May 28, 2015

Gumbo and Sass

As a food and culture enthusiast, I recently prepared dinner for a family visiting from France and decided that a New Orleans style dish would be fitting. The word "gumbo" is of West African origin and was used to describe a dish of ochro ( sorry, I am from Trinidad and "okra" spelling and pronunciation is a very American thing) and rice. Below is a list of ingredients for my seafood gumbo.

shrimp, cod filets, smoked Andouille sausage
ochro (or okra), bell peppers, celery, onions, garlic
parsley, dried thyme, green onions
chicken broth, water
bay leaves (which I forgot to put in)
cayenne pepper, salt and black pepper
canned crushed tomatoes (although not necessary)
oil and flour for the roux

The roux was cooked until it looked like a reddish milk chocolate but got darker after I turned the heat off, with the heat from the cast-iron skillet. Roux is the base sauce of gumbo and of many French dishes. My mom makes a wicked light roux for macaroni and cheese, with grated onions, a splash of mustard and a tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce added in.

Chopped onions, peppers, celery, garlic and herbs were sauteed with sliced sausages and ochro then added to the roux.  Tomatoes, water and chicken broth along with salt pepper went in next and the pot simmered for about 30 minutes before I added the shrimp and cod, about five minutes before serving. I garnished with chopped parsley and scallions and served the gumbo with rice. I only had brown basmati and jasmine and went with jasmine.

All of the above were easy to find in my Harlem neighborhood except for the Andouilli sausage which I got from Whole Foods on West 24th Street. The missing ingredient was Filé Powder which should be added to the gumbo after the heat is turned off.

Trader Joe's directed me to Whole Foods, though the employees there had never heard of filé powder. I resorted to approaching random strangers on the streets and groceries and harassed a few friends and acquaintances that I ran into around Harlem, asking where I could find some. I thought for sure that with such a large portion of Harlemites of southern roots, someone would know where to find filé powder. Mais non. Rien! Although they had eaten or even cooked gumbo before, almost everyone had not heard of it. Some suggested substitutes but with none knowing what filé powder was made of I realized the futility of my inquiries. I thought of Fairway Market but alas, too late. Five supermarkets and one hour before my guest were to arrive, I gave up.

Filé, which is pronounced "Fee-lay" is powdered leaves of the sassafras tree. Sassafras albidum is a small tree or large suckering shrub native to Northeast America. All parts of the tree are fragrant and spicy and it was used by Native American tribes for treatments of numerous ailments and to flavor and thicken stews. With its pungent fragrance and mitten shaped leaves sassafras cannot be mistaken for any other.

                                              Sassafras at the Native Plant Garden, NYBG

The leaves turn brilliant orange-red in fall and you cannot miss the spectacle of sassafras en mass. Sassafras grows in colonies and you may wonder what aroma your nose is detecting as you brush past them at Brooklyn Bridge Park or on the HighLine. Some chemicals found in the leaves of this fragrant plant are mood enhancers so don't be surprised if you find yourself suddenly or unusually happy while walking along. The root of sassafrass is also used to make root beer. Powdered sassafras leaves or filé powder adds thickness and viscosity to gumbo, soups and stews, sort of like ochro but the taste and effect of sassafras is unique and cannot be substituted. Sassafras adds flavor and spice and makes everything nice, irie even.

                                     Seafood Gumbo sans powdered Sassafrass leaves or Filé Powder

Dinner with my lovely guests was quite good despite the absence of filé powder. I have since then tracked down some and will be better prepared for the next gumbo, possible daring to try one with crabs, oysters and crawdads. A gumbo with sausage and chicken sounds good too. Any way you make it, this continental dish of of African, French and Native American flavors is absolutely worth trying. I may attempt making some filé powder myself from sassafras leaves collected on my next trip to the countryside. You can find filé powder online. Zatarain's makes it and yes, it is usually sold at Fairway.


Russ, a recently added member, has been keeping the paths weed-free and tidy. The black swallowtail butterfly lays its eggs on bronze ...