Savor the process of clock-gobbling gumbo

Christmas dinner hadn’t even made its way into plastic containers when the ads for weight loss came blaring out of the television.

It’s that time of year we’re barraged with messages telling us to change our lives because well, it’s the new year. Whether it’s smoking, weight loss or another life-affecting habit, we’ve all considered making resolutions to improve our lives.

With the commercialism moving from Christmas to self improvement, I was surprised to find a list that names “spending more time with friends and family” as the top resolution people make.

It’s been on my heart, too.

In the past year I’ve been making an effort to make my connections face to face with friends old and new. As a family we’ve become intentional about our time with each other. Not just to be together but to find ourselves present with each other, sharing our hearts, our laughter and tears.

What better place than around a table with good food?

With good food I’m learning to embrace the process.

Cooking is art. It’s a beautiful expression, like paintings or music are always more lovely when shared.

My daughter has helped in the kitchen from a young age. Now that she’s married and out on her own, she’s taken on some of the meal planning for special occasions. She’s even mastered the art of some more involved dishes.

This year Rachel planned a gumbo night leading up to Christmas Eve.

In the past we grabbed something quick and easy, but she wanted to take it on.

Gumbo done right can easily take five hours to cook, and it’s worth every minute. You start by making chocolate-colored roux (pronounced “rue”) by patiently cooking flour in oil. The dish takes a nutty taste created by almost burning the flour. Gumbo involves chopping, stirring, browning chicken and adjusting spices during hands-on time. To be sure, there is plenty of simmering to be done.

A staple of Cajun cuisine, this gumbo holds up great in the freezer and makes a wonderful leftover. Once you have a perfected making roux, the remainder of the recipe is a breeze.

This go-round, as I sat back and (mostly) observed, I was struck by the process. How often do we forgo great food because we don’t want to work through the process? We forget that the process is part of the experience.

We’ve given up making messes side by side in order to get from one point to another. We forget that sharing a kitchen and breathing the same space feeds relationships. We lose the feel of lettuce tearing in our fingers, the rhythm of knives against the chopping block, the spices filling the air as the sound of a hot pan crackles with each addition.

My friend, Tonja, walked me through the process of this authentic Cajun dish long ago. We’re both proud to have passed it on to another generation. Another gumbo-making friend is a minister in Washington. Jada has been an influence on this journey as well. One morning as we were leaving a gathering of friends, she said, “Our family’s most powerful ministry tool is the large table in our front room.”

In the past year I’ve been learning to share my table more often. With this latest revelation, I hope to share my kitchen counters as well.

I’m looking ahead to a tasty and satisfying year!

Hearty gumbo is a great way to warm the insides on a winter's day or night.

Chicken and Sausage Gumbo

1 cup vegetable oil

1 cup flour

8 cups chicken, vegetable or seafood stock

1 whole stalk of celery, cleaned and finely chopped

2 medium yellow onions, finely chopped

½ bunch of fresh parsley, finely chopped

8 garlic cloves, mashed and finely chopped

1½ teaspoons fresh thyme, stemmed and finely chopped (less if you’re using dried thyme)

1 bay leaf

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon white pepper

Salt to taste

1 pound Andouille (a Cajun sausage) or other smoked sausage, browned and sliced into bite-sized pieces

3-4 pound chicken (white or dark meat, or a combination of the two), browned, de-boned and torn or cut into bite-sized pieces

1 pound or more of large raw shrimp

In a cast-iron skillet, heat vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Slowly add the flour and stir until mixture is thoroughly blended. (Note: This is the most laborious stage of making gumbo and, by far, the most crucial in its success. In making a roux, you are essentially “burning” the flour with the hot oil. The burnt flour is what gives gumbo its rich, nutty flavor.) Cook and stir the roux constantly, taking care to scrape the sides during the stirring process. Over a period of time, you’ll notice the roux beginning to turn a progressively darker color. The color you’re looking for is that of a dark, mild chocolate hue and consistency — the darker the roux, the richer the flavor of your gumbo. When your roux is finished, remove from heat to stop the cooking.

Though gumbo takes a long time on the stovetop, it presents a blend of flavors that makes the wait worthwhile.

Transfer the roux to a large stew pot or Dutch oven. Add celery, onions and parsley, garlic and dry seasonings. Stir and sauté over medium heat until vegetables begin to get tender (about 10 minutes). Add stock. Stir mixture until all ingredients are blended. Cover and let simmer for about 45 minutes. Add meats and stir. Cover tightly and simmer over low heat for 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Remove cover and simmer over low to medium heat for another 45 minutes for an hour. If using shrimp, add during the last 20 minutes of cooking. Salt and pepper gumbo to taste. Remove bay leaf and serve over hot steamed rice.


— Tonja Brossette

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