Shrimp Gumbo

My grandmother visited me several years ago in Washington state and showed me how to make gumbo. Her family of Moutons and DeCouxs on the border of Texas and Louisiana taught her how to make it without a recipe, but even though she had it well-memorized, she had trouble replicating the flavor in my Pacific Northwest kitchen. “It just doesn’t taste right,” she said.

We went to the market, picked up a couple of raw, Dungeoness crab middles and threw them in the pot without cleaning them. Suddenly the flavor met her approval.

My grandmother is turning 90 this year and can’t travel across the country anymore. I’ve been too intimidated to make gumbo without her, but when my neighbors came back from a fishing trip and handed us a bag of frozen crabs, it seemed like the time to try was at hand. I’m happy to announce my experiment was successful! But not without some modifications to the base recipe.

The scariest part of gumbo-making has always been browning the roux, an essential part of the process if you’re trying to replicate that New Orleans restaurant flavor. Some of the best shrimp gumbos I’ve had have been in small towns in the Louisiana swampland or around the Texas border, and all of the good ones have that familiar dark brown broth. My grandmother would accept nothing less. Fortunately, my favorite television cook, Alton Brown, has solved the roux conundrum: don’t toil over a saucepan, bake it!

After an hour and half in a cast iron skillet, my roux was brown and not burnt. There is a difference.

The most laborious part of the process was the shrimp. I gave up on finding what I needed at the local supermarkets, as frozen shrimp and counter shrimp always came headless. I bought my fresh shrimp at Skagit’s Own Fish Market, then I had to remove all of those little heads, casings and tails. They stuck me in the finger several times. I didn’t bother to de-vein because they were just too small, but if you have large prawns, don’t skip that step.

I deviated from Alton’s instructions here to not only throw the shrimp heads, tails and casings into a stockpot, but to also throw my defrosted Dungeoness on top and increase the water to compensate. I made a lot of seafood stock and didn’t need to use it all, and cooked the crabs at the same time.

When the stock was ready and the crabs were cooked, I cooled them down and removed their meat. I ended up with more meat than I needed, and one whole crab would have been more than enough for a batch of gumbo. Alton’s version doesn’t include crab, but I’ve never had a bowl in backwoods Louisiana that didn’t include it.

Alton’s recipe called for a fresh tomato, but I substituted my one and only canned ingredient: crushed tomato with green chiles. The green chiles added some heat and the crushed tomato added a little more liquid than I can get from a fresh tomato, at least until I grow my own tomatoes. I also substituted Cajun seasoning for Cayenne, just because I happened to have it.

Andouille sausage was tricky. Local supermarkets were out of the question and I didn’t feel like ordering it. I finally found it at a butcher’s shop in Stanwood that will be getting more of my business in the future called Del Fox Custom Meats. I knew I was on the right track when I smelled it browning.

I was afraid I added too much stock near the end, but proper thickening came together after I added the filé powder. I ordered a bottle several months ago in anticipation of this attempt, but as it turns out, it’s available in several markets in the Skagit area.

I poured it over brown rice, because I prefer brown rice. White rice is traditional. Notice something traditional that’s missing? NO OKRA! Alton explains in his gumbo episode that okra is also a thickener, and using both filé powder AND okra makes paste, not soup. I hate okra’s slimy, seedy existence, so its omission is fine by me.

Grandma would be proud!

Here’s the modified version of Alton Brown’s ingredient list:

  • 1 whole Dungeoness crab, raw
  • 1/4 cup green onion (garnish)

Follow his instructions, but make sure to include the crab this time!

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