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Roux is the mother of all gumbo

(ran SP edition)

It is time to make gumbo, one of those wonderful dishes in which a written recipe is simply a crude sketch. Gumbo is a free-form food; you add what you want and leave out what you don't.

There are no rights or wrongs. Well, maybe there is one.

It is my opinion that you must make a roux to make a good gumbo. There are those who will argue. I have found recipes for roux-less gumbos in Cajun cookbooks, but they have never enticed me. The taste isn't the same.

We have to have rules in our society, hard-and-fast rules. Roux in the gumbo should be one of the most inviolate. The rest of life, and the gumbo ingredients, should be left to personal interpretation.

The gumbo pot is a unifying place. Generally, meat and seafood don't mix very well in a single dish, but the best gumbos have combinations of oysters and shrimp and crawfish along with rabbit, duck, chicken, sausage and ham.

The depth of your gumbo depends on how hard you want to work. When a recipe calls for chicken stock, you can use regular canned stock and make a decent dish, or you can scatter poultry bones in a roasting pan and roast them until they have a deep caramelized sheen, then place the roasted bones in the canned stock and let the pot simmer for a couple of hours. The difference will be worth the wait.

While you have the roasting pan handy, you can deglaze with a little stock, toss in carrots, onions and celery and let them roast as well. The vegetables and juices add well to the stock. Strain before using, and you will have a deep broth with extra taste.

Also, you can spend about a half-hour making the roux _ a combination of oil and flour _ which in that much time will probably look like peanut butter, or you can double the time and come up with a chocolate-colored roux that will add body and taste to the gumbo. It's all up to you. Just remember to go slow, use a wooden spoon , and don't get any on you.

Some folks say they can make a great roux in the microwave or in the oven, and I don't doubt them, but it's not for me. I always use a heavy cast-iron skillet on top of the stove, and, once I start stirring the flour in the oil, I never stop until it's ready.

Purists say you should thicken your gumbo with file, which is ground sassafras leaves, but they hasten to explain that it should be stirred into the individual bowls, not the big pot.

Others insist that okra should be used to thicken the brew. Everyone says you shouldn't use both.

I prefer using neither. I control the thickness of the gumbo by closely watching how much stock I add to the roux. To me, gumbo should have enough body to easily coat the back of a spoon. I don't like it too thick and stew-like, but I don't want it soupy, either.

It goes without saying that gumbo should be served over rice.

Here is a recipe to get you started. It is from Marcelle Bienvenu's wonderful cookbook Who's Your Mama, Are You Catholic, and Can You Make a Roux?

Bienvenu says her father once told her that the roux should cook as long as it took to drink two beers. Not being a beer drinker, she adjusted the time. She cooks the roux as long as it takes to play two record albums. You'll have to make your own adjustments for CDs and tapes.

Chicken, Andouille and Oyster Gumbo

3- to 4-pound hen, cut into frying pieces

Salt

Cayenne pepper

1 cup oil

1 cup flour

2 medium onions, chopped

1 green bell pepper, chopped

2 stalks celery, chopped

10 cups chicken broth

2 bay leaves

{ teaspoon thyme

1 pound andouille sausage, cut into \-inch slices

1 pint oysters with their liquor

Season the hen well with salt and cayenne pepper. Warm chicken broth in a sauce pan. In a heavy black iron pot, make a dark roux by slowly browning the oil and flour, stirring constantly.

When roux is the color of a pecan, add the onions, green bell pepper and celery; cook until vegetables are wilted, 10-15 minutes.

Add warmed chicken broth to vegetable mixture. Add chicken. Add bay leaves and thyme. Cook over medium heat for 1 hour. Add andouille and cook for at least another hour or until hen is tender. Check seasonings.

A few minutes before serving, add oysters and their liquor; simmer just until oysters curl. If gumbo becomes too thick during cooking, simply add more chicken broth or water.

Serves 10. Per serving: 563 calories, 43 gm fat, 14 gm carbohydrates, 27 gm protein, 94.6 mg cholesterol, 951 mg sodium, 69 percent of calories from fat.

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