If a man cannot or will not cook, he is not a man. All REAL men – manly men, if you will – know how to cook, and by cook I don’t mean scurry around a studio kitchen yelling “BAM!” and cooking stuff most ordinary chefs don’t cook, like that wretched little Emeril does on his stupid Food Network show. Honestly…what kind of serious chef has his own studio band, complete with an African-American Doc Severinsen? I learned to cook because my mother – God rest her soul – was a superb cook. When I moved out and lived on my own, I had no choice but to teach myself the arcane ways of the kitchen. And now I happily pass what I have learned along to you, gentle reader.
For a brief period of time in the early 1990s, we resided in West Palm Beach, FL. Our house (5420 Mendoza Street) was situated in a quiet development where we made friends of many of our neighbors – among them elderly exiles from Castro’s Cuba and a charming schoolteacher named Lisa. Then there was Althea and John. The former was a formidable, strong-willed black woman of Creole descent who hailed from Louisiana, was chock-full of conservative values and had zero patience for tedious political correctness.
During this time, the so-called “Million Man March” was scheduled to take place in the nation’s capital and my wife happened to ask Althea if John would be marching on that day.
“Oh yeah,” she replied. “He’ll be marching, alright…he’ll be marching his black ass to work and when he’s done, he’ll be marching his black ass back home where he belongs.”
Lord, how I miss that woman – especially her cooking. Insofar as she never could master the finer points of Italian-American cuisine, we struck a deal: I’d cook authentic Italian for her if she cooked authentic Southern, Creole and Cajun for me. One of the first dishes she ever prepared was Shrimp Gumbo. It was heavenly – but I never got the recipe from her and have long since lost track of her whereabouts.
Fortunately, the great Alton Brown rides in the rescue with a recipe for Shrimp Gumbo that, in my opinion, captures the essence of Althea’s culinary masterpiece.
4 oz vegetable oil
4 oz all-purpose flour
1-½ lbs raw, whole, head-on medium-sized (31-50 count) shrimp
2 quarts water
1 cup evenly diced onion
½ cup diced celery
½ cup diced green peppers
2 tbsp minced garlic
½ cup peeled, seeded and chopped tomato
1 tbsp kosher salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp fresh thyme, chopped
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
2 bay leaves
½ lb andouille sausage, cut into ¼-inch slices
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp file powder
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Place the vegetable oil and flour into a 5 to 6-quart cast iron Dutch oven and whisk together to combine. Place on the middle shelf of the oven, uncovered, and bake for 1-½ hours, whisking 2 to 3 times throughout the cooking process.
While the roux is baking, de-head, peel and devein the shrimp. Place the shrimp in a bowl and set in the refrigerator. Place the heads and shells in a 4-quart saucepan along with the 2 quarts of water, set over high heat and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to low and simmer for 1 hour or until the liquid has reduced to 1 quart. Remove from the heat and strain the liquid into a container, discarding the solids.
Once the roux is done, carefully remove it from the oven and set over medium-high heat. Gently add the onions, celery, green peppers and garlic and cook, moving constantly for 7 to 8 minutes or until the onions begin to turn translucent. Add the tomatoes, salt, black pepper, thyme, cayenne pepper, and bay leaves and stir to combine. Continue stirring for five more minutes, then gradually add the shrimp broth while whisking continually. Decrease the heat to low, cover and simmer for 35 minutes.
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, add the olive oil and then brown the sausage and reserve to a small bowl.
Turn the heat of the gumbo pot, add the shrimp and sausage and stir to combine. Add the file powder while stirring constantly. Cover and allow to sit for 10 minutes prior to serving. Serve over rice.