Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series on goose gumbo.
“To us, gumbo is our Jesse Tree, the footprint of who we are and where we come from — a cultural stew.” There’s no way I could describe better the product of south Louisiana’s cultural melting pot that is gumbo than Louisiana native chef John Besh’s poetic characterization in his book, “My New Orleans: The Cookbook.”
As Besh notes in this homage to the Crescent City’s culinary landscape, diverse south Louisiana ethnic groups — Native Americans, Africans, Caribbeans, French, Spanish, Croatians and Germans — etched their cultural signatures on gumbo with various contributions to the dish. The process continues today as this dish with roots deep in the black mud of Louisiana absorbs each generation’s culinary influence.
To discuss the history and meaning of gumbo — yes, it has a meaning given that it’s such an integral part of the Louisiana kitchen — would gobble up my entire word budget. Others such as Besh have done a far better job describing this centuries-old dish. Instead, I want to share with you how this wandering “NOLA native” in the diaspora continues to embrace gumbo and share its amalgamation of cultural flavors with friends.
Bounty of land, air and sea
Although I moved from Louisiana 30 years ago, once a Louisiana girl, always one. Therefore, gumbo remains a key dish in my repertoire. Unfortunately, outside the bayou state, finding the bounty of Louisiana’s land, air and sea that were staples of my childhood can be unappetizingly challenging.
I’ve struggled to adapt my gumbo recipes since I refuse to consume farmed shrimp and other items, such as blue crab jumbo lump crabmeat and whole crabs, which require a substantial mortgage to obtain outside of bayou country. OK, I’m exaggerating, but not by much.
Take, for example, Jacob’s “World Famous Andouille,” the stuff of heavenly authentic gumbo. It’s sublimely delicious, truly world famous and a favorite of grandmas and chefs for over 85 years. However, shipping the links from La Place, La., to Colorado costs multiples of the sausage’s price. So one must adapt. And adapt I have.
Northern geese in southern gumbo
The duck in my mom’s duck gumbo came from my brother Mike’s successful hunting trips; mine comes from Costco. I’m one up on my mom, though, since I discovered Schiltz Foods of South Dakota’s smoked geese. The only geese I saw as a child were in Audubon Zoo’s aviary, so goose gumbo was an unknown to me.
Last Thanksgiving, I enjoyed Schiltz’s smoky and flavorful succulent bird at a friend’s house. When I took my first bite, other than delicious, one word came to mind: gumbo! I set off on a mission to get my own goose and make gumbo for you, my loyal readers.
Stocking up flavor
Any delicious gumbo’s foundation is the stock. Several quarts of liquid used to create a dish can have a resounding impact on the flavor; therefore, only the richest, most flavorful stocks should be used. No shortcuts here, at least not for me.
What, you ask, are the best ingredients for stocks? Simple ingredients — bones (or shells and fish heads for seafood gumbo), herbs, peppercorns, good water and aromatics. These unpretentious ingredients create the perfect foundation for a memorable gumbo and lots of other dishes, too.
After serving an 8-pound smoked goose to my dinner guests one frigid January evening, the carcass and leg bones went into the freezer until I was ready to make gumbo. Many people don’t realize the sinful waste of flavor when they toss bones, particularly long bones with lots of marrow or carcasses with meat and fat still clinging to the bone. How many of you toss turkey carcasses after Thanksgiving or Christmas feasts without considering the delicious flavors locked up in the bones waiting to be liberated into a delicious gumbo or soup? After the last leftover turkey sandwiches are devoured, the carcasses, bones and giblets make the start of a great turkey and andouille gumbo.
While I’m taking this sidebar, I’ll share with you some advice I learned from reading famed chef and culinary author Alice Waters’ “The Art of Simple Food,” a must for every kitchen library. Bones from leftover supermarket rotisserie chickens impart an acrid flavor into the stock. Bad taste in a stock equals bad tasting gumbo. So toss those bones or, better yet, roast your own organic chicken for stock bones. Read Waters’ advice on how to make a broth for more helpful hints. Now, back to the goose stock.
Prepping for flavor
The most valuable lesson I learned in the past two years of working under some of Colorado’s best chefs is to prep, called “mise en place.” Being over-confident isn’t good, but there is no such thing as being over-prepared. Prepping eliminates stress and enhances your potential for perfection. Prepping a stock is easy since there’s minimal chopping, and I enjoy shopping in my refrigerator for candidates to include in the stock.
For my aromatic vegetables, I used three fat peeled carrots, two large quartered onions, three celery stalks, one fat parsnip, one leek, a small head of garlic (no need to peel the cloves) and half of a parsley bouquet. Additionally, I used a bouquet garni of five sprigs of fresh thyme and two of oregano, one large bay leaf (I like California laurel leaves I get from Savory Spice in Denver), a small handful of black peppercorns and some dried red chili flakes.
The next item I prepped was the carcass. I placed the carcass, wings and leg bones on a sheet pan and roasted in a preheated 400-degree oven for 30 minutes. Don’t skip this step. Roasting caramelizes the bones and develops flavors for a richer stock. It helps to split the carcass longitudinally before roasting. Trying to cram the hot bones into your pot can be a painful experience. I have the scars to prove it.
Stocking the right pot
My treasured pot collection includes a 16-quart stockpot and a 13.25 quart Le Creuset Dutch oven you’ll meet next week. A three-ply, heavy bottom stockpot is a good investment. You’ll be happy with a large one that eliminates the stress over a rising water level as you add ingredients.
For liquid, I used approximately two gallons of reverse osmosis water. Up here in the land of rock-hard water, we installed a softener system to protect our appliances. While soft water is better for pumps, skin and hair, it’s yucky to taste, hence the need for a reverse osmosis system. Remember, the stock is the flavor foundation of your gumbo.
With 8 quarts of water boiling and carcass roasted, I tossed everything I prepped into the pot along with a little salt. The carcass went first. I then arranged the aromatics and herbs around it. After bringing the water back to a boil then reducing it to a simmer, it was time to add the most important ingredient of all — patience. This is not a quick process, but after five to six hours, I was rewarded with a rich, flavorful stock for the gumbo we will finish together next week.