Tales of Gumbo
by Celia Hayes
I may be defeated in my ambitions this year to have bounteous crops of tomatoes and zucchini squash ... but by way of comfort, the peppers of various sorts and the okra plants are multiplying and producing like champs. The encouraging thing about the okra plants is that I have been able to grow a fair number of plants from seeds left in the pods that I let go last year ... and that the darned things do grow like weeks. However, the okra pods of the variety that I have propagated do have to be harvested before they get to be about three inches long; otherwise they are tough and woody to the point of inedibility. (But still good for gleaning seeds for the next crop.) I would actually consider planting a good-sized patch of okra in the front garden, for the flowers are actually rather attractive; they look a bit like a variety of hibiscus which has pale yellow flowers with a red spot in the center. Alas, in the eyes of non-gardeners and farmers, the leaves of okra bear an unfortunate resemblance to marijuana plants, and while I would like to hope that the average neighborhood SAPD officer has enough savvy to tell the difference at a glance ... I don't want to borrow trouble.
So – okra in quantity; what to do with it? Aside from pickles, and breading and deep-frying it, my usual method for okra is to slice up the pods as I harvest them, and put them in a plastic bag in the freezer until I have enough to make a good batch of gumbo out of it. Gumbo is one of those all-purpose dishes like meatloaf or macaroni and cheese; infinite number of recipes in infinite variations, depending on what you have on hand. It all begins with a roux, of course – oil and flour stirred together, until the flour darkens to the color of a tarnished copper coin. This is what gives the gumbo broth it's thickening substance.
This is a recipe that I like to use, raided from the internet, but with additions from one of my Cajun cookbooks and adjusted to incorporate the accumulated okra harvest.
Combine together ½ cup peanut oil and the same of flour, and simmer until darkened – but not burnt! Add in 1 chopped onion, 1 chopped green or red pepper, and 3 stalks of celery – all very finely chopped, and stir together with the roux until the vegetables are limp. Add in 3-4 minced cloves of garlic, and 1 Tbsp of Creole seasoning, like Tony Chachere's. In another pot, heat almost to boiling, 5 cups of fish, chicken, or vegetable stock, and blend it gently into the roux-vegetable mixture, stirring constantly. Add 2 teaspoons of Worcestershire sauce and 1 to 1 ½ cups fresh or frozen okra, sliced into rounds. Cover and simmer for half an hour, and add half to 3/4ths of a pound smoked Andouille sausage, sliced into ¼ inch rounds and 1-2 lbs fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined. If the shrimp is already cooked, then just simmer the gumbo long enough to warm the sausage and shrimp through. Serve with a scoop of hot rice in the middle, and a sprinkling of sliced green onion.