Look Who’s Cooking: Tim Blagg’s gumbo a melting pot of cultural influences

  • Former Greenfield Recorder Editor Tim Blagg makes traditional gumbo in his Greenfield home. While every gumbo needs to have a roux, okra, vegetables and a protein, Blagg says, after that it’s possible to use whatever vegetables you have on hand. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Part of the brilliance of gumbo to Greenfield resident Tim Blagg is that while there are some core essentials, the dish can be anything the cook desires it to be. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • BLAGG

  • WEDEGARTNER

For the Recorder
Published: 3/19/2019 2:13:01 PM

Gumbo, whether it’s Cajun or Creole, has a storied American past. The official state dish of Louisiana, it combines the food and seasonings of that state’s many cultures: African, French, Spanish, German and Choctaw, a Native American people who originally lived in the Southeastern United States.

The name, “gumbo,” is said to have derived from the West African word for the vegetable, okra, a key gumbo ingredient brought here during the African slave trade. The word is “ki ngombo.” Or, it could have come from the Choctaw word, “kombo,” for another key ingredient made from ground sassafras leaf that is now called filé. Add to that the French, Spanish and German influences and you have gumbo’s other ingredients such as sausage, piquant spices, vegetables, seafood and meats.

Depending on who is making the dish, it might be a Cajun version, coming from the French Canadians who settled in Louisiana, and who make their gumbo with a dark roux and shellfish or fowl; or it might be a Creole gumbo, coming from the descendants of the French, Spanish and Africans of Louisiana, who make their gumbo with a dark roux, filé, shellfish and tomatoes. Then along came the Germans who added the sausage or ham, which is common in many gumbos along with all the other ingredients.

For Greenfield resident Tim Blagg, who served as editor of the Greenfield Recorder for more than 27 years, gumbo has long been a family favorite. Part of the brilliance of the dish to him is that while there are some core essentials, gumbo can be anything the cook desires it to be.

Roxann: When did you learn to cook?

Tim: I’d say I really got into cooking when I was a teenager. My father was stationed in Bermuda. One summer I got a job as a lifeguard on the base. One of the other lifeguards was also a baker on the base. I got hired on to help him do the baking. I think that’s when I discovered I liked the mechanics of cooking.

RW: Do you have a cooking muse?

TB: I like to go to Green Fields Market and see what’s interesting to me, or what looks fresh and good, and then think about making a dish with it. My mother used to love to read cookbooks, so I got into the habit of looking up recipes to cook with whatever ingredients I have.

RW: You say gumbo isn’t a recipe; it’s an idea. Why?

TB: Because it’s really anything you want it to be. Its evolution as a dish made by people from many cultures using their common ingredients makes it hard to pin it down as a single recipe.

Nevertheless, you have to have a roux, okra, vegetables and a protein. The okra is essential as it’s a thickening agent. Filé is optional. I don’t care for it so I don’t use it, but it is used a lot at the end as a flavoring and extra thickening ingredient. After that, you can sort of empty your refrigerator, using whatever other vegetables you have on hand.

RW: What are the tricks to making gumbo?

TB: There are a few tricks. First thing is you have to have everything prepped ahead of time, because once you start cooking you have to keep going in steps until it’s done. There really isn’t time to prep as you go.

As for ingredients, the “Holy Trinity” of vegetables is celery; peppers, red or green or both; and onions. Those need to be chopped fairly small and be ready to put in just as the roux is done. After that, you can decide whether to also have tomatoes, the Creole way, and whatever meats you want. I sometimes go wild and make it with shellfish, chicken and sausage, along with the vegetables, of course.

RW: Roux isn’t something that’s used in everyday cooking. Is it hard to make?

TB: Not hard. It’s just flour and oil, but you do have to pay careful attention when you’re cooking it. After prepping everything, making the roux is the first place you start when cooking gumbo. It is the basic building block for the dish. And, you do not want to burn it, which it can do easily. You need to cook it over medium heat and keep stirring it until it becomes a deep brown color, like the color of peanut butter.

Whatever you do, do not add liquid to it! It’s called Cajun Napalm for a reason. If you add the liquid, it will explode and splatter. You do not want to get that on you.

Gumbo Blagg style

Use a large cooking pot, cast iron if you have one.

Ingredients:

½ to 1 cup flour, depending on size of gumbo batch

½ cup to 1 cup cooking oil, lard or clarified butter, depending on size of gumbo batch

1 cup diced onion

1 cup diced green or red bell pepper

1 cup diced celery

2 cloves garlic, minced

4 to 5 cups chicken, seafood or vegetable broth (for the Creole version, substitute 1 cup V8 juice for 1 cup broth)

2 cups frozen or fresh okra, diced (try to get fresh okra as it acts as a better thickening agent)

1 scallion for garnish

Salt, to taste

Pepper, to taste

Cayenne pepper, to taste (optional)

3 cups cooked rice (white or a more exotic blend)

3 to 4 scallions, chopped for garnish

1 to 2 T filé

For the Creole version:

1 11-oz. can diced tomatoes, drained

1 cup V8 juice (to substitute for 1 cup of broth)

1 tsp Tabasco or other hot sauce

For chicken gumbo:

1 lb. boneless chicken breasts and/or thighs, cut in 1-inch cubes

1 cup (2 links) diced hot links sausage (you can substitute kielbasa or Andouille sausage)

For seafood gumbo:

2 cups peeled medium or large shrimp (you can substitute crayfish)

1 cup cleaned crab meat (optional)

1 cup oysters or 1 cup white-fleshed fish (optional)

Begin with making the roux. Put equal amounts of oil and flour into your pot over a medium heat. Slowly cook the flour, carefully and patiently stirring until it changes to the peanut butter color, without allowing it to burn. If you see black flecks, you’ve burnt the roux and you’ll have to start over again. Don’t worry, it’s worth it.

The next step is an important one. When the roux is the color of peanut butter, you want to stop the roux’s cooking without turning the heat off. To do this, turn down the heat and stir in that Holy Trinity of vegetables — the celery, pepper and onion. This will stop the roux from cooking.

While the vegetables are “sweating,” use a spatula to scrape the bottom to make sure the roux doesn’t stick to the pan and burn. If you’re making the chicken version, you can add your sausage while the vegetables are cooking. After the vegetables have cooked for about three minutes, add the minced garlic and a small amount of salt, pepper and cayenne. You can adjust the seasonings for more spiciness at the end. Remember, it’s meant to be on the spicy side.

If you’re using fresh okra, now is the time to add it and stir another minute or two until the “trinity” has softened. Be careful not to let the garlic burn.

Next, add your liquid and stir. If you’re making the Creole version, add the broth and V8 along with the drained canned tomatoes. Add a dash of Tabasco or other hot sauce.

If you’re doing the chicken version, add the chicken now.

Let the gumbo mixture simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. If you’re using frozen okra, add it now. If you’re using the file, you can add it now gradually, depending on how thick you want the gumbo and on how much flavoring you want.

If you’re doing the seafood version, wait until the vegetables are done and the pot has simmered before adding the shrimp and other seafood. Turn the heat down and let the simmering heat cook them until they’re pink.

Taste for seasoning before serving. Serve in bowls garnished with scallions, or serve the scallions on the side.

A note from Roxann

This will be my last Look Who’s Cooking column for a while. By mutual agreement between the Greenfield Recorder and me, I will not be writing for the paper while I am a candidate for mayor of Greenfield.

This column, as you know, has been pure joy for me to do. I love writing about food, and the only thing I like better than writing about food (and eating it) is writing about people cooking food. So, dear readers and cooks, I will miss you terribly. But hopefully our paths will cross, while out and about and in the grocery store aisles.

In the “Look Who’s Cooking” monthly column, Roxann has interviewed and shared the recipes of people from around Franklin County who may be well-known in their professional or political lives, but not necessarily for their lives as passionate cooks, bakers or all-around foodies.




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