My father, Bob, was born in 1925 and lives in Mandeville, Louisiana, a small town north of New Orleans across Lake Pontchartrain, about 24 minutes on the causeway the longest bridge in the world. Bob does pretty well for his age; he still goes fishing in his boat on the lake, the Rigolets, Lake Borgne, and the brackish water passes that connect Pontchartrain to the Gulf of Mexico. These same waterways caused no end of troubles for the British in the war of 1812 and the battle of New Orleans, but Bob fires up his GPS and navigates his way.
That’s not bad for a man born before the great depression. Unfortunately his hearing isn’t what it used to be. Dad’s refrigerator freezer is mostly filled up with fish from all his expeditions. He catches lots of red fish, drum, croakers, flounder, and sheepshead, nets crab, and loves to give it all away to visiting friends and relatives who smuggle it in their bags for cross country flights, probably to the annoyance of the luggage inspecting TSA.
When he hasn’t had guests for a while, the freezer compartments get awfully tight with all those frozen fish packed in ziplock baggies. So when he’s in there digging around for the ice cream he can’t hear the loud ruckus he’s making as those frozen packages are jostling about in his quest. Nor does he hear it when a berg of sheepshead falls out and skitters between his legs, across the tile floor into the open pantry, nestling quietly in among the bags of potatoes, rice and flour, the Zatarains, and the mirliton.
About a month goes by and Bob starts thinking somethings gone wrong with his nose, like he’s got a bad sinus infection. But eventually he figures out that he doesn’t smell it by the boat in the garage, and it’s strongest in the kitchen. Then, after falsely accusing the refrigerator and throwing out half his food, he discovers a spoiled gumbo brewing in his pantry. So he wraps it up nicely and gives it to the garbage man.
Many of the unspoiled New Orleans recipes Bob cooks came from his mother, Alice Baudean. When he was going to Tulane night school after leaving the army, post World War II, he used to cook the family meals with Alice while he studied at home during the day. So he learned many of her recipes for things like New Orleans seafood and chicken gumbo, jambalaya, shrimp and crawfish étouffée, crawfish bisque, stuffed crabs, oyster patties, and oyster dressing. Alice learned many of her recipes from her mother, Felicie Rolle Baudean. And that’s as far back as Bob knows.
Bob’s tips for modifying most gumbo recipes to make them great:
- Brown all ingredients separately and deglaze with water and dump ingredients and deglazed liquids into the gumbo stock pot (you are in effect cleaning the pan with water and dumping the water into the stock pot).
- Browned chicken thighs and their deglazings can be added as they make a nice base.
- After cleaning the shrimp, make a stock from the shells, throw the shells away, and add the liquid to the stock pot. Optionally brown the shells first before making the stock.
- Brown the shrimp, add deglazings to the stockpot but keep shrimp aside to add when gumbo is near done simmering (shrimp is fragile and will fall apart if simmered for too long so add later).
- Lightly brown the okra but throw the deglazings away (browned okra is bitter and ruins the gumbo), add last before simmering.
- Make a medium dark roux and add it last before simmering. The roux can be done with the vegetables or separately. Bob prefers separately as the darkness can be better controlled.
- If, after the gumbo is done simmering, it doesn’t come out dark enough, a very dark roux can be added. In a pinch, Alice used to add some left over thick dark chicory coffee to darken it.