When I decided to go vegetarian 15 years ago there was only one dish that gave me pause. One dish so intensely flavorful, so intoxicatingly complex and rich, so incomparable to any other meal that it could ignite a moral dilemma in the most devout herbivore. Ask any Louisianan and they'll probably agree, that dish is seafood gumbo.
Before I learned how to vegetarianize meat recipes, I never dared attempt the gumbo recipe that was my family's holiday tradition. In the late '80s my dad, having grown weary of the obligatory dry-as-an-old-boot holiday turkeys, embarked on a brave culinary expedition. It was going to be spicy. It was going to require special ordered ingredients. It was going to be... expensive!
In fact, it ended up being so expensive we only made it once or twice a year. And it was so spicy most of our extended family couldn't handle a single spoonful. (Bonus! More for us!) Every Thanksgiving and/or Christmas we'd gather around the kitchen, walls sweating with humidity from the simmering shellfish stock, and watch dad vigorously sauteing the Holy Trinity of vegetables and scraping the green file' powder enriched spice blend from the bottom of the pot. It was past dark before we finally sat down to eat. Laughing through our tears at each other's runny noses, gluttonously ladling seconds and thirds into our bowls, drunk on its preposterous concentration of flavor.
When we kids moved away and our parents divorced, our seafood gumbo holidays became relegated to memory. But through much experimentation—and miracles of food science—it's back on the menu. And because this Thanksgiving's gumbo feast brought vegetarians and omnivores together at our table, I'll be sharing recipes for both versions. Less spicy than the original and, in the case of the veggie version, significantly less expensive.
Much credit for the original recipe goes to the classic, Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen cookbook. The flavor profile is basically derived from his original recipe, with proportions slightly altered, and then tweaked to be vegetarian by using dried kombu to make a vegetarian "seafood" broth. His original recipe uses file' powder as a thickener rather than a flour roux traditional to most gumbo recipes. I also measure out individual herbs and spices rather than use the recent iterations of his recipe that call for Prudhomme's Seafood Magic powder. The spices can and should be adapted to your heat preference, with my version coming in at about 5 out of 10 on a spiciness scale. For the best possible flavor, invest in freshly purchased herbs and spices- it makes a huge difference in flavor intensity. Keep in mind, the fresher the pepper the spicier the gumbo.
Homemade stock is the foundation for this dish and there isn't a shortcut or substitute in my opinion. Stock doesn't have any added salt or flavorings and if you taste it you'll probably be surprised at how mild it is. But once it's paired with the rest of the gumbo ingredients, it's pure alchemy. Plus, there's just something so cozy about a pot of stock simmering on a cool holiday morning.
Notice the recipe below calls for onion skins to be included in the stock. Boiled onion skins, while optional, give the stock its dark color.
If you're using seafood, include ALL of the shells and brains and eyeballs and slimy stuff.
All ingredients should be prepped and measured in advance of cooking the gumbo. Once the gumbo starts cooking, it requires high heat and close monitoring so there won't be time to prep.
Most of the ingredients for this dish are commonly available. However, gumbo file' powder, a thickening agent made from ground sassafras tree leaves, can be tricky to find. Try the international section or spices section of your grocery store where you might find it sold by Zatarain's. Otherwise, it's inexpensive on Amazon.
Begin cooking the gumbo about 1.5 hours before you plan on serving the meal. The cooking happens in several stages, so read the full instructions before you begin.
Happy Holidays and Laissez les bons temps rouler!