Mardi Gras in the Bayou
With the annual celebration of Mardi Gras coming upon us in a week, tourists from all over will flock to Louisiana for excesses of food, alcohol, and lowered inhibitions. New Orleans might be the familiar face of Mardi Gras, but it’s not the only one. Travel beyond the city west into the rural areas, and you’ll see a slightly different take on the celebration.
These rural areas of Louisiana are known as Cajun Country, with the bayou wetlands as the most famous. The celebration of Mardi Gras in these regions stands out as unique, with only a few similarities to New Orleans.
A Cajun Mardi Gras
The Cajun Country’s take on Mardi Gras dates back to Medieval France, when peasants would dress in homemade costumes and go entertaining the wealthy in exchange for food. It was literally a celebration of begging named fête de la quémande ("feast of begging").
Down in the bayou, the celebration is deemed Courir de Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday Run”). Patrons dress up in colorful and yet somewhat comedically mysterious costumes. They then go out on the streets in makeshift parades of music and frivolity, begging for food more out of celebration of the old traditions as opposed to avoiding post-winter starvation.
The parade concludes in a central spot where a big pot of gumbo is cooked while patrons drink, dance, and lose themselves in the moment. An annual part of the event is a game where a live chicken is set loose and patrons run and slip in the mud to catch it.
The Pleasure of Gumbo
Gumbo not only one of Louisiana’s most famous dishes, but it’s a true melting pot of culinary culture spanning several parts of the globe. Like a lot of Cajun and Creole cuisine, you’ll find influences of Spain, France, Italy, Portugal, Africa, the Caribbean, and even Native American flavors.
In many ways, gumbo is the Cajun Country’s take on goulash. Patrons of the Courir de Mardi Gras would cook a big pot outside much like I’ve seen Central Europeans do with their goulashes. The dish comes in different varieties with Creole chefs favoring shellfish while Cajuns will either choose shellfish or poultry, but never put the two together.
One other interesting factor on gumbo disciplines are in how the chef or cook chooses to thicken the stew. Many Creoles will use filé powder (dried and ground sassafras leaves). Cajuns will either use okra or a roux to thicken their gumbos. Now I originally wanted wanted to try filé powder, but found it difficult to obtain. I was later turned off on the idea when I found that sassafras is a carcinogen, thus not the healthiest idea. If you really want to try filé powder though, I suggest looking in Whole Foods.
For my gumbo, I wanted to try both a roux and okra, which can be challenging in itself with just the okra. The end result was pure Cajun goodness with sausage and chicken as my protein of choice. I’ll eventually try a Creole gumbo with shellfish down the road.
Cajun Gumbo with Chicken and Sausage
- 1 lb of chopped frozen okra, defrosted
- 4-5 boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into small pieces
- 3/4 cup of canola or vegetable oil
- 1 cup of flour
- 2 cups of yellow onions, chopped
- 1 cup of celery, chopped
- 1 cup of bell peppers, chopped
- 1 lb of smoked sausage, sliced into discs
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 tbsp of cayenne pepper
- 1/2 tsp of paprika
- 1/2 tsp of granulated garlic
- 1/4 tsp of oregano
- 1/4 tsp of thyme
- 9 cups of chicken broth
- 1/2 cup of green onions, chopped
- 2 tbsp of parsley
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Rice for serving
- In a frying pan or skillet, heat up 2 tbsp of oil on high heat.
- Fry the okra in the oil until lightly browned. Set aside.
- Heat up 2 more tbsp of oil in a Dutch Oven or stock pot on medium-high heat.
- Season the chicken with salt and pepper, then place into the oil.
- Cook the chicken halfway, then set aside.
- Turn the heat down to medium, and mix the flour with the remaining oil in your pot.
- Cook and stir the flour and oil until it turns a chocolate-brown.
- Add in the celery, yellow onion, and bell peppers.
- Stir and cook for 4-5 minutes until vegetables soften.
- Place the sausage into the mixture, along with the cayenne pepper, paprika, granulated garlic, oregano, thyme, and bay leaves.
- Slowly pour in the broth, then stir to allow the roux to dissolve.
- Bring the gumbo to a boil, then reduce to medium-low and simmer for an hour.
- Add in the chicken, okra, parsley, and green onions.
- Stir and simmer for 30 more minutes until chicken is fully cooked.
Frying the okra on high heat is necessary to keep it from becoming slimy.
A Dutch Oven is ideal for gumbo, but you can do this with a stock pot if you wish.
Be sure to continuously stir the flour and oil when making your roux (up until you add the vegetables). You don't want the flour to clump up.
I'd keep the rice separate except for when you're serving the gumbo. Stirring it in and storing it that way will only make your leftovers into a thick sludge.
This recipe can also work for a seafood gumbo. Simply take out the chicken and sausage and use shrimp, crawfish, or whatever shellfish you desire. Scallops would also work. You might also want to try seafood broth as opposed to chicken in this case.
If cayenne pepper is too spicy for your personal tastes, then skip it. Same with the okra if it's too much trouble for you.
Best way to serve any gumbo is to place some rice in a bowl, then ladle your gumbo on top. Have a bottle of Louisana hot sauce nearby for those who want to turn up the heat.