It’s mid-February already. The tulips are starting to peek out of the ground here in Seattle (say what?!) and, from what I hear, the beautiful people of New Orleans are celebrating Mardis Gras with parades, floats, costumes, and of course, delicious food!
I visited NOLA for the first time last year for a work conference. With a city so passionate about its food and culture, I’ll admit that I spent far more time eating than conference-ing, and I have no regrets about it.
On the morning of a particularly bland conference schedule, I looked up local cooking classes to spice up my day. In hope of getting a hands-on experience to learn the secrets of the cajun and creole cuisine, my search lead me to the New Orleans School of Cooking in the French Quarter. With my expectations set reasonably high, I walked into the adorable shop, rolled up my sleeves, and had the best six hours of my NOLA vacation (ahem, I mean work trip).
The 8-person class was divided into teams of two, and we worked together to create some of the most quintessential recipes of Louisiana: pralines (PRAH-leen-z), shrimp and grits, gumbo, and bananas foster. I learned so much and ate my weight in delectable dishes at the end.
My favorite? Gumbo. I have a sincere love of anything stew-like, and southern-inspired versions are no exception. I love spice and depth and soupy-ness. Chunks of things and textures… Stews deliver it all. But what makes gumbo stand out from the rest is its humble roux beginnings.
Roux is simple. It’s just equal parts (by weight) of flour and fat. But like all great things (wine, brie cheese, Belgian tripels…) it takes time. Roux is cooked ever so slowly on the stove, allowing it to brown and develop incredible flavor.
While at my NOLA cooking class, I learned from a born-and-raised creole chef that roux should be stirred constantly, watched more closely than a toddler, and deemed ready when it has achieved the color of Worcestershire sauce. Like so…
Any discussion of NOLA cuisine also demands the mention of the “Holy Trinity,” a combination of diced green bell pepper, onion, and celery. Between a good roux and the Holy Trinity, you have the base of any good gumbo!
Cajun and creole cuisine (country and city, respectively) use a similar combination of spices. At the NOLA School of Cooking they use a pre-made combination called “Joe’s Stuff” which is a handy way to make anything taste great. You can easily make your own Cajun spice mix and keep it in an airtight jar for whenever you food needs a little kick. There are plenty of good spice mix recipes on the internet – here’s one to try.
Once you have your roux, trinity, and spice blend, gumbo is a breeze! Toss the veggies into the roux and allow to cook and soften. Then saute some garlic, add some spicy Andouille sausage and chicken, spices, and stock… Boom, done. Serve it up in a big bowl with crusty French bread and you’ll have a soul-warming stew that will have you feeling all the NOLA vibes!
I like to serve my gumbo over rice, and sometimes I add shrimp to jazz it up a bit (see what I did there?). Top it with some chopped green onions, if you like… Add some extra spice… Go nuts, it’s your party!
A traditional recipe for classic New Orleans gumbo
Credit: New Orleans School of Cooking
- 1/4 lb. lard or 1/2 cup oil
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 lb. chicken, cut into cubes
- 1 lb. Andouille sausage, cut into slices
- 2 cups onions, diced
- 1 cup celery, diced
- 1 cup green pepper, diced
- 1 Tbsp. garlic, chopped finely
- 6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
- 1 cup green onions
- Joe’s stuff seasoning (or Cajun seasoning mix)
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Season and brown the chicken in 1/4 cup of oil, lard, or bacon drippings over medium heat in a large pot. Add sausage to pot and sauté with chicken.
- In a skillet, make a roux with equal parts flour and fat (oil or lard). Stir constantly and cook on medium-low heat until deep color (similar to penny or Worcestershire).
- Add onions, celery, and green pepper and sauté for a few minutes. Then add garlic and stir until fragrant. Add to pot with chicken and sausage, stirring frequently.
- Gradually stir in stock and bring to boil. Reduce heat to simmer, season with Cajun spices, salt, and pepper (to taste).
- Serve gumbo over rice (or not) with crusty French bread on the side.