09 March 2008

American Food Part 1: Seafood Gumbo

The more time I put into thinking about it, the more confused I've become about what truly is American food. It definitely gets complicated by the fact that we're predominately a country of immigrants, and most every food item I can think of is really "fusion" cuisine. What do Americans eat everyday? Well, the answer must be 'a whole lotta different stuff.' This country is so big, so diverse, it's impossible to generalize except to say that we eat a lot! Unfortunately, American food seems to most often conjure up the old cliches...hamburgers, hotdogs, apple pie. These things certainly have their place and their fans, but it's definitely not what I eat everyday! To me, the closest answers I can come up with to what is truly American food are regional specialty foods; creations that resulted who-knows-when from creative combinations of foods from the old country with new ingredients fresh from American soil. Since I've had little time and little need to cook lately (everyone else seems to be cooking and inviting me over these days), I'll post about some different examples over the next several weeks.

Example #1 is my Grandma Helen's Seafood Gumbo. Helen grew up in New Orleans and is a wonderful cook when it comes to local specialties. Gumbo, in my mind, is a pretty great example of an American food--a fusion of old and new world and utterly unique. Read all about it here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gumbo. I've never made Helen's gumbo, but have eaten it several times and plan to try my hand at it as soon as opportunity arises. A few ingredients my be hard or even impossible to get in Italy (okra and file powder, for example). You might just have to come visit to give it a try!

Seafood File Gumbo

Combine and set aside this seasoning mix:
1.5 teaspoons ground cayenne
1.5 teaspoons sweet paprika
1 teaspoon salt
.5 teaspoons of following:
white pepper, black pepper, dried thyme leaves, oregano leaves
2 bay leaves, crumbled

5.5-6 cups fish stock
3/4 cup canola/vege. oil)
2 cups chopped onion
2 cups chopped celery
2 cups chopped bell peppers
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 lb. sliced okra
1 tablespoon Tabasco or other Louisiana hot pepper sauce
1 1/4 tomato sauce (unseasoned)
3 tablespoons gumbo file http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fil%C3%A9_powder
Assorted seafood: whole crabs (break claws at joint, and crack cleaned bodies down middle), shelled shrimp, oysters, firm white fish, etc. (she doesn't specify how much--a few lbs. total?)
1 lb. Kielbasa sausage or chicken (optional, though important for flavor to some)

In heavy stockpot heat oil over med. heat until smoking point. Add onion, celery and bell peppers and stir. Turn heat to high and stir in file powder, tabasco, garlic and seasoning mix. Cook for 6 minutes, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to medium and stir in tomato sauce-cook 5 minutes stirring constantly and scraping bottom of the pan as the file thickens. Add the stock and bring to a boil, then lower heat to medium. Add okra, sausage or chicken, and crabs and cook until okra is done. Turn off and let sit if you have the time and then rewarm close to the time you want to serve (flavor improves with sitting). Add fish, shrimp, and oysters to re-warmed soup over medium/high heat about 5 minutes before serving.

Serve over rice. Mmmmmm.


Emilio said...

This rocks!!!

laurel said...

Ha! My thoughts exactly, Nisa! In the first part of this post, you took the words right out of my mouth!
Thank you!

laurel said...

"There is no American food. When we begin to list American foods, either we talk about regional things like lobster or shrimp Creole, or we talk about spaghetti and pizza and hot dogs...One could argue it's what makes us great. The fact that we don't have a cuisine is a measure of our democracy and of our ethnic heterogeneity."
- Sidney Mintz, Anthropologist

LaLaLaLeah said...

I actually made Grandma Helen's Gumbo months ago for the first-ever, "Bring-a-dish-your-Grandmother-made"-themed Supper Club dinner party at Sam and Jerry's. Let's just say I made friends...
I do recall having made one adjustment based on a cookbook given to me by Grandma Helen called, "The New Orleans Cookbook." The introduction to Chapter 1 states, "There are many varieties of gumbo, but every kind uses certain fundamental cooking techniques. First, gumbos all have a roux base, a mixture of butter and flour slowly cooked to a rich brown, which gives gumbo much of its characteristic thick texture and smoky taste." Like so many recipes handed down from generations passed, Grandma Helen's Gumbo is mysteriously missing the one thing that makes the final dish unforgettable (the roux), the secret bit of knowledge that allows the recipe to remain one person's signature dish that no one can seem to truly duplicate. I don't think this was intentional on the part of my grandmother, I just think recipe transcription can't always be fully trusted. My point? Consider making a roux when making gumbo.
Following the advise of "The New Orleans Cookbook," I heated the oil in the pot and browned the sausage. I removed the sausage and kept it warm in the oven. I made a roux by gradually adding flour to the oil (2/3 c. vegetable oil to 1/2 c. flour) and stirring constantly. I reduced the heat and cooked, always stirring, until a medium brown roux (the color of hazelnuts) was formed and then followed Grandma Helen's recipe by adding the onion, celery and bell peppers, and so on. I think I used andouille sausage, shrimp, chunky white fish and oysters. The spice mix really is nice and leaves you with just the right amount of after-bite tingle. Mmmmm.

laurel said...

Ohhh, this is good stuff. Thanks for the extra tips, Lina!