If Mardi Gras reigns king over Louisiana’s festivals, then gumbo is the king of Louisiana’s lauded cuisine. It is a dish that transcends all classes and no two bowls taste the same. It is a prime example of Louisiana’s melting pot of cultures, with ingredients coming from many different backgrounds. For example, okra is West African in origin and file (dried and ground sassafras leaves) is believed to be
a contribution of the Choctaws and possibly other native tribes.
The first documented serving of gumbo occurred at a gubernatorial reception held in New Orleans in 1803. In 1804, gumbo was served along the Acadian coast at a Cajun gathering. Today, the most well-known renditions include seafood and chicken and sausage, but this barely scratches the surface of what can be included in a pot of this Louisiana comfort food. Duck, oyster, eggs and much more can be found in today’s gumbos.
One of the biggest feasts for gumbo lovers is held each year during Mardi Gras in Southwest Louisiana. For nearly 20 years, chefs of all skill levels have been stepping up to the pot and vying for the bragging rights that come with winning the annual Gumbo Cook-off. Several of the longtime competitors were happy to share some of their tips and tricks with Thrive.
It’s All About That Base
Jimmy Mallet with the Krewe of Komova said his krewe has been cooking in the cook-off for as long as he can remember. The Krewe of Komova has won the cook-off numerous times in different categories and last year they took home first place in the amateur wild game division. When asked about his secret to stirring up a good gumbo, Mallet commented that it all starts with the roux. "You have to have a homemade roux to start.”
In addition to a homemade roux, Mallet added that he likes to add bay leaves to his gumbo for extra flavor. "I like to make a gumbo that has a medium consistency. You don’t want it to be too think or too thin.”
Echoing Mallet’s sentiments about the homemade roux, Gena Richard Millslagle with Krewe du Sauvage, who won first place in the professional seafood division at last year’s cook-off, said a lot of people just put water in their gumbo but with seafood the secret really is in the sauce. "The trick to a good seafood gumbo is using a good broth as a base, not water.”
"I like a good, dark roux for the base of my gumbo and the consistency has to be just right,” added Trace Wing, another member of Krewe du Sauvage’s cooking team. "A major step is getting your seasoning just right, too.”
Adding in the Protein
Once your roux or base is perfected, it’s time to add in the protein. Whether you’re cooking a wild game, seafood or chicken and sausage gumbo, selecting the right proteins is an important step. "With a seafood gumbo it’s critical to only buy seafood fresh from a reputable seafood market.
Stay away from frozen seafood,” Millslagle said. Mallet added that with wild game gumbo, if you’re using ducks then you are already getting a lot of flavor naturally from that, but you can amp it up a few notches with your sausage selection. "You want to pick an excellent quality sausage that has a good smoked flavor for an extra punch.”
If chicken and sausage is more your style, you can increase your flavor with a this little trick. "I like to cut up all my sausage and brown it first,” said Wing. "After that is done, I drain off about 90 percent of the grease and then brown my chicken in what remains. This step allows the chicken to pick up the smoked flavor of the sausage. After all the meat is browned, I add it into my gumbo.”
Let it Fly
Even though the Internet is packed with recipes for stirring up a good gumbo, our chefs weren’t too
keen on sticking to a recipe.
"When you’re cooking Cajun or French food, you just have to improvise and cook on instinct,” said
Millslagle. "It’s better to sit back and trust what the pot’s going to bring you.”
Wing had a similar game plan when it comes to cooking gumbo. "We just throw it together and let
it fly.” He did add that whatever you do, don’t let it burn. "Definitely don’t burn it. If you leave it on the
heat too long it is possible to burn the roux to the bottom of the pot and that’s no good.”
Bring on the Competition
The 19th annual World Famous Cajun
Extravaganza and Gumbo Cook-off will be held
on Saturday, February 14, at the Lake Charles Civic
Center in the Exhibition Hall. Teams are forming
now and entry forms and rules are available at
www.swlamardigras.com. The public can come out
and taste from every pot at the cook-off. There is a
$5 entry fee at the door.
Learn more at www.swlamardigras.com.