Cooks say roux rules as key factor in making gumbo

March 07, 2007|By ROB KASPER

After eating a mess of gumbos - 13 bowls to be exact - I was curious about what the keys were to making a good one.

"It's the roux; you have to move it, move it, move it," said Mary Rivers, who prepares the gumbo at Ale Mary's, a Fells Point pub that she operates with her husband, Tom, and her brother-in-law, Bill.

"The roux has to be the consistency of good gravy," said Brian Badger, who whips up the gumbo in the kitchen of Slainte Irish Pub and Restaurant on Thames Street.

"You can't rush the roux," said Jill Oliver, who - along with Ted Young - makes the gumbo at the Wharf Rat's locations downtown and in Fells Point.

The cooks agreed that constructing a roux, mixing hot oil and flour, was the crucial step in the intensely challenging process of making gumbo, a Cajun soup thickened with okra or gumbo file.

A gumbo can, according to noted Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme, contain seafood, sausage, poultry, greens, alligator or even squirrel meat. But it always starts with a roux.

"Gumbo Night was an occasion," Prudhomme wrote in his 1987 work, The Prudhomme Family Cookbook. "Mom cooked a big pot of gumbo for supper and invited family and friends."

In that spirit, Rivers, Badger and Oliver and a number of other Fells Point cooks served big pots of the soup during a recent Mardi Gras festival and gumbo competition.

The gumbos made by these three cooks were deemed the best by a panel of six serious eaters - two leaders of neighborhood organizations and assorted members of the food press, myself among them. We trekked - OK, we were ferried in a long, black limo - to 13 Fells Point pubs and restaurants to sample their gumbos. By the end of the evening, a Fat Tuesday filled with merriment, my original goal of "passing a good time" had largely been transformed to "don't pass out."

The gumbo at Ale Mary's was declared the overall winner, getting high marks for both flavor and presentation. Those prepared by Badger at Slainte and Oliver and Young at the Wharf Rat finished with high marks for flavor.

Once my stomach had settled and my head had cleared, I queried the winning cooks about their gumbo-making techniques.

Rivers stressed preparation, saying she has all her ingredients chopped, measured and within easy reach before she begins making her roux.

"You have to manage it right to the end," she said. "If you walk away from the stove, you're dead."

She also spoke of the odd, alluring nature of the process. "The chemistry is strange. The roux goes from having a peanut-butter consistency to a smooth, silky texture. It can stretch your mind."

Badger said he has been making gumbo since 1993, when a visit to New Orleans "turned my head around about food." He made gumbo at Bohager's, at a spot called the Brewery and at a stall he ran in the Broadway Market.

"At first, I burned the roux and burned myself," Badger said. "But I kept at it." Now he turns out 15 gallons of gumbo a week at Slainte, where he has worked for almost three years.

One trick Badger learned along the way was to make the large batches of the roux in a separate pot, then add it to the gumbo later in the cooking process. That way, "if you burn the roux, you don't have to throw out all the gumbo; you just start over," he said.

Oliver, and most of the gumbo cooks, said patience and a keen eye were musts. "You don't want to hurry things or end up with a blond roux," Oliver said. Instead, she said, you cook your roux until it reaches "a dark-chocolate" hue. Moreover, she said, you cook a gumbo slowly. "You can tell when it is done by looking at it. All the ingredients look like they belong together, instead of pieces of tomato here and pieces of meat there."

I liked hearing these lyrical descriptions of the quasi-magical nature of making a gumbo.

I also found that while all the gumbo cooks were headed in the same general direction, they did take a few different paths along the way.

Badger, for instance, does not put okra in his gumbo because he has found that Baltimore eaters are "shy" of the sometimes slimy vegetable. He did, however, add a shot of Worcestershire sauce. Oliver puts garlic, okra and file powder in her gumbo.

This reminded me of a saying I heard some years ago when visiting New Orleans: There are as many gumbos as there are cooks.

Ale Mary's Gumbo

Serves 10 to 12

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1/2 cup flour

2 medium onions, chopped

1 red bell pepper, chopped

1 green bell pepper, chopped

4 stalks celery, chopped

2 bay leaves

2 teaspoons oregano

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1 pound andouille sausage, cut in 1/4 -inch slices

one 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes

5 cups chicken stock

1/2 pound okra, cut in 1/4 -inch slices

2 pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 pound crawfish tail meat, rinsed

2 teaspoons file powder

5 cups cooked white rice

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