Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Gumbo File

As I have mentioned before, Lena operated several eateries in New Orleans throughout her career.  She opened her own restaurant, Lena Richard's Gumbo House on February 19, 1949.  A newspaper advertisement for the grand opening of the Gumbo House captured readers’ attention and tempted their appetites by naming “gumbo file as the house specialty."  

Image courtesy of the Newcomb Archives, Tulane University

The restaurant was located at 1936 Louisiana Avenue, and was very much a family operated business.  Lena's son-in-law, Leroy Rhodes managed the restaurant, her husband, Percival ensured the property was in top shape, and her daughter, Marie managed the finances.  Even during Jim Crow, this restaurant served both black and white clientele, capturing the customer loyalty of a variety of New Orleans residents with Lena’s famous dishes.

Image courtesy of www.neworleanschurches.com

The restaurant was an important community space.  Often, members of the Holy Ghost Parish would attend dinner at the Gumbo House after Sunday mass.  Some parishioners stayed for long, casual dinners, enjoying great food and conversation into the early morning hours.

Last week, my mother was in town visiting me for my birthday.  She and I were both eager to try Lena’s “Gumbo File” recipe.  We decided to have a few friends over for a casual gumbo tasting on Saturday night.  Lena’s gumbo was a huge success, and we all opted for second helpings!

Here is Lena’s recipe for gumbo file:

1 cup chopped chicken meat
2 ½ quarts chicken stock
½ dozen crabs
1 pound lake shrimp
½ pound or 1 slice raw ham
1 bay leaf
3 teaspoons filé
1 medium sized onion
1 clove of garlic
3 tablespoons flour
4 tablespoons cooking oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Fry ham and shrimp in cooking oil until ham is a golden brown.  Remove ham and shrimp from fat.  Make a roux with flour and fat, add onions and cook until a golden brown.  Add crabs, chicken, ham and shrimp, stock and all seasonings except salt and pepper.  Cook over a slow fire until liquid has reduced to about 1½ quarts.  Season with salt and pepper and, just before serving, stir in file.  It is customary to serve Gumbo File with rice.

My mother went hunting for ingredients at our local grocery store.  While shopping, she ran into a charismatic New Orleans chef who was currently working at the meat department in our local grocery store, while his wife attended graduate school at Duke University.  He and my mother swiftly fell into conversation about Lena Richard and this food blog.  He was happy to help my mother make a fair decision on what cut of meat Lena was referring to when she stated “1 slice of raw ham.”  He believed that Lena was likely cooking with fresh ham shanksa fatty piece of meat with a large bone running through its middle.

Living in Durham has its perks, but access to fresh crab out of season is not one of them, so we opted to use lobster in this gumbo instead of crab.

We heated 4 tablespoons of canola oil over medium heat, adding 3 fresh ham slices and 1 pound of unpeeled shrimp to our large stockpot.  

We cooked the shanks until they were golden brown on both sides, and the thick ring of fat began to turn translucent.  Then we removed the ham and shrimp, setting them aside for later.  The shrimp had absorbed much of the oil we began cooking with, so we added 2 more tablespoons of oil to the pan and 3 tablespoons of flour to create our roux, stirring constantly as the flour toasted turning from a cream to a light toasted caramel color.

We added the diced onion, continually stirring until the onion browned.  

Then we added the chopped chicken, halved lobsters, shrimp, ham shanks, diced clove of garlic and 2 ½ quarts of chicken stock.  We brought the stock to a boil and then reduced heat to medium low, keeping a steady simmer for 1.5 hours.  Then we removed the seafood and meat, setting aside, and brought the stock to a rolling boil for 20 minutes so that it would reduce to 1½ quarts.  We pulled the meat from the ham shank, discarding the bone and fat.  We added the seafood and ham shank meat back into the stock, reduced the heat, added salt and pepper to taste and served over long grain white rice.  

We allowed our guests to add their own file to their gumbo to taste.  We also encouraged them to eat the gumbo "with their hands," allowing them to peel their own shrimp and lobster.

The gumbo stock, which was a beautiful golden color, was rich with flavor.  The fat from the fresh ham shanks and the subtle seafood flavor brought by the unpeeled shrimp and halved lobsters created a well-balanced gumbo stock.  My mother and I were shocked at the tenderness of the shrimp and lobster, even after they had cooked for 1.5 hours.  I can see why this dish was the house specialty at Lena’s restaurant, attracting gumbo enthusiasts from across the Crescent City!

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