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, April 22, 2011

Gumbo -- The Queen of Battle

All Battle, no Queen. 
A picture  of my late father-in-law
Edward J. Barrett taken during WWII.
He was a captain in the 101st Airborne.
 I am pretty confident he liked gumbo. 
One of the very few regrets I have in my
life is that I never knew him.
Gumbo, like the Infantry, is the Queen of Battle. Foot soldiers -- infantry units -- have long been known called the Queen of Battle, and there is nothing feminine about it. The infantry is powerful, deadly and -- most of all -- flexible.

Gumbo is a Queen of the same type. It can be many things, and all of them good. Of all the recipes in this cookbook, there is nothing so versatile as Creole Gumbo. I believe it is the best recipe in the book.

This version is but one of hundreds of things you can make with this technique. Lighten the roux, use a light white meat and you have a different dish. Make it with sausage and turkey, rabbit, chicken, anything you like. It is a method that will give you so many different things.

This gumbo is the genuine article when it come to Creole Seafood Gumbo. There is nothing gimmicky here.
There is, however, a lot to argue about.

When I imagine a conference of gumbo cooks, my mind’s eye sees chaos. Simply, the conference would be all talking and no listening. No one is interested in the way another cooks gumbo. If you have cooked much of the stuff, you will know that yours is the best recipe, and that all others are just a faint approximation of what a good gumbo recipe can be. The gumbo I cook as a man is his mid-50s is not the same dish I learned to cook when I was 18 years old. I do some things differently -- and I think that’s a good thing.

There are lots of great food sites that will tell you how gumbo came to be. Lots of energy is expended on that, and I’ll leave that discussion to the professionals. See ttp://  for a good overview. You should remember the simple rules of this kind of cooking.

GUMBO CONTESTS -- Many years
ago I won a trophy like the one above
in a gumbo cooking contest. For a
short time, I thought I was hot -- really
a good cook. Then I tasted the other
gumbo. Some of it was filled with
canned corn, some seasoned with

of commercial crab boil -- and most
of it nothing like as good as the gumbo
made with the simple, honest recipe.
I didn't get the much-prized and sought-

after plastic loving cup because I was 
a good cook. I won because the other
 gumbos were just bad.
The Moral Of The Story: Don't get
gimmicky with gumbo. 

If it tastes good, it is good. It may not be gumbo, but if you like it -- its good.

Use good stuff. Gumbo is a recipe where you can use canned tomatoes and frozen okra if you want. Much beyond that and you verge on concentrating on easy and forgetting good. You can’t improve an ingredient by cooking it. As the cliché goes, if you want to take good out, you’ve got to put good in.

Use the right tools.  You can’t make a good roux in a coffee can. If you don’t have a good Dutch oven, borrow one.

Build in flavor. This is the one rule that really matters. Every little technique you use has a place if it builds flavor. You can’t put in a dash of magic flavor-dust at the end. Each step in cooking the dish will add something, and all those somethings result in a depth of flavor that will give the result you want.

No gimmicks! A quick browse through the Internet, Googling gumbo for images, shows loads of hotel chefs in tall toques standing in front of Mardi Gras decorations handing out little cups of gumbo. What they are cooking may be good, but a lot of the time it is not gumbo. The rich, well seasoned, and deeply flavored dish we are cooking is not splashed with balsamic vinegar, dosed with black coffee (an old trick for an anemic color) or thickened with cornstarch. You will know when you have Non-gimmick Gumbo when you breathe the aroma of a well-made batch of gumbo. There is nothing like it.
Make the real thing, or don't call it gumbo.

Paul Prudhomme, the undisputed King
of building flavor. If you will buy this
book and cook from it, you'll learn what
"building flavor" really means. The
techniques are priceless, and the dishes
you can cook from this book will amaze
you. You won't believe how good they are
Paul Prudhomme is a chef and creative force who should and will be appreciated for his contributions far beyond the Louisiana cooking that he so profoundly defines. His books teach technique. The way he cooks is a lot more important to me than the seasoning and ingredients he uses.

His touch with seasonings is a force of nature all his own, but his way of cooking has taught me far more about how to create the depth of flavor Gulf Coast food is known for.

Browning vegetables first, rather than only cooking them in liquid, or rubbing seasonings in instead of dusting them on, are the seemingly small touches that make his food so great. It is also the kind of technique that you should think about and use in your cooking.

Ed Barrett as a kid at LSU. He was an
"old man" by the time he was
3rd battalion ops officer and
later a company commander
in the 502 PIR, 101st Airborne. His
men called him"Old Poop" This was
my late brother in law Stephen's
favorite picture of his dad
Edward J. "Old Poop" Barrett -- Infantry Soldier. There are times in the lives of us all that are truly defining, for good or ill. My late father-in-law Edward J. Barrett knew that -- or at least came to learn it the hard way.
Ed Barrett was a young LSU student, who went into ROTC because Uncle Sam paid the fees. My wife's family jokes that he went to LSU and ROTC because his older brother, John, had spend all the money going to Notre Dame. The fact that either one of them got college educations in the 1930s is a testament to good luck, perseverance or both. College was good. Timing was bad. It was not a good thing to be commissioned into the Infantry in 1940. He later trained at Ft. Benning, Ga. (Learning about this new-fangled idea -- paratroopers) He jumped at Normandy on D-Day, was wounded the next day, and was wounded again in Holland and finally at the Battle of the Bulge. He later wrote his brother John (an engineer in the the Army) that General W.T. Sherman (who said war is Hell) had a gift for understatement. 

My wife's Texas college friends had trouble understanding his accent. But no one doubted him when he said "If you weren't afraid (pronounced a-fred) all the time in combat, you were a damn fool."  

The five or so years he spent in uniform defined him forever. A bronze star and three purple hearts later he struggled through sleepless nights, and many bottles of whiskey sorting out what he saw and what he did. What we have of him is an unpublished war novel in our closet and a packet of touching and affectionate letters he wrote to my wife when she was a college girl. He died of cancer shortly after writing those letters. 

Combat veterans have been to a place we'll never understand, and been touched in a way we can't know. I can't apprehend their sacrifice, but only repeat a telling quotation: Remember now that we honor the soldier, not because he is a slayer, but because he gives himself up to be slain.

I love you, man, but you gave
me a bad steer on gumbo once.

Parachuting into the Gulf Coast... and Gumbo

Guy, are you kidding me?! One of the most entertaining people of television has got to be Guy Fieri on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. I enjoy his program, and his food picks. However, I once followed his advice on where to find great gumbo -- and was sorely disappointed. Gumbo, the way it's being made here, may not lend itself to big-batch restaurant cooking. It is a lot of trouble to make this 50 gallons at a time. But, if you aren't going to do it correctly, don't do it at all. The gumbo I sampled on Guy's recommendation was a thin and tomatoey soup with none of the real character and flavor built in here.

Gumbo: Let's Cook...

Don't be intimidated. This is the best dish in the cookbook, and I am trusting you not to screw it up. First. Get organized. Pull out your sheet pan to hold all the goodies you cut up as you do the prep work. Get the seafood ready and keep it in the ice box. Have everything at hand. This is not a complicated dish, but you want to be ready to move when it's time to move. Do all the cutting of vegetables before you light the stove (it's gas, remember?!!). Have everything laid out before you begin.

The hottest thing I've ever eaten was something I mistakenly stuck in my mouth while trying to be bad ass enough to eat "Thai hot" in a Montgomery, Ala., restaurant. The hottest thing about gumbo is not the "Cajun hot" spice equivalent ---  it is the roux.

Flour and grease mixed together over high heat (as here) was not dubbed "Cajun Napalm" by Chef Prudhomme and his crew for nothing. (If you're Thai, it's Cajun ลูกระเบิดเชื้อเพลิง -- but that's another conversation). All kidding aside. Be careful making roux. It will burn the living hell out of you if you are not careful.

I'll give you fair warning -- and my sister is going to be mad about this -- I am departing from the technique of the original recipe here. First, the directions on making the roux assume you know how to make it. Second, they also assume you are making it over low heat. We're going to make it over high heat, and we're not going to follow the second step which says put liquid right in on the roux. That would be a disaster over high heat (think Cajun napalm, balls of flame firing up the tree-line, Robert Duval in the movie Apocalypse Now saying "I love the smell of Napalm in the morning"). You don't want liquid dribbling into the hot roux).

I also am not going to use chicken stock. I use seafood stock because it is better. So there. 


Chopping First! Bell pepper, celery, onion and garlic. Bacon,
crab meat, shrimp and oysters. What could possibly go wrong!!
2 T Bacon Fat -Render it out of the bacon. Add more fat, pork fat, if you need to. Pork fat, it's where the flavor is!
3 T Flour This is not enough flour for me. I like a lot of roux, and I make it dark, much darker than the roux my mother cooked. I like the nutty flavor it gives.
2 Quarts Chicken Broth -- Nah. I make stock out of shrimp shells, vegetable trimmings and any fishy bits I have around. You can use your own homemade chicken stock it you like, but I like the flavor the shrimp shell/seafood stock gives. I always use chicken stock when I make chicken gumbo.

3 strips bacon. Use something that will render a good amount of fat. If you need additional fat for the roux, make it bacon fat.
2 large onions finely chopped. Nothing special here. Cut the onions into large dice. If you need information on cutting things, see the earlier post The Way I Think You Should Cook.
3 cloves garlic Well, not nearly enough garlic to suit me, but add the smaller amount at first.
1 small green pepper, minced. I use more bell pepper than this, and I also always use celery, which this recipe omits.
3 cups okra. Use fresh if you can find it. Slimey is good.
1 medium can peeled tomatoes. Use fresh if you have them. When using fresh tomatoes (which we didn't use here) quarter them and push out the seeds. If you use canned, use a good brand. I like Cento because they seem to have fewer seeds (the seeds are bitter). Don't succumb to the temptation of using the cheapest tomatoes you can find.
4 bay leaves. This should be in your pantry at all times. If you are serious, grow a Bay Laurel bush in your yard.
2 lbs. cleaned, raw shrimp. Medium or smaller shrimp are best. Don't use the tiny ones, and don't put canned shrimp in your gumbo. Canned shrimp in gumbo is like a beautiful girl with her front teeth knocked out. Use fresh or properly frozen and thawed seafood for this dish, or make some other kind of gumbo.
1 lb crabmeat or
6 cleaned crabs. Crabmeat is wildly expensive. (Pick a few dozen crabs and you'll understand why). No need to use the jumbo lump crabmeat. Claw meat, which is a little less expensive, also has a stronger flavor -- which is ideal here. Use it. If you use small lump and see crab roe scattered in (little bright orange flecks), that is find. It won't hurt a thing. Use the large lump (super expensive) for things like Bailey's West Indies Salad. IF you are using crabs, use "gumbo crabs" see the post on Crab File' Gumbo to learn about crabs and how to clean them for gumbo.
1 pt oysters. Standards are fine here. I like oysters that are small enough to fit on a spoon.
1 tsp. salt. Use only salt that is evaporated from the sea at a sunny village in southern France, then transported by crack-head virgins to a market near you. Just use salt.
1 tsp. pepper. Fresh ground
1 dash Louisiana Hot Sauce. Is there a reason that we can't say Tabasco here? That's my favorite. You might also season with garlic Tabasco sauce.
1 dash cayenne. Make sure it's fresh.
1 dash Worcestershire Sauce. This stuff is really for cooking steak in the EBMS (you'll have to look at an older post to learn what that is), but it can't hurt, and might help.

Cook bacon in the Dutch oven to render
fat. Cut the crisply cooked bacon into
small strips and put it in the pot. 

Just starting to make the roux. You have to
stir all the time. Have extra flour and fat at
hand to add if you want to adjust the
consistency of the roux. Make sure to stir
the edges of the pan as well as the center.
 Make a roux by browning flour in bacon fat. I just love that direction. It's like saying "make a profit by ensuring that sales are greater than costs and expenses." Easy. Making a roux is a little more involved. It is simple, but brutal. Fry the bacon in the bottom of the dutch oven with added fat to have a roughly equal volume of oil and flour.

The roux should not be thin as water, but not clumpy, either. Turn the heat up to high. You can't be a candy-ass about this. You must stir all the time. If you burn the roux, you  start again. If you need to add oil or four to keep the

consistency correct, do so. If you use a whisk, make sure the wires don't flick any of the napalm onto you. It will hurt! Keep stirring until you get the color you want.

 As soon as you get the color you need, drop in the first of the "hard" (onions/celery/bell pepper) vegetables. There is more on this later, but you want to do this to cool down that roux in a hurry.

That's the color I want for gumbo. Reddish
brown. Mama said make it "butternut"
colored. I like it darker. (Butternut is the
color of a Confederate soldier's uniform
(but that's ... another story) The color of 
the roux changes the flavor of the dish. 
Do what you like, but this darker roux
makes a pretty good gumbo.

 This is quite a different technique from the way my mother made gumbo, but I believe it builds more flavor. Sorry, Mama.

The beautiful and well-manicured
hands of James Coleman's special

lady friend tossing the "hard" 
vegetables into the roux.
He will switch to a spoon
now and finish cooking the vegetables
in the hot roux.

Vegetables and roux, all together. The heat
of the roux browns the vegetables, and cools that hot
roux, making it easy to control.
Add broth, stirring to prevent lumping and set aside to use later. No, this is not the way I make gumbo.(flashing lightning and thunderbolts from above).  I used this method for many years, but making it all in one pot at one time is a superior method. I have also watched cold "peanut butter" roux be scooped into a pot of gumbo. Not the way to roll. The extra heat will do some browning of onions and vegetables that will add flavor to your dish. Try it; you will see what I mean.

Fry bacon and add chopped vegetables and tomatoes, without juice. Cook covered until onion is a golden brown, stirring occasionally. Add roux to this mixture, tomato juice and all seasonings.

Stirring after addition of okra. If you don't have
fresh, frozen will do. Frozen also gives that
creepy look when the frost comes off the pods. 
 My sister, Claudia, believes that the directions in the cookbook must be followed exactly. I imagine her standing in the kitchen rocking back and forth over the book (and reading right to left) as if it were the Torah. I am busted here. I don't follow the directions above. Claudia, rend your garments now.

Make the roux in a Dutch oven as shown above. When the roux is a dark brown color, put in the onions, then celery, then bell pepper, and garlic last. Garlic goes last because you don't want it to hit the hot roux and burn. Then, stir the vegetables and roux together with a wooden spoon. The roux will stick to the vegetables and start to cook them. At the same time, the vegetables will cool the roux enough so it won't burn itself or you. Add salt, to break down thevegetables, but don't season anything yet.

Chef emptying the tin. Good
canned tomatoes work fine in
a dish like this if you don't have
ripe fresh tomatoes. Better good
canned that the little tennis balls
you often find the the grocery.
Next, add the okra and then the tomatoes, My mother always said the acid in the tomatoes cuts the slime of the okra. I don't know if that's true, but it sounds so mysterious I always do it that way. After the tomatoes are added, ladle the seafood stock into the gumbo. I do this right from a sauce pan next to the Dutch oven.

Cook gumbo slowly and watchfully for two hours. Yes indeed. That is certainly the way to do this part. After the liquid is in, season the gumbo. Take care not to get it too salty or too peppery. You will season it again just before serving. The word slowly is underlined to caution the knuckle-head in you not to scald your gumbo or let it boil. Cook it covered on very low heat and watch it to make sure it does not boil up. Stir it often.
About 30 minutes before gumbo is to be served, add seafood Add the shrimp first, and then the crab meat. Don't put the oysters in yet. It is important not to overcook the seafood. An oyster simmered in hot gumbo for 30 minutes is overcooked as far as I am concerned.

Just before addition of the stock
and additional salt if necessary and simmer slowly. Gumbo will become darker upon addition of seafood. Let the gumbo simmer for a few minutes until the shrimp are done. (Take one out and eat it to see if they are done.) Season the gumbo before serving. You may need only to add a little more hot sauce, or a little more garlic. I usually squeeze half a lemon into the pot at this point. This is a final seasoning, much like you'd do at the table. The gumbo should be good without any final seasoning, but this is your last touch before serving. Add the oysters just before serving. Let them cook only until the gills (the little lines on the edge of the oyster) stand out and are separate.

The stock is in, and it's time to simmer.
Serve piping hot over a mound of cooked rice. Mound the rice up in the center of the serving bowl with a little custard cup.

You can serve gumbo as a first course in a seafood extravaganza, or make it the main event with salad and a loaf of good bread.

Don't be afraid to make this flexible wonderful dish your own as you cook it, but stay away from the silly stuff. Above all, don't be like a friend of ours who confided, "when I make gumbo, I don't make a roux."

Did you hear that. Did you hear that. Gumbo without roux!!. That's something to rend your garments over.

Next week, Grilled Pompano and Scalloped Oysters


  1. This is a great post! Love it!

    --Angie Holan

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  3. I had somehow missed this post until browsing tonight. Your comments on your father in law were accurate and moving. And you may assume that he did like gumbo, especially that created by his brother in law Walter Morrison.