Mardi Gras, next Tuesday. You will want to parade and eat gumbo.
Gumbo is a real family affair around here, or "dumbo" as my youngest daughter used to call it. My husband likes to make the roux, without which no gumbo is gumbo. It's a heat transfer experiment: too much heat and the whole thing could burn. Too little and it never turns to a mahogany color, the way gumbo roux should. (There are other kinds of roux, as well, used in less intense dishes. A white bechamel sauce is made from a basic white roux, for instance.) All a roux is is equal parts oil and flour. And some fat-conscious people have even browned flour without the oil. I can't vouch for that, but go ahead if you must.
Traditionalists will argue over the addition of tomatoes or tomato sauce to gumbo. I like to add some tomato products, especially with vegetarian gumbo, where veggies are the stars. This version uses smoked tofu instead of the chicken or duck carcass typically thrown into the pot, but you could also use vegetarian sausage or some other veggie product.
The other vital ingredient is okra (the name “gumbo” is thought to have derived from the word for “okra” in various Bantu dialects from southern and central Africa) though some say that file powder substitutes for the mucilaginous thickening effects of okra. No, it doesn't, so use okra, and filé, if you have it. (Filé powder is sold in most U.S. supermarkets in the spice section, and is made from ground sassafras leaves.)
I bet you didn't know there was so much to know about gumbo. And I haven't even got good and started—we could talk about the many cultural distinctions of Cajun and Creole foods, but suffice it to say, do not underestimate the Cajuns. Otherwise the Cajun juju will get you for sure.
Here are some instructions for making gumbo. (See updated notes at the end for easy substitutions for smoked tofu, which isn't often available in the US.)
Vegetarian Gumbo with Smoked Tofu
½ cup cooking oil (see note)
½ cup flour
2 onions, chopped
2 bell peppers, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 qts vegetable stock, or chicken-flavored vegetable stock
1 lb fresh okra, sliced, or use frozen if fresh is not available
1 cup tomato puree
3 bay leaves
2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 teaspoon black pepper
½ - 1 teaspoon cayenne (see note)
1 lb (about .5 kg) smoked tofu (see NOTES)
salt, to taste
Gumbo file powder, optional
Hot cooked rice
Make Roux: Combine oil and flour in heavy frying pan (preferably cast iron) or stock pot. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with wooden spoon or wire whisk, until it reaches a nut brown color. BE CAREFUL NOT TO LET IT BURN! If black flecks appear, the roux is burned, and you must start over. It should take about 20 minutes to achieve the desired color. Just before roux is done, add chopped onion, bell pepper, celery, and garlic, and continue stirring about 2 minutes until vegetables have been coated with the roux and are beginning to soften. If using the same pot to make gumbo, add stock directly to the pan. Otherwise, let the roux cool until it is safe to handle and add to large pot with the stock.
Add the okra, the tomato puree, the bay leaves, and the dried spices, except for the salt. Add smoked tofu (or other vegan substitutes--see note). Simmer for an hour, taste and add salt if needed. (You may not need salt if the vegetable stock is salted.) Check for seasonings, and adjust if necessary.
Remove from heat, and serve over mounds of hot rice. (To mound rice, use an ice cream scoop.) Sprinkle with file powder if desired and Tabasco sauce, as needed.
NOTES: Peanut oil works best at high temperatures but other oils can be used. Lower the heat and extend the cooking time for the roux if using canola oil. Cayenne pepper may differ in heat level. Try the lower amount, especially if you're making the dish for
Yankees more delicate palates. I like to make homemade vegetable stock for this, but don't be afraid to use store-bought.
If smoked tofu is unavailable (and it appears to be unavailable in the US), use Gardein chick'n strips, or some other vegan chick'n strips. Add 1/4 teaspoon of liquid smoke. You can also use Tofurky Andouille Sausage, or combine the chick'n strips with the sausage.