Chicken Gumbo with Zucchini for Summer


Chicken Gumbo with Zucchini for Summer 


My informant on matters New Orleanian, Katie, a Hurricane Katrina exile who worked at a fine Decatur restaurant that I frequented back when we lived in a nearby part of Atlanta, had no answer. I had asked what dish was special in summertime in New Orleans.


She asked her mother. She asked her relatives. She even asked her Ex. The response was “maybe a Sno-Ball?” In fact, if you could, you tried to escape “N’awlens” in midsummer, not languish there in the heat for seasonal savories. Mom-and-pop restaurants, where local people typically ate, often closed in mid-summer.


But with summer produce abundant in Georgia, a vegetable-rich chicken gumbo seems timely, at least for here. Adding rice, crusty bread and a light salad, this Louisiana perennial becomes a great summer meal. A chilled light-bodied red wine, like a Beaujolais, or dry rosé completes the treat.


Gumbo fuses several Louisiana cooking traditions. Although thought of as "French," the dish, in fact, most closely resembles stews from West Africa (we lived in Cameroon for several years). It even draws its name from a West African word for okra. No surprise. Recall for a moment who had to cook in old Louisiana, enslaved West Africans.


The seasoning, however, is predominantly Spanish-Caribbean. The flour-fat mixture cooked to a red-brown is a French dark "roux." And filé powder (ground dried sassafras leaf), if used instead of okra (I didn’t this time), is from Choctaw Indian tradition.


The roux is the heart of gumbo making, and the trickiest part. Flour and fat or oil are fried down slowly until richly brown. Here I use olive oil plus some freshly rendered bacon grease. And for lightness in summer, I use zucchini rather than the more traditional okra.


The recipe serves six, but leftovers are great.


2 strips smoked bacon, raw

3 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 cup flour

1 medium-large onion, coarsely chopped

1 large stick of celery, split lengthwise and cut 1/4-inch wide

1 large green bell pepper, cut in 1/4-inch squares

1 medium-large jalapeño pepper, including the seeds, diced

3 large cloves garlic, diced

1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes

1/2 can (above) chicken broth or water

1-1/2 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste

3 large bay leaves

1 tablespoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon thyme

1/4 teaspoon oregano

1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

1 to 1-1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut in 1/2-inch pieces

1 small-medium zucchini, cut in 1/2-inch pieces

Cooked, unsalted rice for serving

The roux


In heavy pot over very low heat fry the bacon strips in the olive oil until starting to become golden. Remove the cooked bacon and chop it up on a cutting board and set aside for later in the recipe. Add flour to the grease in the pan to make the roux. Stir frequently over medium-low heat, scraping bottom of pan, as moisture boils off then mixture turns golden (10-15 minutes). Reduce heat and stir very frequently until the color is like caramel. Be careful not to scorch the roux.


Add the celery, onion, bell pepper, jalapeños and garlic. Fry about 10 minutes, stirring frequently and scraping the bottom of the pot, until the vegetables start to soften.


Add the reserved, cut-up bacon, the tomatoes and the broth or water, along with the seasonings. Simmer about 10 minutes, or until the vegetables, especially the celery, are becoming tender. The liquid will be a bit thick, but will become thinner when the later ingredients are added.


Add chicken, and simmer 5 minutes. Add the zucchini and simmer until it becomes tender, 8-10 minutes. Meanwhile, add salt, a little at a time, until it tastes balanced.


Let sit, with the heat off at least ten minutes for the flavors to mingle. Taste a final time and add salt, if needed. The gumbo can be served now, or for a more mellow flavor, let it cool and reheat it later to serve.


Serve in large shallow soup bowls, putting several spoonfuls of cooked rice in each bowl before ladling in the gumbo. A bottle of Louisiana hot sauce can be offered for diners who want their gumbo spicier.


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