This is my grandmother, Billie Provost. Or as we all called her, Maw-Maw. We often spelled it differently, such as MoMo, but “Maw-Maw” is the best way I can write it to give a sense of how we said it.
My dad’s mom, Billie Provost
Maw-Maw was a wonderful woman who raised 10 great children, cooked for and cared for many grandchildren and neighbors, and had a sweet, beautiful soul. She was a devout Catholic and I love telling ‘Catholic stories’ about her. For instance, she didn’t like getting in a moving vehicle without her personal vial of Holy Water, blessed by our Monsignor. I love this, given I am a Holy Water guy myself. She was a lovely woman who had a big influence on my life.
Maw-Maw was a terrific cook. Her Cabbage Rolls and her Stuffed Bell Peppers remain legendary. I still crave both and have numerous copies of the recipes all over my kitchen. (See the photo below for a copy of one of her handwritten recipes.) She used to make wonderful turtle pancakes for us grandkids… a large round pancake with five tiny pancakes attached, one for the head and four for the limbs… she made it look just like a turtle and they were filled with chocolate chips, so good. But her Gumbo was the best.
Once you make the roux, gumbo is surprisingly easy. You just have to use good ingredients, let it simmer, and taste as you cook. You can throw about anything in a gumbo, but if you stick generally to her recipe below, you’ll end up with a bowl of wonderfulness before you.
ROUX FOR GUMBO
2/3 cup oil
3/4 cup flour
One chopped white onion
3-4 stalks chopped celery and leaves
One green bell pepper, chopped
Put the oil and flour in a heavy pot or skillet. Place on medium heat and begin to stir. Stir almost constantly. Stir from the bottom of the pot, from the sides, to make sure it browns evenly. If you leave it even for a minute, it can burn in one spot.
Have your onions, celery and bell pepper chopped so that when the roux is the color you want (get it dark, very dark, past brown) you can put the vegetables in and sauté/fry them in the roux. Keep stirring, don’t let the onions brown. 5-10 minutes stirring the vegetables.
This will make enough roux for a nice sized pot of gumbo, 7-8 quarts. The longer you stir the roux, the darker and richer it will be. The more roux you use as the base of your gumbo, the thicker the gumbo will be.
Note: you will add green onions/scallions but not until later. Do not add them when making the roux.
SHRIMP AND CRABMEAT (or CHICKEN AND SAUSAGE) GUMBO
Make your roux (see above). Add 5-6 quarts water to the roux and bring to a boil, stirring until roux is dissolved in the liquid. Then turn down the heat to medium-low. Add salt and pepper at this stage, and keep adding, tasting as you go. We use a lot.
Add 3 cups sliced okra when the roux is turned down from a boil, and a large can of diced tomatoes, drained. Tom here: Don’t skip the okra, no matter what you think. It will be good, trust me. Add a few bay leaves, 3 cloves garlic pressed, and a few hearty shakes of Tabasco and Worchestershire both. And Cayenne. Lots of cayenne. If your forehead doesn’t sweat a little when eating a bowl of gumbo, it hasn’t been seasoned properly.
Note: constantly skim the top from this stage onward, to give the gumbo a clean shine.
If you are making shrimp and crabmeat gumbo, you want to add them towards the end, about 30 minutes before the gumbo is done, because they cook fast. You will use 2 lbs peeled and deveined shrimp and 1 lb fresh gulf blue crab, the best. You can also add 1 lb of oysters, shucked, in their liquid, for a full fledged seafood gumbo. And you can always add sliced sausage, there is never anything wrong with sausage in any kind of gumbo. If you add sausage to seafood gumbo, at it when the roux is turned down from a boil, no need to wait until you add the seafood. Add your sliced green onions with the seafood.
With chicken, however, you will add it as soon the roux is turned down from a boil. If you are using chicken, use chicken pieces from 1 or 2 hens, seasoned liberally with salt and pepper. (We often use just legs and thighs and wings.) Add a few links of your favorite sausage, cut in large coins. You can brown the chicken and sausages first if you like, which makes a better gumbo, but this is not necessary. It will still be good. Here, add sliced green onions about 30 minutes before it is done.
Keep stirring gently at times, keep skimming and cook either pot for at least two hours. Gumbo is always better the next day or two after, so you can make it ahead and then just reheat it for a splendid meal. A small cup of gumbo is also a terrific first course to a meal.
Serve the gumbo in a bowl over some white rice and garnish with additional sliced green onions and some Gumbo File‘, which is sassafras leaves dried and ground. Life does not get much better. Just be sure to go to sleep with a big glass of water by your bed. If you seasoned the gumbo properly, you will need the water during the night.