I've been making lots of gumbo lately. But not being from the State of Louisiana, I hesitate to post my gumbo recipe because I have some questions of my own.
For instance, why is such a big deal made of browning the roux that thickens the gumbo?
Is that a Creole thing, or a Cajun thing?
And while we're at it, what's the difference between Creole and Cajun?
A recent work assignment took me to the Caribbean island of Anguilla. I brought along three different Jessica Harris cookbooks, thinking I would be cooking island food. Even though I didn't cook a lot of island food in the end, I spent some time re-acquainting myself with Harris' take on Creole cuisine.
Harris has made a life's work of tracing and recording the confluence of African and European cooking in the Americas. Gumbo, for instance, derives from an African word for okra. Hence, okra is a star vegetable in the gumbo lexicon. (And, no, okra doesn't have to be slimy--it can just be good.)
The term "creole" was adopted by descendants of Europeans who were born in the New World, especially in the Caribbean and in New Orleans, but also farther South into parts of South America and even Mexico.
"The people of this Creole world have a common history and many similarities in taste, but each has brought something different to Creole cuisines," writes Harris in Beyond Gumbo: Creole Fusion Food from the Atlantic Rim. "Influences from France, Spain, Holland, Denmark, Portugal, and England mingled with those of the Yoruba in Brazil; the Ashanti, Fanti, and Denkiera in Jamaic; the Wolof in New Orleans; the Toucouleur, Igbo, Ewe, Fon, Kru, Hausa, Kalabari, Songye and more. The native ingredients of the American cross-pollinated, literally and figuratively, with those brought to the Americas from Europe, Asia and Africa and went into the dutchies, iron pots, coui, and canaris of the New World."
"Cajun," meanwhile, refers to French Acadians who had settled parts of Nova Scotia, but were forced into exile in the 18th Century after France ceded the territory to Great Britain. Being mostly Catholic, the Acadians were not embraced on the East Coast, and sought out kindred spirits in Louisiana.
There is so much overlap between Creole and Cajun cooking it's easy to confuse the two, although Creole is viewed as the more metropolitan, Cajun more country kitchen.
French being equivalent to haute cuisine, the roux as a sauce base was bound to play a role in Creole and Cajun. But that still doesn't explain the peculiar habit of roasting the flour in the oil until it turns various shades of brown, to almost black.
My own feeling, reinforced by a reading of numerous texts, including The Picayune's Creole Cook Book, is that roux was used sparingly as a thickener in Creole dishes, but came to play a much more prominent role in the countrified dishes of the Cajuns.
"The cooking of flour and fat together to make a roux is a process that seems to go back as far as my ancestors of four hundred years ago," writes Paul Prudhomme in Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen. "Traditionally, the fat used was animal fat, though today various oils are used, and the roux was, and often still is, made by very slow cooking. For example, when I was a boy, my mother used to start with a paste of animal fat and flour and cook it for several hours."
A roux cooked to a dark brown imparts the same kind of flavor as, say, a baked bread. That flavor, sought after by chefs and the prepared food industry, owes to the so-called Maillard reaction, in which carbohydrates and amino acids form strange, flavorful compounds when exposed to heat.
"The basic reason for making a roux," says Prudhomme, "is for the distinctive taste and texture it lends to food. This roux taste and texture is characteristic of many dishes that Louisiana Cajuns make."
It was not uncommon for cooks to make batches of roux and store it for use as needed. But not all roux are created equal. Some are darker than others, depending on the dish being prepared.
"In general, light and medium-brown roux are used in sauces or gravies for dark, heavy meats such as beef, with game such as elk and venison, and with dark-meat fowl such as duck, geese and blackbirds," Prudhomme writes. "They give a wonderful, toasted nutty flavor--just the right enhancement to these sauces and gravies. Dark red-brown and black roux are used in sauces and gravies for sweet, light, white meats such as pork, rabbit, veal, and all kinds of freshwater and saltwater fish and shellfish..."
Prudhomme says that "black roux are best to use in gumbos because the darkest roux result in the thinnest, best-tasting gumbos of all," but he warns that "it takes practice to make black roux without burning them, and dark red-brown roux are certainly acceptable for any gumbo."
These darker roux are what Emerill would refer to as the two-beer or three-beer roux--meaning, your left hand is hardly idle while the right hand is stirring the roux. Prudhomme, being a restaurant cook and having no time for leisurely ale swilling, found a way to make a dark roux without burning it in 500-degree oil
We will take the more leisurely approach when we make our roux and assemble our gumbo tomorrow. Stay tuned....