I won’t be in New Orleans for Mardi Gras this year. We’re visiting my brother Brit and his family in Montana. But I’m not worried. My brothers and I have gotten used to carrying the slightly wacky traditions, rituals, and, of course, the foods peculiar to south Louisiana with us wherever we go.
Christopher and I have celebrated this pre-Lenten blowout in many places: Paris, Mexico, Guadeloupe, Philadelphia, and Boston. We still get wistful notes from friends wondering if we’ll ever resurrect the Mamou-Mardi Gras High Hair Ball we used to host each year. They miss the food as well as Christopher’s tendency to lead a second-line parade of bewigged partygoers out onto the sidewalk, to the dismay of some neighbors and the delight of others. I’ll admit we celebrate on a smaller scale nowadays.
Decisions about what to serve at a movable Mardi Gras feast are made based on what’s available. In Truro, oysters play a leading role. In places far from the sea, like where the Bozeman Fontenots live, I’ve found a shrimp and okra gumbo is a good bet.
Frozen high-quality wild-caught shrimp are often available at good markets — though at a price, to be sure. And sliced okra is commonly found in the freezer aisles at grocery stores, even in Provincetown and Orleans. Except in high summer, frozen okra is better than the flaccid pods that occasionally appear in the produce section.
In some parts of Louisiana, okra gumbo is made without a roux as a thickening agent, the okra itself serving that function. But I consulted my brothers, and we agreed that we can’t remember not adding roux to the mix — not just for body and color but for the distinctive flavor that it adds. Still, this recipe could be made gluten-free by omitting the roux altogether.
And while we’re on the subject of okra, I’d like to respond to the cries of “slimy” I can hear ringing out. Okra slime — the technical term for this complex carbohydrate is mucilage — is reduced when it’s cooked properly, that is, quickly, over high heat.
My nephew Max and I easily find all the ingredients we need for our gumbo, and we get to work. I’m lucky to have Max as my sous-chef in this project. He works in the kitchen at Blackbird, a popular Bozeman restaurant, and this kid has the knife skills of a ninja. I set him to work slicing and dicing, and he just raises his left eyebrow when I make the mistake of reminding him to remove the parsley stems before mincing.
We make a big pot to feed a crowd, and that’s what I’d do at home even if we weren’t hosting a party because this gumbo also freezes well.
You can make it with chicken stock or water, but for the ultimate in shrimpy deliciousness, buy shell-on wild-caught shrimp and use the shells to make a quick stock.
Brown the sliced okra in oil to eliminate the mucilage. Next come the onions, celery, and bell pepper — the Holy Trinity of Louisiana cooking — then the tomatoes and garlic. The roux is nothing but a browned paste of fat and flour. You’ll set the vegetable mixture aside and make it in this same pot to build flavor.
If your brother happens to have a pound of good smoked pork sausage in his freezer, your life will be improved if you slice and add it to the pot. He did. We did. It did.
In no time, Max and I have our gumbo simmering on the stove, and the house smells just like Mardi Gras. At this point, I recall my grandmother’s voice hollering, “Stop trawling the pot!” We do have to watch for the folks who make a habit of hanging out by the pot for a taste and absconding with the tastiest bits.
This year, the feast has moved to Bozeman, where the party’s on, and there might even be an impromptu second-line parade in store.
SHRIMP AND OKRA GUMBO
Makes about 12 servings
For the okra
2 Tbsp. canola oil
2 lbs. okra, sliced ¼ inch thick, defrosted if frozen
2 large yellow onions, diced
1½ large bell peppers, seeded and diced
4 stalks celery, diced
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
1 15-oz. can peeled tomatoes, diced, juice reserved (in season, substitute 4 fresh tomatoes)
2 Tbsp. minced garlic
Salt to taste
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
For the gumbo
1 cup canola oil
1¾ cups plus all-purpose flour
1 gallon shrimp stock (recipe follows), chicken stock, or water
4 Tbsp. Crystal or other hot sauce
4 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbsp. Creole seasoning (or use a mix of equal parts black pepper, white pepper, cayenne pepper, and garlic powder)
2 bay leaves
1 lb. smoked pork sausage (optional)
2 lbs. shell-on medium shrimp, defrosted if frozen, peeled and deveined
¼ cup sliced scallions, for garnish
¼ cup chopped parsley, for garnish
- In a large Dutch oven, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium high heat. Add the okra and lower the heat to medium; the okra will quickly begin to release its liquids. Stirring often, cook the okra until it begins to brown and the mucilage is gone, about half an hour. Add a little reserved tomato water if the okra begins to stick. Add onions, bell peppers, celery, and tomatoes, and cook for 20 minutes or more until the vegetables are soft and browned a bit more. Stir in the garlic and tomato paste and cook a few more minutes until the paste is well-distributed. Season with salt and cayenne pepper and scrape the vegetables into a large bowl.
- In the same pot, heat 1 cup oil over medium-high heat. Lower to medium-low and slowly whisk in flour; cook, whisking almost constantly, until a milk-chocolate-colored roux forms. Carefully remove the roux to a heat resistant bowl. Return the cooked vegetables to the pot and add half the roux. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add shrimp stock, hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, creole seasoning, and bay leaves. Stir slowly until well mixed. Add optional sliced sausage.
- Bring the gumbo to a boil and then reduce heat to keep the pot at a low simmer. Taste the gumbo and adjust the seasoning. If you want a thicker gumbo, add more roux, a tablespoon at a time until it reaches the desired thickness. Cook, uncovered, for at least 45 minutes. Add the shrimp and simmer gently for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Ladle the gumbo over rice and top with minced parsley and scallion.
Makes one gallon
½ pound shrimp shells (and heads, if available)
1 gallon water
½ cup white wine
1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
1 stalk celery, coarsely chopped
½ small fennel bulb, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, smashed2 bay leaves
1 tsp. black peppercorns
5 springs of fresh or ½ tsp. dried thyme
½ lemon, coarsely chopped
Rinse shrimp shells and heads under cold water. In a large heavy stockpot, combine all ingredients and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes, skimming occasionally to remove foam, if it forms, to keep the stock clear. Remove stock from heat and strain it through a fine-mesh sieve. May be stored in the refrigerator for 3 days or frozen for 3 months.