Featured photo: Chicken and andouille sausage gumbo from Blue Denim in Greensboro (courtesy photo)

A cast-iron pot filled with chopped vegetables, herbs and spices bubbles away on the stove as people swish by the kitchen, going about their day. The earthy aroma of bay leaves, thyme and ground sassafras leaves smells like the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and all of the bayou’s tributaries at once. That smell means it’s gumbo season.

To be honest, it’s gumbo season year-round, but Oct. 12 is National Gumbo Day and I’m ready to celebrate it. The reigning champ of the ultimate one-pot meal, gumbo holds a lot of magic and secrets within its process. Some call it science (which it is), and others focus on its therapeutic properties.

I am a grandchild of New Orleans and my Creole soul roams around in the bottom of each pot of gumbo I encounter. The hypnotic repetition of stirring the blonde then chocolate and ultimately brick-red roux in the bottom of a pot is calming. Once you get gumbo in your system, it does something to your soul. It stays with you for a lifetime.

I’ve been making gumbo all my life. Roux (pronounced roo: equal amounts of flour and fat, like oil). Trinity (a mélange of chopped bell peppers, celery and onion). Seasonings. Stock. Simmer. Meat. Rice. Eat. Then Emeril Lagasse, New Orleans’ adopted son, came along and reminded us through our television sets that tap water wasn’t flavorful enough and you needed Essence and a BAM to make your gumbo at home as deeply favorable as a Cajun or Creole ancestor.

The magic and rejuvenative properties of gumbo do not escape me, yet there’s a lot about the dish I don’t know. Jody Morphis, locally known as “The Seersucker Chef” and owner-operator of Blue Denim, a Cajun and Creole-inspired restaurant in downtown Greensboro has learned a thing or two about gumbo while quarantined at home during the pandemic.

Morphis grew up in Meridian, Miss. and after college went to culinary school in New Orleans. There he worked as a chef in New Orleans at Cafe Giovanni and then at House of Blues.

“Have you ever read Mosquito Supper Club by Melissa Martin?” he asks. “Some of the best writing on gumbo and jambalaya that I’ve ever read. I pretty much changed my whole recipe for my seafood recipe after reading her work.”

He describes this new-to-him way of making seafood gumbo that is not roux-based, but involves cooking okra for eight hours into a paste.

“But just keep cooking it until it turns into a paste and add a few tomatoes to it and use that as your base, as your thickener,” Morphis says. “It turns out a little bit lighter, but that okra flavor takes on a whole different flavor instead of just putting sliced in the gumbo.”

The word gumbo is an African Bantu word that translates literally to “okra.” Usually seen battered and fried in flour and cornmeal, the pods are sliced and used as a thickener in the most recognizable gumbo recipes.

Morphis uses okra in his seafood gumbo but his chicken andouille is a filé-based gumbo. He serves meatier gumbos in the fall and winter but that’s when okra isn’t in season. Filé (pronounced FEE-lay) is ground sassafras leaves and lends an earthy, slightly piquant flavor to gumbo. Used as a thickening agent and as a flavor enhancement, it’s not easy to find in North Carolina. Okra and all of its mucilaginous properties are favorable to use when in season.

“The great thing about gumbo is, it’s all in the preparation,” Morphis says. “It takes a long time, but once it’s done, it’s time to scoop and eat.”

The dining room table is now set. A big bowl of mustard potato salad is in the middle, heels of crusty bread are at each place setting right alongside deep, steaming bowls of gumbo, each brimming with a scoop of rice. Teetering between smoky and nutty, the flavors of each bite change with every spoonful, each drop of hot sauce and each cook that makes a pot of this soul-soothing stew.

Chicken & Sausage Gumbo

Serves 8-10

Ingredients

  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1 cup chopped green pepper
  • 1 cup chopped celery
  • 1 1/2 tsp cayenne
  • 1-2 bay leaves, dried
  • 1 Tablespoon thyme, dried
  • 6 cups chicken stock or water
  • 1/4 lb andouille or other smoked sausage, minced
  • 3 cups chicken (dark and white meat) chopped
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Instructions

  1. Heat oil over medium-high heat in a large stock pot or cast-iron Dutch oven. Whisk in flour until the roux mixture is smooth and uniform. Continue to stir constantly until roux turns a deep, dark chocolate brown (or another shade of your liking). This should take around 30 minutes. If you sense that your roux is in danger of burning, reduce heat immediately and continue to stir.
  2. Once roux has reached desired shade, carefully stir in onions, bell pepper, and celery, and continue to stir about 5 minutes, until vegetables begin to wilt. When the vegetables hit the roux, be careful of the cloud of steam. Add salt, cayenne, sausage, chicken and continue to cook about 5 minutes.
  3. Add bay leaves, thyme, stock, stir and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a low simmer, and cover for an hour, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. Adjust seasoning as needed. Thin out with more stock or water, if necessary. Serve with/over white rice, if desired.

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