Tina and I grew up in upper NW DC; it’s a very nice area of the city with old trees and all-brick homes. When my Penn friends would come down to visit (the inauguration of Reagan comes to mind or the Fourth of July), they never failed to comment on how they couldn’t believe our neighborhood was “part of the city– it looks like the suburbs!” Our neighbors were a mix of long-time DC residents and government people– Senators, judges, embassy folks, and the never-ending stream of transient federal cronies of whoever was currently the President.
When we moved into that house, we became friends with the family next door. The dad was, of course, involved with the government; his wife was a stay-at-home mom (what in those days we called a housewife). Their youngest daughter Carol became our best friend; she even switched from the local public school to our girls’ school and converted to Catholicism. When her dad died of cancer in her teens, we became even closer.
For Thanksgiving Carol’s family always did a smoked turkey that her mom’s relatives sent up from Baton Rouge. I’m not much of a turkey gal myself– we grew up with both a turkey because it was the American traditional meal, and a roast beef for my dad who couldn’t stand the bird. However, the smoked turkey at Carol’s house was something altogether different and I loved going over there for left overs!
Carol’s mom, Mrs. C., inevitably made gumbo from that carcass. I didn’t know what gumbo was before our families met and when Mrs. C. served up a bowl of that spicy stew over rice, I was immediately hooked. She showed me how to make it one year and, like all hand-me-down recipes, she never measured anything. She taught me about Creole/Cajun cuisine’s “trinity” of onions, green peppers and celery, how to dice some of the andouille sausage to give the stew more texture and how to make a brown roux from oil and flour (and to watch it closely so it doesn’t burn). She also always added some kind of seafood– shrimp, steamed Maryland crabs cracked in half, or oysters. Another addition was a box of frozen okra, but I don’t use it because I’m not quite a convert, and Kurt is worse than I. Lastly, I also veer from the traditional “trinity” and use red pepper with the green.
Then, of course, there’s the file’ powder; it’s still difficult to find today except in the fancier food marts. I picked up a bottle the last time I was in New Orleans. File’ is made from ground dried sassafras leaves, Mrs. C. told me to only add it at the end because if you cook it, it becomes bitter. I put very little in the gumbo, but bring the file’ to the table.
When Ken was not yet two, we lost Carol and her five-year-old daughter (with whom Ken shared the same birthday) unexpectedly and tragically in a mysterious accident on the DC canal. The grief that enveloped me took many years to dissipate; anything related to our school years, the old neighborhood or music of our youth would flood me to tears. It took a long time for me to recover from that loss, but today, when I made her mom’s dish– for the first time since Carol’s death–, I didn’t break down into tears for everything about her that we had lost so unfairly, but celebrated, as I went through each step of this meal, her life and all that she shared with me and my family.
Mrs. C’s Leftover Thanksgiving Turkey Gumbo
for the Stock:
- 1 picked-over roasted (or smoked if you’re so lucky) turkey caracass
- 2 -3 celery ribs, cut in half or thirds
- 2 carrots cut into half or thirds (no need to peel)
- 2 medium onions with skins, quartered
- 2 bay leaves
- 3-4 sprigs thyme
- large handful of parsley leaves and stems
- 1 TB salt
- 1 tsp of ground pepper
for the Gumbo:
- 2-3 ribs of celery, small dice
- 2 carrots, small dice
- 1 medium onion, small dice
- 1/2 green pepper, small dice
- 1/2 red pepper, small dice
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 3/4 AP flour
- 4 andouille sausages
- leftover roast/smoked turkey
- 1 qt turkey stock
- 1 – 2 TB Cajun seasoning (your own blend or store-bought)
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 lb 10-15 count shrimp, heads on
- file’ powder (ground sassafras leaves)
This is the file’ powder and Cajun seasoning I used. You can make your own seasoning or buy a blend off the shelf.
Here’s the carcass, which I had split in two so I could stuff it into a 2 gallon plastic bag:
First, remove all the skin you can; skin does not make good stock!
Then, scavenge all the meat you can from the carcass; I also picked the legs and wings which were in another bag:
Break the bones to ensure all that yummy marrow melts into the stock. (I didn’t learn this from Mrs C; I started doing the bone-breaking when I began making my own chicken stock). Do you like my cleaver?
Toss the broken bones and bits into a big stockpot.
Layer with the vegetables, bay leaf, thyme, parsley, salt and pepper. No peeling necessary, but make sure the carrots and celery are equal in size (or as close as possible).
Add water to cover by 2 inches (for me, that was most of the pot).
Bring the pot to a boil, then reduce to medium-low to simmer. Simmer uncovered for 1 1/2 to 2 hours; I’ve gone as short as 1 hr, but it is better to go the full 2 hours. Add water as needed if the bones and vegetables are overly exposed.
Taste the stock and adjust for seasonings; it should have a definite “turkey” taste. At this point, I use a big spider strainer and remove the large solids onto a baking tray.
Then I ladle stock through a fine mesh sieve into a quart measuring cup and set it aside. I freeze the rest.
You should use cooled (as in refrigerated) stock, but I didn’t today. To assemble the gumbo, dice the peppers, celery and onion. Note that I try to have the same amounts of each– maybe a little more onion. It really doesn’t matter (as I said, Mrs. C never measured).
Andouille sausage is a spicy sausage made in Louisiana. I can rarely find the real thing here, but Wegman’s sells their version and it’s pretty good. Chop one of the four andouille sausages into a small dice; slice the remaining three on the diagonal. Beware of tweenie boys on the prowl for “just one slice.”
Dice (or shred, if you have the time) the turkey.
Heat a very large pot (I used one of my LeCreuset pots) on medium-low heat, add the oil and flour. Stir to combine. It’s a lot of flour because the longer you cook a roux, the less thickening power it has. We’re going brown today.
The roux will begin to bubble; just let it go, stirring occasionally at first.
Stir more frequently as the roux begins to brown. You may have to lower the heat if it browns too quickly to avoid burning.
This is how far I go with my roux; I’ve done darker, but I stopped here because I was afraid if I paused to take a picture at the next level of brown I could potentially have a burned roux!
Add the vegetables; they will sizzle. That’s okay. Just mix with the roux and let soften.
When the vegetables have softened, add the chopped andouille. Stir together with the vegetables and cook another minute or two.
Add the turkey stock, Cajun/Creole seasoning and garlic powder. Stir to combine then add sliced andouille.
Bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer on medium low heat. Simmer uncovered for 45 minutes. Make your pot of rice while the gumbo simmers (basmati is good).
The stew should look like this:
Add the turkey and simmer another 10 minutes.
Add the shrimp. I like the ones with the heads intact for more flavor, but if you’re squeamish, then get the ones without the heads.
Once you’ve stirred in the shrimp, set the timer for 3 minutes. Then turn off the burner. I’ve also just added the shrimp, put on the lid and taken the entire pot off the heat. When the shrimp are pink, they are done.
Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve over rice with file to sprinkle on top.
For you, Carol. I still miss you every day.