs, seasoned with salt and pepper, dredged in flour) in a cup of oil heated medium-high in a sturdy cast iron pot. Once the chicken is browned (not totally cooked through), remove from oil and set aside.
That’s the easy part. Hopefully you, like me, have the whole day ahead of you and have queued up some good shows on the DVR to listen to; hopefully you, unlike me, have strong wrists and no nagging carpal tunnel or other nerve issues that won’t flare up after making the roux. Because, again, this roux is not playing around. To the cup of oil that’s now warmed at the bottom of your pot, add 3/4 cup flour and start whisking slowly, for a damn long time. Start on medium heat, and incrementally lower the heat as the roux begins to thicken and change colors, until finally the heat is on low and your roux is a deep dark brown, almost black.
I’m sure there are plenty better descriptions of making roux than I’ve offered above– I’ve read quite a few myself over the years– but all I can say is that you won’t ever know how to make a roux until you just do it yourself. Watching it change from a dark to a medium brown back to dark brown again, thickening all the time, became truly hypnotic and helped the hour(!!!) of stirring go by relatively quickly. It’s impossible to have a gumbo with this kind of depth of flavor– no matter how fresh your vegetables or how well-raised your meats– if your roux isn’t done right. Being able to complete this process myself, with my own two hands, was incredibly satisfying, and taught me a few things about my capacities as a cook (and a person) that I hadn’t really thought through before.
For all you wannabe Top Chefs out there, making a roux the long way offers pretty quick reality check– a potent reminder of why we as home cooks are not, and will never be, cut out for a professional kitchen. I wasn’t kidding when I tweeted that my hands were shaking when I finally stopped stirring the roux– they kept on shaking the rest of the afternoon as I finished up the dish and well after. Even as I fantasize of one day going to culinary school and wearing chef whites, I’m pretty sure I won’t be seeing the inside of Momofuku’s kitchen any time soon. I’m just not cut out for the life and the work of cooking full-time.
I am already committed to being a professor, however, and making this roux, and the entire gumbo (which, if you want the full recipe, you’ll have to find in the Real Cajun cookbook that I’ve gushed about many times before) served as a necessary kind of head clearing that I’ve needed for a while now. As I try to write my dissertation– a long, slow-going and often demoralizing process– I can’t help but try to take shortcuts, to find the easy way out of really working through difficult questions that I know I don’t have the answers to, right now. Like making proper gumbo, though, writing and research is a slow process, and to do it right you’ve got to sit with it for a long while, and be ready to commit. If I can commit a day to cooking one dish that will be eaten in a few short days, then I think I should offer the same level of care and work into a written piece with my name attached to it that will exist in perpetuity…. Thanks, Donald Link, for helping me regain sight of that with a simple, not-so-simple gumbo recipe.