Making The Old -- and The Good -- New Again

By James Parrish Coleman -- a/k/a Jimbo Coleman

A later edition. Early Editions had a white

spine, and ads for long extinct local business.

Gulf Coast Gourmet was compiled by my late mother, Jane S. Coleman, in the early 1960s. The book was a fund raiser for the Foley Woman's Club.

The illustrations are the original work of a very talented artist named Marion Dyer. The book has been in print for many, many years; but has the simple fault of assuming you know about Gulf seafood and really know how to cook. I'll cook through the book (and my childhood), explain how Jane Coleman cooked, and tell a lot of family stories in the process. I like to cook. I will share what I have, and hope you like it. That's the spirit of this blog. Bon Appetit.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Crab Gumbo File'

There are two gumbo recipes in the cookbook. The second one is the much-beloved Creole Gumbo, which we‘ll dwell on and obsess about in great detail at a later date.

The first is this Crab Gumbo File‘, and I don't know why it is "Gumbo File'" and not "File' Gumbo"

Before launching into the recipe,  please remember that gumbo is a dish that varies from place to place and from ingredient to ingredient. There a lots of “right” ways to make it, and neither James nor I is going to get into that “the only real gumbo is made with BLANK.” That’s not very productive. I have eaten gumbo that television chefs raved over, and found that it tasted like catsup and Clamato with overcooked canned shrimp thrown in. I’ve also had gumbo that was nothing like what I learned to make, but was very good just the same. Remember what Duke Ellington said about music: “If it sounds good, it is good.” The same goes for gumbo.

This gumbo is very different from Creole Gumbo. It is good, though, and probably a better first course (with only a little rice) than its filling and savory Creole cousin.

Notes on ingredients 

The onions, butter, flour, shallots, parsley, tarragon, cayenne pepper and bay leaves (clockwise) are simple enough.
 What about some of this other stuff?

My impression of a crab is a fearless little bastard who will try to pinch your hand off after you dump him from a shrimp trawl onto the deck of your boat.

Artist Marion Dyer's cute and appealing crab
on a section front from Gulf Coast Gourmet

The folks along the East Coast crow about how their crabs are best, etc., etc., but Gulf Coast crabs are just as good as any (I think). It riles me when they dog the Gulf Coast seafood industry -- which they often do. Buy and use seafood where it is best. Don't shed big tears because you can't get the rouget described in a French cookbook. Use what's best and make the technique suit the ingredient. Forget about the French red mullet, and cook to make them wish they had some good local stuff.

There is an interesting site,  that will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about crabs. Keep in mind that there is a big difference in crabs that are “fat” and those that are not. The “fat” crabs have a lot of meat, and their unlucky (hungry) brethren don’t.

The mean, not so cute and ready to
 pinch,  real life Gulf crab 

  Picking and eating crabs on the Gulf Coast is a restaurant experience everyone should try. The boiled crabs are dumped in front of you, and you pick and eat. The natives will smirk if you hesitate or seem queasy about disassembling your dinner. After a little practice, you’ll be just like a south-of-New Orleans St. Bernard Parish-regular -- “’Dem is some fat crabs, huh, Bernice?”

Here is a video that shows how to clean an uncooked crab.    I love the part with the kids in the background squealing “Don’t eat me, please don’t eat me…!”

The crabs in the video are caught and put in ice. They are still alive, but so cold they won’t run around and try to pinch you. Crabs are also great for a simple crab or shrimp boil, but that's another story.

Beware of dead crabs; they spoil very, very quickly. We always toss uncooked dead crabs.

The also recipe calls for...

                                                                24 Crabs
A bag of frozen Gumbo Crabs from Rouses's
Supermarket in Slidell, La. These are great 
stores, run by people who really under-
stand what their customers want.
Wow! That’s a lot of crabs! (crab?). Or is it? The crabs used in a recipe like this one are what we call “gumbo crabs.” These are just small Gulf Coast blue crabs. This is apparently a mystery in some places. A look on the Internet will show some folks assume that because you can’t put that many crabs in gumbo, that what’s really being called for are crawfish. Wrong. The body of a “gumbo crab” is about the size of the palm of your hand. (OK, my hand). When you buy them they will probably be frozen or live. Either way will work. If you get live crabs, put them on ice so they are docile, and clean them (alive -- sorry!). Fresh is best. An already boiled crabs (which will, of course,  be red) will be spiced up with a commercial crab boil which will dominate the flavor of your gumbo. Don't use 'em. If you can't get fresh, use frozen (the practical choice most of the time.) Thaw them out first slowly in ice in the icebox.

Sassafras leaves; you'll use the
commercially available powdered
stuff, shown on the plate, above
If you are from the Gulf Coast, or have watched a lot of Alton Brown (my hero) on television, you know what this is. For the rest of you, file’ is the powdered leaves of the sassafras tree. The book gives a good explanation. Look in the spice section, or get a friend on the Gulf Coast to send you some (that is a lot more sociable than looking for file’ on the Internet).

Chicken Broth
If you use canned chicken broth, I will know it. I will send the food police to get you. There is no reason that you should not make chicken broth. The recipe calls for rich chicken broth. I just don’t think the salty water than a hen ran through that they sell in cans or those cute little boxes in the store is the real deal.
Besides, making the real thing is too easy. Be a cook, now; make your own. See Jacques Pepin’s books on how to do this. Every time you cut up a chicken (you don’t waste money by buying pre-cut chickens, do you?) save the back and the wing-tips. Put them in a bag in the freezer with onion ends and other good trimmings. Make stock. Reduce it until it is rich chicken broth. It will make all the difference in a gumbo like this. Then put it in plastic containers (with a color-coded yellow lid if you are that organized) and freeze. I've spend plenty of time scraping up and tasting a little frozen stock to make certain if it was fish stock or chicken stock.
 Jane Coleman never made her own chicken broth, but after 50 years I should have learned something.

Medium Onion, Minced
Carbon Steel 10 inch cooks knife. The best $79 you
can spend on a kitchen tool. They have stainless too
if you must. 
If you don't know how to mince an onion, get out that Jacques Pepin book and learn how. Also, because this is the first recipe where you have to cut something up, meet and come to love the carbon steel French cook's knife. A 10-inch cook's knife is just right for lots of jobs. With that, a paring knife, a boning knife and a 5 or 6 inch utility knife, and a carving knife, you can do all you need to do. If you want, get a cheap bread knife. The 10-inch cook's knife is what you'll use 80 percent of the time. You can order this baby directly from Sabatier in France. They will ship it to you in just a few days. I gave James and myself one for Christmas a few years ago. As James said, "It's like a light saber". Keep your knives sharp, lest you cut your thumb off. Check out  to buy one. They also sell some of the coolest pocket knives and corkscrews you've ever seen.

Salt & Pepper
Get a pepper grinder and GRIND your pepper as you use it. I like Kosher salt. It feels a little less like sand to me. 

Now Let's Cook!
Notes on technique

Text from the cookbook is shown in red, with notes to follow

Scald and clean crabs and sauté’ in a little butter for about 10 minutes.
If you buy gumbo crabs frozen, the scalding and some of the cleaning will be done for you. If you buy live crabs, you‘ll clean them like in the video. Some people put the live crabs in the freezer to kind of conk them out before they clean them. That’s pretty much a necessity because a blue crab is not interested in sacrificing himself for anybody. He will pinch the daylights out of you if you give him the chance.

I just say a prayer that God is not a crab when I chop them with my knife. Remove the top shell. Discard the intestine (the little wiggly part in the back) and the gills. My sister called these “dead man’s fingers” and all of us kids knew they were deadly poisonous (complete nonsense-- but they do look like fingers). Break the carcass in half and you are ready to go.
The Mighty EJBMS (Edward J. Barrett Memorial

Skillet.) This big boy was used by my father in law
 to cook steak. We use it for the same thing.  I never
 knew Ed Barrett but I sure love to use this skillet!

If you are ready to just buy them frozen after all this, just say to the fish man,  “You got some gumbo crabs in the freezer, gimmie some.” I won’t tell the foodie police. Thaw and clean the crabs. You still have to remove the gills and clean them well.

Put the halves of the bodies in butter in a big shallow pan and stir them around in the butter. They will sizzle and pop you, so be careful. You can also use the same Dutch oven you'll use to make the roux. That is the best method, because you won't lose the flavor-trons that are created on the bottom of the Dutch oven as you saute the crabs.

Cook them until they are a uniform red color. I believe this is a flavor building thing. The crabs are going to cook in the chicken stock.

Melt two tablespoons butter in a saucepan, add the flour and brown slightly. Add the onion to the roux and cook slowly, stirring constantly until the onion is a golden brown.
This tiny little knob of butter and little bit
of flour is all the roux in this dish. It's
a little unusual if you're accustomed to
the hand-full of flour and big dollop of fat in
a roux for creole gumbo

Then you make a roux. (I saw it spelled “rue” in a Atlantic Coast Blue Crab website. I’ll put aside my Gulf Coast prejudices.) Making a roux causes as much conversation as making gumbo itself.

 This is a very gentle flour and butter concoction that is right at home in a traditional French cookbook. One necessary tip. Ignore the “saucepan” instruction. Use a big Skillet like the EJBMS if you have one. Or, better yet, saute the crab bodies in the butter in the Dutch oven. Remove them, make the roux. Put the crabs back in after you've browned the onions. When the roux is a light, light brown, put in the onions, and cook gently.
The roux, nearly ready for the addition of the onions.

Stir the stuff with a wooden spoon until the onions are a cooked. Don't get in a hurry. If you burn the roux or the onions you'll have to start over.

This roux is a very different animal from what you'll make with creole gumbo or any number of dishes that are cooked with a roux made with oil and a hot, hot pan. Paul Prudhome's cookbooks give a great illustration of what those kinds of roux look like.

Add the chicken broth, crabs and all the seasonings except the file'. Simmer about 40 minutes. Slowly stir in the file' and allow to boil up once. Serve with hot cooked rice. 

This is a lot of rice, for a little Gumbo, but my
wife likes rice. If you want less rice, or no
rice at all -- James & I give you leave to
use as much or little as you like. If you don't
want to try to crack and eat the crab, you don't
have to. Flecks of crabmeat will be distributed
throughout the gumbo.

Add everything else and simmer gently. Don't get this going on any hard boil. I cover the dish during this step.

After 40 minutes at a low simmer, make a little open area in the middle of the dutch oven by moving the crab bodies out of the way. Add the File' a little at a time, and stir as you add it. You'll see the gumbo thicken almost at once. The surface of the liquid will look different as you stir.

After you've added the file', turn the heat up and let this gumbo come to a boil (something Jane Coleman cautioned not to do with creole gumbo) Then turn the heat down and plate it up!

Serves 8.
Eight nice 1960s club women with white gloves and pill-box hats, maybe.  When we made this batch we had enough for six regular people (four or five BHBs*).

*Big Hungry Boys


  1. EJBMS! Good to see it again.

  2. I've had your gumbo and the discussion about what goes into gumbo! #1 - Great. #2 - Interesting.

    Great post - love the photos.

  3. This is useful information.