This past weekend, I snuck away with a group of friends to a lodge nearish to Utopia, Texas. If you’ve ever spent time out in this magical corner of the Hill Country, you know that it’s particularly beautiful. The hills are grander, the canyons deeper, and cell phone service spottier. If you squint, you might think you were in New Mexico or maybe even California. In the group text leading up to the weekend, I suggested I would make either gumbo or enchiladas, and someone responded that gumbo felt “extra special”. Chicken and sausage gumbo, though delicious and definitely fitting for the occasion, doesn’t feel particularly special to me. Chicken and sausage gumbo feels familiar, average, common, and comforting… not an unusual choice for a winter gathering with friends in South Louisiana, where I grew up. (Seafood gumbo, packed with expensive crab claws and shrimp… now that’s special, indeed.) Homemade enchiladas, on the other hand, feel special to me. Luckily, we had both this past weekend… I made the gumbo, and someone else adopted the enchiladas. Both main courses were schlepped to Utopia already-made and ready for an easy reheat… the forethought and planning of which has never made me feel so adult.
The gumbo: I don’t make my own roux, (though I could), and instead prefer the significant shortcut of purchasing pre-made jarred roux which, in my opinion and in my familial tradition, doesn’t taste any different than a homemade roux. And unlike a homemade roux, a jarred roux is impossible to screw up. I most often used Kary’s Dark Roux (because they carry it at my HEB), and am happy to take on the ego of any purist who thinks that a real gumbo must be made with a homemade roux. For me, using a jarred roux is often the difference between eating gumbo and not.
I like a lot of veg in my gumbo, and usually chop double or triple the amount of onions, celery, and bell peppers a recipe might call for. These get smothered/sauteed for a long time… a low and slow 40-50 minutes until they’re a slightly caramelized mush of holiness. The same goes for the green onions + parsley at the end: chop real fine, and use a bunch of bunches. When making a chicken and sausage gumbo, I always use half smoked sausage and half fresh sausage, which if I can help it, comes from The Best Stop in Scott, Louisiana. I find that using only a smoked sausage like andouille totally overpowers the taste of the gumbo and makes it all-smoke and no-chicken. The fresh sausage gets cooked in the oven before adding to the gumbo, and then sliced slightly thicker than the smoked, so folks eating can tell the difference. Bone-in thighs + some white meat for the skeptics, homemade chicken stock if you’ve got it, and white rice made in my $20 Walmart rice cooker which is now 7 years old and still as functional as ever.
Gumbo is truly better the next day. The flavors settle and you can more accurately taste for salt and seasoning. Ideally, you’re always cooking your gumbo exactly one day before you plan to serve it. Not only will it taste better, but you can also just chill and make a cocktail and salad on gameday. More than three days? I’d freeze your gumbo, separating the juice* (see footnote) from the meat. You didn’t ask for my gumbo tips, but now you’ve got them.
I served the gumbo with a version of this iceberg lettuce salad subbing the mozzarella for crumbled cotija because that was leftover from enchilada night, and some warmed HEB garlic bread. Like a whiskey-buzzed genius, I thought to chill the salad bowls in the freezer, and well… this is the kind of tiny detail that makes home-cooked food feel luxurious.
Usually, I’d make potato salad to go along with my gumbo (I’m team in-the-bowl. If you know, you know.), but I ran out of time and knew my Texan companions wouldn’t necessarily miss the potato salad which, unless you’re from a specific huddle of South Louisiana parishes, may seem like a random necessity to you. (I’ll never forget the time in college when I brought my Shakespeare professor - a Holy Cross Brother in his mid 70’s- some especially special wild duck and sausage gumbo with a side of potato salad only to have him basically refuse the potato salad and say that it was, in fact, not a traditional side dish served with gumbo in any part of Louisiana and that I was incorrect. Oh, the indignation. Obviously, he has never had the pleasure of knowing the Grannies and Mawmaws of Acadiana. But I digress completely.)
Other food over the weekend included a 24-egg pan of migas and a variety of canned biscuits, sandwiched with pepper jelly and breakfast sausage. There were fajitas for lunch one day, and ham and turkey sandwiches for lunch the next, assembled from a messy kitchen island piled with condiments, paper plates, lettuce and tomato slices, breakfast leftovers, half-eaten toddler snacks, chips, and golden Oreos.
I love eating this way. With friends in full color and in full chaos, and am feeling especially grateful for my recent dose. Here is your official nudge to make some gumbo this winter season. If you need a recipe to get you started, here is one similar to my chicken and sausage gumbo method.