In Northeast Pennsylvania, with little or no access to what is considered by Pennsylvanians as “exotic” ingredients, I find myself nostalgic and craving both foreign cuisines and the cuisine of my childhood, that being Southern Black cuisine or what has been labeled as “soul food”; Texas barbecued ribs grilled from sun-up to sunset, southern fried chicken (lightly coated with seasoned flour), hot water corn bread, beef kidneys, oxtails, Louisiana tea cakes, mustard greens with ham hock, sweet potato pie and, of course, seafood file gumbo.
I’ve been preparing gumbo for several decades now and although each rendition was good, even delicious, it was never my mother’s gumbo. Because I’ve lived most of my cooking life overseas, I did have to make some substitutes like chorizo instead of andouille sausage, but I’ve always had a jar of gumbo file with me and because gumbo is a dish with rural roots, prepared with regional ingredients found on the land and in the rivers and streams running through it, I managed to make do, though never duplicating the sublime perfection of my mother’s gumbo.
While strolling through our local Weiss supermarket, not really needing anything but nonetheless filling up my shopping cart, I prepared to speed by the fresh fish section which only disappoints, when to my shock I saw, for the first time in years, crab bodies! The sign said “crab clusters” but they couldn’t fool me! These bodies or clusters are what remains when the crab is cleaned by removing the crab “apron”, the top shell, gills, lungs and rinsing. What you buy is the rich, sweet meat of the claws and body. “And then I realized… like I was shot… like I was shot with a diamond… a diamond bullet right through my forehead” (Apocalypse Now), my mother always used crab bodies in her gumbo and not the refrigerated canned crab that has always gone into mine! I suppose I defensively submerged this memory because it was that or never make gumbo because the bodies weren’t available. Guys, the bodies make a difference, permeating the soup with the fragrance and flavor of the ocean and recalling our delight in cracking the claws and bodies to slurp the sweet meat into our mouths. I made my mother’s gumbo 🙂
If you don’t have Emeril’s essence on hand, you can buy some or make it. It’s easy to make and stores well.
Worrying, as always, is the chicken situation. The other day I read that we are sending chickens born in the U.S. to China for processing before they are returned to the U.S. and sold as American chickens in our supermarkets. I find that odd and off putting, so I usually get farm chickens. This time, trusting in the religious strictures of the Jewish faith, I bought a kosher chicken. Expensive but it tastes like chicken and the flesh doesn’t have that weird spongy texture of supermarketl chickens. Also, these chickens are from Scranton, about 30 minutes down the road and fairly local. I’ll probably do more kosher and check out their meats too!
After cutting up the chicken in the normal way (cut off the wings, separate the legs from the body and cut into drumstick and thigh, cut the back from the breast section and cut the breast into two pieces), and seasoning with the Emeril’s essence, the whole 3-3 1/2 lb chicken fits perfectly in the big black skillet for browning. The browning oil is used to make the roux. Guard it with your life 😀 Making a roux is not as hard as many gumbo experts make it sound. Don’t freak out, it’s like making a large flour browned version of bechamel.
Make sure you have a really large stockpot because instead of using picked over crab, you’re adding the crab still in it’s shell and that takes up quite a bit of space.
The chicken boiled up nicely, didn’t dry out and made a fragrant, flavorful stock.
The onion, celery and garlic that was boiled with the chicken and herbs looked and tasted so good that my husband and I decided that instead of discarding them we should eat them immediately 🙂
All American southern cuisine that I have been blessed to experience emphasize seasoning. The aromatics, herbs and spices used are what makes these dishes unique. I suppose that can be said of any cuisine. Indian and Asian come to mind. However, I tend to think that the importance of seasoning in southern cuisine, especially black southern cuisine, grew from limited food options driven by post slavery poverty.
Garlic, onion, bell peppers and celery could be grown on small plots and added to a plain pot of beans, rice, corn or whatever was available set a delicious tone for gourmet poverty. Onion, celery and bell pepper are called “The Holy Trinity” and considered the foundation of many a savory dish by the Louisiana Cajuns, Creoles and my Texas mother. When I see a chopped mixture like this, I feel confident 😉
The secret of enjoying the preparation of gumbo is to chop, measure out and season ahead of time before you start the actual cooking. Once you’ve done your prep, this can be a labor of love instead of a tedious voyage into hell with you on the oars.
I’m getting a stand alone freezer today! I’ll be sure to get more crab bodies!
Crab Body Gumbo
3-3 1/2 lb kosher chicken, cut up and seasoned with salt, pepper and Emeril’s essence
1 cup peanut oil
1 1/2 – 2 lbs smoked andouille sausage, sliced
2 onions, quartered
2 celery branches, cut into 3 pieces each, with the leaves
2 bay leaves
1 tsp peppercorns
4-5 whole cloves garlic
4-5 sprigs fresh thyme
4 quarts water
1 cup flour
2 onions, chopped
2 bell peppers, chopped
2 celery branches, sliced
4 garlic cloves chopped
1 tbsp Emeril’s essence
1 tbsp gumbo file
8 crab bodies, claws separated from the bodies, the bodies broken in half
1 lb shrimp, shelled and deveined
1 tbsp gumbo file
Brown the chicken in a large cast iron skillet. Remove and set aside. Brown the sausage slices in the same skillet. Remove and set aside.
Put the quartered onions, celery branches with leaves, bay leaves, peppercorns, whole garlic cloves and thyme in a large stock pot. Add the chicken and water, bring to a boil and simmer for 40 minutes. Remove the chicken, strain and reserve the stock. When the chicken is cool enough, remove skin and bones, then cut or tear into large bite sized pieces. Set aside.
Reheat the oil to medium low, add the flour and brown, constantly stirring, until the flour is cooked and a chocolate brown. Add the chopped vegetables and cook until soft. Sprinkle the vegetables with 1 tbsp Emeril’s essence and 1 tbsp of gumbo file. Cook for about 2 minutes. Slowly add the stock, stirring into the roux mixture, up to 2 quarts of water. When the mixture is smooth and homogeneous, pour it into the stockpot, turn the flame to high and stir in the remaining stock. Bring to a boil, add the reserved chicken and sausage, then simmer for 30 minutes. Stir in the crab and continue to simmer for 15 minutes. Stir in the shrimp and cook for 2 minutes, sprinkle with the remaining gumbo file, remove from the flame and allow to rest for about 15 minutes.
Serve over rice, sprinkled with scallions and more gumbo file if desired.