Throughout my culinary life, the word gumbo has always brought to mind these directions: ``First you make a roux.'' I was taught to cook Creole Cajun by a mother-in-law who came from an old New Orleans restaurant family and started every single dish short of ice cream by making a roux (a cooked mixture of melted butter and flour). But now that I'm a self-proclaimed Mainer, gumbo involves another step which must be taken before making the roux.
The wonderful New England Gumbo I cook now, succulent with the mixed flavors of earth and sea, starts with: ``First you go to the mud flats and dig up a mess of clams and mussels.''
Actually, nothing about the making of a gumbo is written in granite. There are as many types of gumbo in Louisiana as there are meats, fowl, seafood, and greens to put into it.
Gumbo was the result of a ``make do'' philosophy on the part of French emigr'es, according to culinary historians. Wanting a bowl of their native Marseilles bouillabaisse, they used oysters instead of lobster, and the Louisiana Choctaux Indians' sassafras bark, ground up into a fil'e, instead of saffron.
Here in Maine I can make do with fresh dandelion greens and fiddleheads, both abundant in spring, and raquette, which grows profusely against the east side of my barn.
I can stretch a half pound each of smoked or hot sausage, Polish kielbasa, a bit of ham, and chicken into a magnificent meal for a dozen people.
All of this is possible only as long as the tide is out and it's not too cold for digging the clams and pulling a few mussels from their rocky beds. New England Gumbo 1/2 pound each, cut up small, Italian sausage, smoked sausage, kielbasa, and ham 1 small chicken, or 2 pounds chicken parts -- wings, backs, etc. 12 clams with shells 12 mussels, washed and debearded, with shells 4 teaspoons salt Freshly ground pepper 1/2 cup flour 1/2 cup oil 1 cup finely chopped onions 1/2 cup finely chopped scallions 1 cup finely chopped celery 1 cup finely chopped green peppers 3 quarts water, including liquid from cooking clams and mussels 1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce 1 1/2 teaspoons ground hot red pepper (cayenne) 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley 6 to 8 cups freshly cooked long-grain white rice
In a heavy, ungreased, large iron spider, fry sausage and ham over low to medium heat, turning frequently until browned. Drain on paper towels.
Brown chicken in fat and remove. Add oil to fat in skillet to make 1/2 cup total.
Make a roux by adding flour to fat. Cook, stirring slowly, at least 1/2 hour. Roux burns quickly.
After about 5 minutes of cooking, the roux will start to foam, for about 10 minutes, then subside. After 1/2 hour of stirring it will thicken and darken and have a faintly nutty flavor.
Once thick, add onions, scallions, celery, and green peppers. Cook and stir until vegetables are soft, and mixture is thick again. Cook clams and mussels separately. Save water.
In a large pot, stirring constantly, pour warm mussel and clam water in a slow, thin stream into roux and vegetables.
Bring to boil over high heat. Add sausage, cubed chicken, remaining 2 teaspoons of salt, Tabasco, and cayenne. Return to boil, reduce heat, cover partly, and simmer 2 hours.
Cool and skim off fat. Add parsley, clams, mussels, and shells. Ladle into heated tureen.
Serve rice separately. Add a bit of fil'e powder if you like, but do not reheat or cook or it will be stringy.