Monday, November 3, 2008

Shrimp and Okra Gumbo

We started a new fall CSA subscription with Hands of the Earth farm last week. Our first pick up included lots of greens: tender, baby salad greens, small leaf braising greens, broccoli greens, and collards. Also, there were big, crunchy red radishes, serranos, green peppers, and red okra. Those last two items jumped up and shouted ‘make some gumbo.’

I need to explain how I came upon the recipe I used. In March, we attended a cooking class offered by Sara Roahen. We had some really outstanding food that night like oyster artichoke soup, stuffed mirliton, crab salad, and bread pudding with bourbon creme anglaise, and we learned a lot about preparing it all in classic New Orleans style. Her book, Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table, is a collection of stories that highlight the city and the food and the people who cook it and love it. She wasn’t born in New Orleans, but she’s clearly come to regard the city and its surroundings with great affection. The stories mostly convey a pre-Katrina view but also note how things stood at the time of writing after the storm. Sadly, many of the restaurants she mentions had not re-opened when the book was published.

The first chapter is devoted to Gumbo in all its glorious, confusing, and infinite incarnations. Roahen describes how she came to understand gumbo by tasting several versions and forming a classification system of her own. One of her categories is Big Mama gumbo which she explains includes “everything but the kitchen sink.” In general, gumbos may be grouped by the thickener used in making them such as roux, okra, or file. Or, they may be categorized by the type of meat(s), type of sausage (if sausage is included), or type of fat used in making them. The only real constant in a gumbo is that it’s served with rice. There’s much more to be learned at

I followed the recipe she provided at the class, and putting it all together is an event in itself. Visit Sara Roahen’s web site to read her blog, and you can ask her for this exact recipe if you’d like. We started by cleaning the shrimp and using the shells for stock the night before. The good news about shellfish stock is that it only simmers for 20 minutes. The next day, the vegetables were prepped and everything was put in place so my focus could remain on the roux. You do have to stir the roux continuously for at least 30 minutes. In truth, I got a little scared of it. I kept thinking, let it go a little darker, no wait, it could burn, stop it now. Stop thinking, keep stirring. The chopped green pepper, onion, celery, and garlic are added to the roux when it achieves the desired color. Then, that mixture is whisked into simmering shellfish stock. The cooked okra is added back to the pot with bay leaves, and it all simmers together for an hour and a half. Yes, it takes some time and patience to achieve a gumbo, but a lot of it is inactive, simmer time.

Roahen claims that something uncertain happens when gumbo ingredients spend that time together in the pot, and now I understand what she means. You already know what all those things taste like individually, but once they’ve formed a union, there’s some transformation that makes it into gumbo. The shrimp joins the simmering party just a few minutes before serving, and you should time the rice cooking by counting back from serving time.

Gumbo has a beautifully obscure look and transcendent taste of its own and a history that is equally complex. Now that I’ve got a first try under my belt, I’m ready to attempt other variations. I’ll be less timid with the roux color next time, and I’ll add even more cayenne at the end. Maybe I’ll try a duck version or add some file. The options are endless, and the flavor is always uniquely divine.


  1. That is a beautiful Gumbo! My mother made it just like this, being the LA girl she was, and I never understood how people ate that dark gumbo made with an almost burned roux...send me a bowl!

  2. Nice looking gumbo Lisa.
    I never have good luck with okra, it always turns out mushy for me!

  3. i love, love love love love gumbo!! ever since i went to new orleans when i was 18, it has been one of my favorite things. this looks delicious! i've been seeing okra in the stores lately and have been wanting to play with it!

  4. Your gumbo looks so delicious! Nice presentation and stunning photos!

  5. Yummmm.. this looks sooo delicious
    I have never made Gumbo before.

  6. okra is totally underrated, probably because it's rarely prepared correctly. your gumbo looks perfect, and that's all there is to it. :)

  7. how gorgeous! I will lick up every single drop of that gravy :)

  8. That looks good! Both gumbo and okra are on my to try list.

  9. Really - how can you pass this up? Looks good!


  10. that is a hearty gumbo! you could go up against Bobby Flay with that one.

  11. Thank you for plugging my book so generously, and I'm thrilled that you tried your own gumbo -- and clearly succeeded. That okra is gorgeous.


  12. Hi Lisa!
    this looks very delicious and pretty, will add this to my list. THank you!
    CookNg Sisters


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