Seafood Gumbo

Make a jumbo pot of Louisiana-style seafood gumbo

"I remember my granny making gumbo when I was a kid," Donald Link, executive chef and owner of Cochon in New Orleans, says. "The aromas of the roux cooking always remind me of those days."

We weren't necessarily raised on gumbo, but we discovered the amazing Southern stew with roots in Cajun and Creole Country with plenty of time to enjoy it as adults. And we're not the only ones. Plenty of chefs relocate to the South once they're exposed to its cuisine.

"I started working for hotels and headed south in 1996; I made it to New Orleans in 2001 and knew I was home," Ron Iafrate, chef and owner of Chef Ron's Gumbo Stop in Metairie, Louisiana, says. Since leaving his home state of Rhode Island, he's built a name for himself with his award-winning seafood gumbo and mumbo gumbo, which mixes sausage with traditional all-seafood gumbo (see the recipe). He's just one of the gumbo-making experts who offers us advice in the spicy, rich, flavorful stew.

Taming of the roux. "Gumbo is not only special in flavor, but the pride behind the roux was a new experience for me," Todd Pulsinelli, executive chef of John Besh's flagship restaurant, Restaurant August, in New Orleans, says of his first experience having gumbo. "I was told that the further you go north in Louisiana, the lighter the roux becomes."

Roux is a French term for a thickening agent made from a combination of flour and fat cooked together. While you may be familiar with roux when making gravy or b├ęchamel, the sauce thickener can be cooked longer, achieving colors ranging from blond to dark brown. Once you go a bit further after dark brown, almost to the edge, but not quite, of burnt, you have yourself Cajun roux.

"The roux carries the flavor throughout the gumbo," Iafrate says. By cooking the Cajun roux slowly, you toast the flour, which adds an extremely rich depth of flavor to the stew.

Stock and key. Since you've already gone to the trouble of making your roux (we recommend cracking open a beer while you whisk), you don't want to spoil the hard work. Link cites making a good stock as one of the keys to a great gumbo.

Not only is the quality of the stock important, but so is the amount to ensure the proper consistency. "A nice, thick (slightly thinner than a gravy) is my ideal consistency," Pulsinelli tells us. For any shade of roux, the longer you cook it, the less thickening power it has. This makes a Cajun roux have the least thickening ability of all the roux, which is why you need to be careful about thinning it out too much.

Mix it up. A traditionalist, Link feels very strongly on the divide between strictly seafood vs. chicken and sausage gumbo. However, many chefs embrace both, mixing sausage with seafood in their versions. Ours stirs head-on shrimp, crabmeat, oysters, crawfish tails, sausage and okra into a rich thickened broth of shrimp stock and tomato.

The one constant is okra. "I want to see okra in gumbo," Iafrate says. "Gumbo means okra, so why not have it in there?" A natural thickener, okra helps pull the gumbo together in the end, adding body to the finished stew.

You do you. One of our main observations from gumbo research is that gumbo varies all across Louisiana. "Gumbo is a personal thing," Link emphasizes. "There are Creole gumbos that are thickened with okra with no roux and all types of variations of roux color and thickness."

Just remember, whether you serve rice or potato salad with your gumbo (both traditional and perfect for taming down the heat), you'd better put it on top. It's thought of as a garnish, so scoop it right over the gumbo before serving.