Seemingly we can hold our own in the kitchen, and we sometimes find ourselves gushing with such glee that we’re eager to share our excitement over a meal one of us has placed on the table. After one such dinner last year, which happened to be one of our “pepper gumbo” shrimp delights, an enthusiastic gush was posted a social media site.
Moments later a Cajun fly fishing friend offered an online rebuttal: “I don’t know what you’ve got there, my friend, but I can assure you that it is isn’t a gumbo.”
Say what? I was momentarily taken back, and since have rarely spoken of this tangy, peppery dish outside of our home. Of course, this didn’t bother us here on the farm and when the peppers started coming in out of the garden again this fall, we eagerly began preparing them again for the freezer. Recently, though, that conversation resurfaced with a suggestion that “gumbo” is merely a Cajun word for okra, and that gumbos may consist of any ingredients “including the kitchen sink!” as long as it contains okra.
All of which is enough to cause a smile. Which is how I got involved in this gumbo mess to begin with. It all started several years ago with a transplanted Minnesota “returnee” who had a penchant for cowgirl boots, ankle-length flowing “hippie” skirts and gorgeous “chrome” hair that hung to her waist. Kim mixed a voice softer than a down pillow with the staunch will of steel plow blade. Her little white pickup often had a beer keg strapped securely in the back bed. She let it be known that it was her keg. How someone so small and skinny could love beer that much was both daunting and surprising. “I’m the beer drinker, not my husband,” she revealed on the day I chose to tease her about the keg.
One day she popped her plastic food container in the microwave we kept at the country weekly and a most delicious aroma soon filled the office. “Wow, what is that?” I had to ask.
“Pepper gumbo,” she answered, and moments after retrieving the nuked container, she offered a spoonful. It was peppery and flavorful, and full of shrimp, pieces of crab and other seafood, and carried that rich gravy ladened flavor and look about it.
She was kind enough to share a recipe that was quite detailed and involved a specific count of peppers. Being neither a chef nor scientist, specific recipes are of little use to me. Yet, I loved the idea, and that fall I made up my first batch that was reliably close to Kim’s directions. Since then I’ve strayed, as one might expect. After a set of life events that completely changed the course of my life, Rebecca and I began our relationship just about the time her immense bounty of garden produce was entering the kitchen … including bushels of various peppers.
“Can I play with those?” I asked as she walked in with a tub full one afternoon.
“Please!” Rebecca said before breaking into a bit of a smile. “Are you thinking of your pepper gumbo?”
With apologies to dear Kim, and to those hunkered down below the I-10 umbrella, here is what we do: Melt a tall yogurt container of frozen chicken stock in the crockpot, then add a couple of okra, some chopped celery and onion, and stuff all the peppers you can muster (minus the stems and seeds) beneath the lid. Jalapenos. Hot Thais. Hot Portugals. Fish (yes, there is a pepper called that). Martin’s Carrot. Napoleon. Three-sided Syrian. Aconcagua. Tolli’s Sweet. Hungarian Hot Wax. All of these and more. Simmer this on low for eight to ten hours. If you’re not overcome with the pepper fumes and tantalizing aroma, you allow the mushy concoction to cool before hitting it with an emulsifier to puree. A couple of tablespoons of squeezed lime are added before the thick, peppery puree is divided into four cup measurements into individual freezer bags for “saving summer.”
Come winter we pull a bag from the freezer and the actual gumbo comes together. It begins, as most do, by making a roux. Equal amounts of melted butter and flour are whisked around a cast iron skillet until it turns a deep amberish hue. Brown rice is started on another burner as the frozen pepper mix is added to the roux. Various vegetables are then added, including chopped onions and garlic. As the rice nears readiness, raw peeled shrimp and slices of Andouille sausage are added. If that hint of lime is missing, add another squeeze. Remember, the original mix already had the Cajun trilogy included … celery, onion and pepper … as well as the okra.
You might be surprised in that the gumbo isn’t terribly hot in the spicy sense. Peppery, yes. Yet, not so hot, which might be a function of the added rice. To serve, you ladle the gumbo over a mound of rice in a bowl. Rebecca will sometimes add a little plain yogurt to her bowl, although we mostly take the gumbo straight.
Although there are rumors of perhaps having a drop or two of French blood in my soul, and that I’m a fan of both Cajun food and music, there is little about that heritage I can honestly claim. So, there you have it. A recipe from a sweet hippie chick. Peppers of various variety and Scoville heat indexing, grown by my lovely wife right on our farm. And a “gumbo” that cuts through the cold of a cruel winter’s night. Joie de Vivre!