9.29.2014

365 Project Day 272: On New Orleans' Food Influences: African pulls it all together

Today we wrap up our conversation about the cultures that have fed into Nola's recipes and tastes.  How does it all come together?  Beautifully.  To wit:

It may be impossible to overstate the influence that African traditions have exerted on what we now call New Orleans food.  I'm thankful that a population who were so brazenly abused nevertheless shared cooking techniques and ingredients which have been crucial to the development of the local cuisine.  That said, these contributions are often so ingrained and intermingled that it's hard to draw a direct line.

One of the most visible examples is okra - an incredible vegetable that is referred to in many parts of Africa as a word something like "gumbo."  Yep, that most New Orleanian of dishes began to take form when okra was brought to New Orleans by enslaved Africans in the 1700s.  Okra grows well here, and we've been growing it ever since.

But how did we get from okra to the stew we now call gumbo?  It seems to go something like this: You take a (Spanish) trinity of onion, bell pepper, and celery.  You add (African) okra, (Choctaw) file powder, and/or a (French) roux.  You add plenty of water, salt, and seasonings and let it boil down for a while, maybe with (German) sausage or some (Italian) tomatoes.  Then you serve it all over (Chinese) rice with a side of (French) bread.  In this way, gumbo is a pretty literal melting pot of tastes from around the globe.

Okra is not in every gumbo, which at this point has seemingly endless variations.  But gumbo with okra and/or file powder has always struck me as the most traditional and delicious.  Maybe that's because it's what my daddy always made.  There are a variety of meats that can define gumbo (seafood vs. chicken and sausage, and so on), but what makes a gumbo a gumbo has more to do with its base.  My own gumbo is a chicken and sausage number, and particularly with okra in season right now it is thickened and flavored with okra and file powder.  Like so:

Mel B's Chicken and Sausage Gumbo!

You will need:
  • a large soup pot
  • a large skillet
  • a large wooden spoon
  • water
  • veg oil (I prefer olive) - enough to sautee your trinity and then some; this will be the only oil in your gumbo and is crucial for mouth feel
  • one yellow onion
  • one large green bell pepper
  • three stalks of celery
  • a large can of crushed tomatoes
  • about a pound of okra
  • four veg bullion cubes (or enough for eight cups of broth)
  • seasoned salt (I prefer Tony's)
  • regular salt
  • four bay leaves
  • one package of your favorite vegan sausage (I like Tofurky Italian)
  • one package of your favorite vegan chicken (I like Beyond Meat grilled strips)
  • gumbo file powder
  • rice and French bread for serving
You will do:
  • heat your oil in your large skillet over medium-high heat
  • chop your onion and let it caramelize in the skillet with the oil for a few minutes
  • chop your bell pepper and celery and add to the skillet; leave the lid off and let these cook until soft, stirring frequently
  • meanwhile, fill your soup pot about halfway with water and set it to boil; add bullion cubes and bay leaves early
  • add the can of tomatoes, liquid and all, to the soup pot
  • cut your Okra in 1/2" to 1" rounds, and add to the pot once it's at a boil (If you've never dealt with okra before note: cut the tops off - they are *not* edible.  Also it may make your hands a lil itchy.)
  • once your trinity is just about done, give it a heavy sprinkling of seasoned salt and then of regular salt; stir and let cook for a minute or two, then add it all to your soup pot
  • don't clean your skillet!  cut your sausage into 1/2 inch rounds and brown them on each side in the skillet that still has oil and seasonings in it; once browned on both sides, add to the soup
  • still don't clean your skillet!  tear up your chicken into bite-sized pieces and heat it gently in the skillet, as most vegan chicken doesn't really want to be cooked.  Try to use one that tastes good on its own!
  • let the soup boil down for about an hour, until the saltiness is where you want it and the okra is well cooked
  • turn off heat and let sit for about 20 minutes
  • add your chicken and stir in a teaspoon or so of file powder
Serve it over your favorite kind of rice, with some good French bread on the side for dipping.  Optionally, also serve with Tabasco sauce and file powder on the table.  This will make enough to feed your family, your friends, a few neighbors, and probably some co-workers as well.

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