Fat Tuesday, Anytime
By now many of us are hanging on to our New Year’s diet resolutions by the thinnest thread of willpower. Maybe that’s why Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) has become such a popular holiday in recent years, even here in Chapel Hill, a thousand miles away from The Big Easy. In our multi-cultural college town, Mardi Gras is more about saying goodbye to winter austerity than hello to forty days of Lent. We are way overdue for a feast!
The Creole and Cajun goodies we could whip up for a Fat Tuesday bacchanal boggle the mind: jambalaya, crawfish étouffée, shrimp rémoulade, po’boys, muffalettas, pralines. These are the dishes I grew up eating in my hometown, Brookhaven, Mississippi, just up the road from Cajun Country. Brookhaven lies within a distinctive culinary region, divided from the rest of the South by a mythical boundary called “The Gumbo Line.” Po’boys and gumbo are revered there more highly than pork barbecue and Brunswick Stew, and most folks wouldn’t pass up a Sazerac for sweet tea.
On my last trip home, I picked up a present for my ailing mother at the Louis Armstrong Airport’s bookshop — Gwen McKee’s The Little Gumbo Book. Pouring through this treasure trove of recipes opened up a floodgate of food memories. Before I moved ‘up north’ for college (Durham, North Carolina, may as well have been New York City), we could hop on the early morning train for New Orleans, landing in the French Quarter just the right time for a feast of Eggs Hussard at Brennan’s, Trout Almandine at Galatoire’s, or Pompano en Papillote at Antoine’s. After a long stroll around Jackson Square, we refueled with oysters at Felix’s or seafood gumbo at just about any neighborhood café, before waddling back to the station. Mardi Gras was just a train ride away, any day of the year.
Of all the dishes we could make for Mardi Gras, gumbo best encapsulates the sassy flavors and mystique of New Orleans and the surrounding territory. It’s easy to make and not really fattening. Gumbo just tastes like sin.
My mother, once renowned for her gumbo, has a secret technique that even Gwen McKee didn’t reveal. Mama makes her roux from bacon grease leftover from frying chicken. Pork fat infused with chicken fat! Could anything be better? (It also begs the question: how could she still be alive at eighty eight?)
My own gumbo secret is the stock, made from shrimp shells and heads and a single habanero pepper (though substituting chicken stock would not be disastrous). That fresh chili pepper adds a lively flavor note that dances on the tongue, a nice foil for the roux’s pungency.
Give gumbo a try on Fat Tuesday (the real one is on March 4 this year). Add a baguette and a six-pack of Abita Springs Turbodog beer and you know what to do… laissez les bons temps roulez!
Mama’s Shrimp Gumbo
1/2 cup vegetable oil (bacon grease for the fearless)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 stalks celery chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 pound okra, sliced into 1/2 inch pieces
1 14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes
8-10 cups chicken or shrimp stock (see recipe below)
1 pound cooked and sliced Andouille sausage (optional)
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon cayenne or crushed red pepper
Salt and black pepper to taste
2 pounds shrimp, peeled (save peel and heads for stock)
Make a roux by heating the oil or grease in a large Dutch oven for a minute or two on
medium high heat, then stir in the flour. Continue to stir the mixture for ten minutes
or more. The color should gradually deepen, eventually becoming a dark caramel color.
Immediately add the celery, green pepper and onions — this will stop the roux from
burning. Cook and stir until the veggies a couple of minutes until they soften. Add
garlic and cook a minute longer. Add tomatoes, okra, shrimp stock, sausage and
seasonings. Simmer for at least a half hour. This should be done several hours ahead
of serving for the flavors to meld.
Before serving, bring the gumbo to a boil. Add raw shrimp and simmer just a few
minutes until the shrimp turn pink. Adjust seasonings and serve in bowls with
or without white rice. Keep a bottle of Tabasco handy for added heat if need.
Shells and heads from 2 pounds shrimp
1 small onion, roughly chopped
1 carrot roughly chopped
1 stalk celery, roughly chopped
2 smashed garlic cloves
2 bay leaves
1 red habenero pepper or a large jalapeno
12 cups water
Mix all ingredients in a large pot. Bring to boil and simmer for a half hour. Strain out the solids, reserving the liquid for the gumbo. The heads give great flavor to the stock, but you can use just shells if whole shrimp aren’t available.