I think of the suddenly cool days this time of year as “gumbo and sweater” weather. Where I come from, which is rural south-central Louisiana — much in the news these days because of the fearsome hurricanes battering the coast — talk of gumbo and sweaters means the brutal heat of the southern summer has finally broken.
The Cape and the place that I was raised could hardly be more different. And yet, both are perched on the edge of the sea, and, on some dimensions, our foodways resonate.
Many people in south Louisiana are just one generation away from farming or fishing or hunting for most of their food. Many maintain extensive gardens and think nothing of foraging. They catch fish and oysters and crawfish for their tables. Duck and deer hunting are big fall activities. What goes on the table there tends to be simple, because, historically, most people in rural Louisiana were poor. Growing up there, we ate snout to tail — think hog’s head cheese –– and used everything we found around us.
The Cape’s food culture reminds me of all that a bit. Besides the desire to eat locally and make use of everything, there is the abundance of the sea, and the determination to coax vegetables out of the sand, and, here in Truro, there’s even a foraging subculture.
I like to introduce friends here to the food I was raised with. It’s hearty food made in big pots, for big crowds. Which has been a challenge this year, with the pandemic locking us all down. We haven’t had a single supper for friends since everything ground to a halt in March. That seems like years ago, now.
But last week, friends came to visit. Real eaters, too — Devra First, restaurant critic for the Boston Globe, and her husband, Tim Flynn. Having them in town seemed like a good excuse for a gumbo. Feeling celebratory, I settled on a classic combination that’s often served at Christmas — chicken, sausage, and oysters. When I was a kid, my grandfather would bring home a sack of oysters. Half would be shucked and eaten raw, the other half shucked for the gumbo.
I had a lot of the ingredients on hand — a local hen stashed in the freezer, along with several quarts of chicken stock (I’m kind of stock-crazy and always have some kind of stock going); plenty of garlic from the garden of friends on Longnook Road. From my own kitchen garden, I cut celery and herbs. And it was easy to get oysters from Wellfleet.
But you can’t get everything locally. Just last week, I received my fall shipment of 20 pounds of smoked pork sausage from Best Stop Market in Scott, La.
The making of a gumbo is an all-day affair in Louisiana, though it really doesn’t have to be. Made in big batches, it freezes very well and can be pulled out at a moment’s notice for a satisfying cold-weather weekday meal. The types of gumbo are manifold, and every family has its own way of putting together this most Cajun of dishes.
Following chef Paul Prudhomme’s method, I typically brown chicken pieces dredged in seasoned flour in oil and then use the oil to make a roux, which provides the backbone of the dish. I was feeling a little depleted from the week, so I decided to try chef John Folse’s version, poaching the chicken in stock and making a simple roux separately. I found this method just as tasty.
When Devra and Tim arrived, we opened some sparkling wine and feasted on oysters, grilled on the half shell with garlic and butter. As the evening shadows deepened and the temperature dropped — and seated a safe distance from each other — we dug into the gumbo. The sausage makes it smoky, and the oysters add a certain inexplicable depth and savory quality that wouldn’t be identifiable if you didn’t know the dish contained them. We were quiet as we let the flavors wash over us, and we were deeply satisfied, fortified even, for the autumn that lies ahead.
Chicken, Sausage, and Oyster Gumbo
Serves 4 with lots left over
A roasting hen, about 4 lbs.
1 cup canola oil
Spice mix of 1 tsp. each: black pepper, white pepper, cayenne pepper, garlic powder
¾ cup all-purpose flour
2½ cups chopped onions
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped green pepper
10 cups chicken stock, warmed
2 bay leaves
1 tsp. chopped thyme
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
1 lb. smoked pork sausage, sliced (andouille is excellent)
About 4 dozen oysters, shucked, with their liquor
½ cup chopped scallions
½ cup chopped parsley
Bring the stock to a simmer in a large pot. Cut the chicken into 10 pieces and simmer it in the stock until cooked through, about 20 minutes. Remove the chicken and reserve the stock. When cool enough to handle, strip the chicken from the bones and shred it into bite-size pieces and reserve.
Add oil to a large pot with a heavy bottom over medium-low heat. Add a tablespoon of the spice mixture to the flour and add that to the warm oil. This will be the roux that will flavor and thicken the gumbo. Stirring almost constantly, cook the flour until it is a deep chocolate brown. This step takes a while, but keep stirring and keep the roux over medium-low heat. The darker the roux becomes, the easier it is to burn, but a dark roux is essential to the flavor of the dish.
Once the roux is dark brown, remove it from the heat and add the chopped onions, celery, and peppers to stop the cooking. Return the pot to low heat and cook until the vegetables are soft, about 8 minutes. Slowly stir in the warm broth, chicken, sausage, thyme, bay leaves, garlic, a teaspoon of salt, and the tomato paste. Simmer 45 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning by adding additional spice mix if needed.
Add the oysters and their liquor and cook very gently for three minutes. Taste for salt.
Serve in deep bowls with steamed white rice, garnished with scallion and parsley mixture. A nice final flourish is a spice called filé — ground sassafras leaves. Historically used as a thickener, it’s best sprinkled on the bowls just before serving for added flavor.
For delicious smoked andouille and other pork products, as well as file: Beststopinscott.com.