I frequently email myself food ideas when I come across them, as inspiration for future posts here. Often, these emails will include a link to the article or restaurant review or whatever got me thinking about cooking something. Not so with the email whose subject line read “duck gumbo?” The entire contents of the email read “try some.”
Undaunted, I turned to Google. Then I was daunted. Almost all recipes called for multiple whole ducks. One called for five or six, which were to be covered with water in a pot. Who owns a pot that big? I couldn’t help but picture a big galvanized wash tub sitting atop all four burners on the stove.
Still, with the arrival of Mardi Gras and the flavors of duck and andouille sausage stuck in my head, I knew I had to make something work. If you’re an even semi-regular reader here, you know we love duck. And how can you go wrong with andouille, the spicy, smoky pork sausage created by the French and co-opted by Louisiana Cajuns?
Gumbo is a hearty soup or stew long tied to Louisiana and traditional Mardi Gras celebrations. It usually contains some combination of poultry, seafood, meat and sausage in a spice-rich broth that may be thickened with a roux or okra or both. Aromatic vegetables like onion, celery, bell peppers and garlic add to its big flavor. Gumbo is simmered for hours (I found cooking times from a leisurely nine hours to a strangely precise two hours, five minutes) and served with cooked rice.
There are both Cajun and Creole versions of gumbo as well as others, with considerable overlap in the recipes. My own version is something of a mutt – hence the hedged bets in the subhead above. Marion points out that nearly all cultures have some sort of long-cooked soup or stew as part of their heritage, but none is like gumbo.
Roux, gumbo’s French heart. Gumbo has many influences, including African, but roux – flour cooked in an equal amount of fat – is pure French. But it has become a Louisiana kitchen staple. In fact, it’s been said that almost every recipe from southern Louisiana begins with, “First, you make a roux.”
A few years ago, James DeWan wrote a helpful piece on making a roux for the Chicago Tribune, “Roux the day.” In it, he explains how a roux works to thicken sauces and what makes it different from using a slurry of flour and water or the also French beurre manié. The main difference is that the flour is cooked in a roux, doing away with that raw flour taste – indeed, you can smell it dissipating as the roux darkens. That darkening is the other thing. Depending on how long you cook your roux, you end up with a white, blond or brown roux. Some Cajun recipes call for cooking roux until it’s just short of black.
In researching gumbo, I noticed that many writers included photos of their roux. I assumed it was to illustrate the proper color. As my roux darkened to a deep mahogany under my watchful eye, I suspected there was some pride involved, too. Even though I rarely include food-in-progress shots with my recipes, I was tempted to photograph my roux. There is nothing difficult about making a roux; you just have to watch your heat and patiently stir it for 15 minutes or more. But there is just something elemental and satisfying about performing a simple, timeless cooking technique and getting it right.
Elemental and satisfying is a good way to describe gumbo too. Yes, it is comfort food, but it’s more than that, a delicious blend of big flavors with just enough heat to liven things up. Perfect for Mardi Gras – or a cold winter night. The duck adds a meaty depth to this version, but if you can’t find duck legs, you can substitute chicken.
Duck and Andouille Sausage Gumbo
2 whole duck legs (drumstick and thigh, about 1 pound total)
salt, freshly ground pepper
1/2 pound andouille sausage, cut into 1/2-inch slices
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1 large onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
4 ribs celery, sliced (about 2 cups)
2 cups chopped bell pepper (I used a mix of red and green)
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2-1/2 cups reduced sodium chicken broth
1 cup water
1 14-1/2-ounce can diced tomatoes, with juices
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
2 bay leaves
1/2 pound fresh okra (may substitute frozen – see Kitchen Notes)
1-1/2 teaspoons filé powder (optional – see Kitchen Notes)
cooked white rice
chopped Italian parsley, for garnish (optional)
Tabasco or other hot sauce (optional)
A quick tip: Chop the onion, celery, bell pepper and garlic before starting to cook the duck. It will make things easier – it will also make your kitchen smell like heaven right away.
Season the duck legs with salt and pepper and place them skin side down in a dry, unheated Dutch oven or heavy pot. Set the heat to medium-low and brown the duck on both sides, about 5 minutes per side. If the duck doesn’t release from the pot at 5 minutes, just let it cook a minute or so more and it will. Transfer the duck to a plate and add the andouille sausage. Brown just for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring occasionally and transfer to a bowl (or the plate with the duck legs).
Make the roux. Survey the fat in the bottom of the pot. There probably won’t be more than a tablespoon or so (duck legs have much less fat than duck breasts do). Add 3 tablespoons or so of canola oil to the pot, enough to give you about 1/4 cup of fat. Raise the heat to medium and add the flour all at once. Whisk the flour into the oil to combine and continue whisking to prevent burning. My favorite tool for this is a DIREKT whisk we bought at IKEA more than five years ago. I’m not sure they still carry it, but I think they have something similar.
After 5 minutes or so, the roux will start to take on a blond hue. Continue whisking and cooking. If your roux starts to smoke, reduce the heat slightly. Eventually, the roux will turn a nice deep brown; mine took about 15 minutes to get to that point, but it can take longer.
When the roux reaches a satisfying brownness, add the onion. Toss to coat with the roux and stir frequently (you can switch to a wooden spoon or pair of wooden spatulas – I like the latter because as you add more stuff to the pot, it’s easier to mix it all together). Cook the onion for about 5 minutes, then stir in the celery, bell pepper and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, for another 3 to 4 minutes.
Add the chicken broth, water and diced tomatoes with their liquids to the pot. Add the cayenne pepper, oregano, thyme, paprika and a generous grind of black pepper and stir to combine. Return the duck legs and sausage to the pot, along with any accumulated juices. Tuck the bay leaves into the liquid and bring gumbo to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 1 hour.
Transfer the duck legs to a plate and allow them to cool enough to handle. Cover the pot and let the gumbo continue to simmer. Meanwhile rinse the okra, trim off the tops and slice into half-inch or so pieces. After 10 or 15 minutes, remove the skin from the duck legs and cut/tear the meat from the bones. It will still be pretty warm, so be careful, but don’t be a baby about it, either. Cut the meat into bite-sized chunks and add the duck and the okra to the pot.
Cover and simmer for another 45 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings. I know that 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne sounds tame, but the andouille sausage will add some heat. Add more cayenne if you like or some hot sauce. As the gumbo nears doneness, cook the rice. Remove the gumbo from the heat, discard bay leaves and stir in the filé powder, if you’re using it.
Serve the gumbo in shallow soup bowls. Top with a generous mound of rice and sprinkle with chopped parsley. Pass the hot sauce around the table for those who want more heat and a vinegary zip.
Don’t skip the okra. Okra is a classic southern vegetable that found its way here from Africa. We love it steamed, fried or however. Some people object to its “sliminess,” but that viscous liquid cooks into the broth and helps thicken it. When shopping, avoid overly large okra, as it can be woody. If you can’t find acceptable fresh okra, frozen will do just fine.
Filé powder. This is another staple of Creole and Cajun cooking. Also known as gumbo filé, it is the powdered leaves of sassafras trees. It is used sparingly as a thickening agent and should be stirred into gumbo after it’s removed from the heat; otherwise, it can make the broth stringy. Besides thickening the broth, it adds a kind of root beer flavor. As you see, my recipe calls for all three thickening agents, roux, okra and filé powder. Feel free to omit the filé powder. If you’re looking for a source, we got ours at the The Spice House.
Related post: Braised/Roasted Duck Legs with Vegetables