Gumbo with Ham Hock and Shrimp
I was lucky to be involved in many projects when I was teaching requiring travel to many areas of the U.S. and what I enjoyed about each experience was that after a brain draining day of work — often dealing with a three-hour time difference — we’d wander in small groups to shop, take a tour of something interesting if it was available, and most often enjoy local cuisine. Although it has been many years, I was able to visit New Orleans twice for two different projects, and on one of the trips happened across a tiny red book called The Little Gumbo Book by Gwen McKee.
I enjoy picking up something from places I’ve visited — a piece of art, unique piece of clothing, and often, a cookbook filled with recipes that might allow me to recreate something I’ve enjoyed during my stay. On one of the visits, this might have been a volume on mixology with an intriguing recipe for a classic cocktail, but I will never need anything to remind me of the story that accompanies my first experience with a Hurricane. Think red-eye flight, an empty stomach, and not one, but two beautifully hued Hurricanes poured into plastic, transportable cups to be enjoyed while strolling the French Quarter after dark, listening to jazz as we passed one place after another. No, I thought a book with “Twenty-Seven Carefully Created Recipes That Will Enable Everyone to Enjoy the Special Experience of GUMBO” would be much more safe and interesting. But I can hear my good friends snickering right now, as they always do when the Hurricane story surfaces.
I will never live it down.
But this is about good old fashioned gumbo broken down into all its essential ingredients with detailed information about why each is so important to the overall quality of gumbo, the wonder of all almost one-pot meals. You know, the “follow specific directions of the recipe if you want or just know the essentials and make it your own.” The essentials are roux — a browned flour and fat mixture, the “holy trinity” of onions, celery, and peppers, and rice, of course. Gumbo served over rice is a must. The rest is up to you if you’re bold. I am not necessarily that bold, so have been more than content to use this little book’s excellent advice for many years.
I know what you’re thinking if you have any knowledge about gumbo: you don’t love okra. And I will say that I didn’t like okra because I wasn’t crazy about the way my mother most often prepared it, shaken in cornmeal and fried in bacon fat. You might leave it out of gumbo, but once you’ve tasted gumbo with okra? Well.
Temperatures are freezing around the country about now, and even when they’re not, a hot bowl of gumbo with rice is a satisfying meal, indeed.
Have you been lucky enough to have had gumbo before? Have you made it yourself?
Here’s a classic preparation if you’re in the mood to try.
Gumbo with Ham Hock and Shrimp
1/2 c. vegetable oil*
1/2 c. flour
3 c. chopped veggies
(onions, celery, sweet peppers)
1 clove garlic, minced
10 oz. okra, sliced
1 lb. tomatoes, fresh or canned, chopped
5 c. vegetable stock
1/2 tsp. cayenne
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp. thyme
2 bay leaves
1 smoked ham hock*
2 lbs. shrimp, peeled
Gumbo File Powder
Green onions, sliced
- Begin with the roux by heating the oil over medium heat in a cast iron skillet. Sprinkle the flour over the hot oil and using a wooden spoon, stir the mixture continuously until it begins to color and a nutty aroma develops — at least 10 minutes.
- Add all of the prepared veggies (except the okra) to the roux at once and continue to stir about 2 minutes coating the veggies well.
- Add the okra to the mix and reduce the heat. Stir for 2-3 minutes until the okra begins to thicken the mixture. Allow to continue to cook, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes.
- While the veggie mixture continues to cook, heat the stock in a large kettle over medium heat. When the veggie mixture has finished cooking, add it along with the tomatoes, seasoning, and ham hock. Bring to a boil, give it a good stir, cover it and allow to cook over low heat just to keep it at a simmer about 45 minutes.
- Add the peeled shrimp to the gumbo and cook for 10-15 minutes longer. Taste and correct seasoning. Add the gumbo file just before serving. A sprinkle or two will do.
- To serve, ladle over hot rice and if desired, finish with fresh parsley and chopped green onions.
- I can’t provide my notes on this gumbo recipe without saying that the way The Little Gumbo Book: Twenty-Seven Carefully Created Recipes That Will Enable Everyone to Enjoy the Special Experience of Gumbo is written provides much room for experimentation and making gumbo your own way with your preferred ingredients. That’s why I love this book so much. The support necessary is there, as is encouragement to go your own way.
- I used olive oil to make the roux which is why my photo shows a greenish sort of color. I can just hear Thomas Keller saying that cooking with extra virgin olive oil is a no-no, but I persist. As someone who grew up making a type of roux for gravy with bacon grease the way my mother and grandmother did, I rarely have bacon grease on hand, so most often choose to cook with either olive oil or safflower oil. One has flavor and the other doesn’t. You can use whatever fat you’d like to make a roux — the important thing to remember is that there’s a 1:1 ratio of flour to fat, it’s made over medium high heat, and it’s stirred continuously. The color more so than the amount of time taken is the judge of whether the roux is done or not. I usually shoot for a caramel color, and have never achieved the chocolatey color I often hear described as being the perfect color for roux. It will burn if you let it sit, and if it does, you will need to start over because the burnt flavor will be very strong in the gumbo.
- I know the stock is supposed to be the most important aspect of any dish like this, but I rarely have frozen stock ready to go. Once in a while, yes. Otherwise, I rely upon Better than Bouillon Organic Vegetable Base. I have used many of their bases for many years and am very satisfied with the results in whatever recipe I use them in. I rarely have trouble finding them at whatever market I am shopping in, so that makes using it convenient. It’s also very easy to use: 1 tsp. base in a cup of water is stirred until dissolved.
- You can choose any kind of meat you’d like for gumbo — or leave it out completely — the choice is yours. I had a ham hock left from the whole pig I purchased and the meat was fabulously flavored so I couldn’t resist adding it to this gumbo. The hock was smoked, but I wanted to flavor to really influence the gumbo so allowed it to cook with the other ingredients for the whole hour. It’s a good idea to remove the ham hock from the gumbo, break the meat from the bones, then return the meat to the gumbo before serving.
- Any seafood you decide to add should be added toward the end of cooking time so it isn’t over cooked.
- I used a combination of colored peppers for this but it doesn’t matter. And you can decide to use whatever quantity in the mix you like as long as the total quantity measures 3 cups. The recommended 1-1/2 cup onions is what I used, splitting the rest of my veggies equally to make the 3 cups. If you don’t have fresh peppers, then thawed frozen peppers should work just fine.
- To prepare the okra, wipe it with a paper towel to remove as much of the fuzz on the exterior of each pod as possible, slice off the stem and discard, then slice the rest of the okra. You might choose to use frozen okra
- The first time I made gumbo, I had quite a bit of trouble finding gumbo file powder so I didn’t use it even though it’s a staple of Creole and Cajun cooking. It is used for its thickening properties as well as its unique flavor.
- Like many dishes such as gumbo, we think it’s even better served the next day.