With Fat Tuesday upon us, gluttony is the single goal of the day. While lots of shenanigans will surely ensue, as they do every Tuesday in this city, don't forget to fill your ulcerated tummy with a bowl of hearty gumbo.
I spoke with several local chefs on the art behind making a good pot of gumbo. The essence of this dish is in its obscurity. It's not something that can always been penned in a cookbook. Gumbo takes time, patience and a learned flavor balance. Rushing it can result in a bad flavor, random consistency and an end product not worthy the pot it's cooked in.
John Jay Myers of The Free Man comes from Louisiana stock and grew up eating gumbo every weekend. He serves a solid bowl, and when I asked him about it he said his starts with a good dark roux, but unfortunately he wouldn't tell me anything else and mentioned something about a "voodoo hex."
Chef Ivan Pugh of Alligator Café was born in Baton Rouge, and while he doesn't think the ability to make a good gumbo is a birthright, he concedes lineage certainly doesn't hurt.
"One of the most important things about a good roux is to not let it break apart," said Pugh. "You have to cook it at the proper temperature. The type of fat that is used is also really important."
Pugh explained that a lot of folks begin a roux with oil, but starting with a pork fat is best.
"It's a procedure," said Pugh. "It takes time to get it right. Lost of practice. I've been making it for over 20 years almost every day, so I've got it down."
Pugh said the best gumbo he's ever had was inside a Best Western hotel just outside of New Orleans where an old woman would serve up a bowl of the good stuff for just $3.
Another local chef from Louisiana is David Temple (DAT). He opened his new place, The Mason Bar, with a free cup of gumbo. His recipe was handed down from his grandmother to his mother, and now he keeps it locked safely away in his head.
"The kitchen wants me to write it out, but I just know what the flavor is suppose to be," said Temple. "I just know the basics, then as I'm cooking I try it and add a little of this and a little of that until I get the flavor where it needs to be."
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Temple's dark roux starts with either rendered duck or pork fat. He suggests smoking the sausages and rendering the fat from the sausagel. Again, he stressed the importance of the right temperature and stirring constantly for at least half an hour.
The rest is really just the rest. It can be by the book, or you can change it up a thousand ways. Okra, onions, bell pepper and then proteins like Andouille sausage, oysters, shrimp, chicken or crawfish. And, of course, spices. Every bowl tastes a little different as a result of all the dabs and pinches.
And you never know where you might find your next great bowl. Temple told me the best gumbo he's ever had was from an Exxon station in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana.
Closing Note: Today is the last day Alligator Café will be in their original Live Oak location (leasing issues). They're moving to Casa Linda Plaza later this month. But, they're closing out the old place with a big Fat Tuesday party from 5 p.m. to midnight with a buffet and live music.