The first thing I ever actually tried to cook was macaroni and cheese. I was 12 years old and cooking out of an old illustrated paperback my dad had bought for himself called Dad’s Own Cookbook. My father is a bit of a food purist. Growing up in New Mexico in a large hispanic family, there were just certain ways food was made. Tortillas were formed by hand, chili never contained beans, enchiladas were stacked like pancakes, not rolled (the horror!). Conversely, my dad can’t cook to save his life so he decided this “guide for dads” was a great way to get into it.
Except he never got into it. He would slyly try to get me to make American classics from it like meatloaf, roast chicken and, that day, macaroni and cheese, by saying anyone who couldn’t make them wasn’t really an American. “You can’t make a meatloaf? What are you, a communist?” Well, a communist I did not want to be, so to the kitchen I went.
The ingredients were simple enough. Cooked elbow pasta, butter, flour, milk and cheese. Could anything really go wrong that contained butter, flour and cheese?
The book called for butter to be melted and flour to be added to make a paste. This is, I would discover many years later, a roux. It is the heart of countless sauces and soups. Gumbo included. But I had no idea what gumbo was then.
Somehow I ended up with a lumpy clump of dough. No matter, I thought. This must be how it’s supposed to turn out. Next came the milk, and in it went splattering onto counters, the stove and myself as it poured.
I looked at the puddle of milk and island of gloop in the pot. How was this meant to turn into a cheese sauce? Diligently, I mixed and mixed and mixed until the milk began to scald and long before the concoction ever turned into anything remotely resembling a sauce. I tipped the coagulated mess out of the pot and decided never to make macaroni and cheese again.
But latin stubbornness mixed with Egyptian pride urged me to try my hand at cooking again. I made cordon bleu with basterma, roast chicken with local birds so small they shriveled to nothing and scones so dense I should have had dentists coming after me with pitchforks. With each failure, I learned and grew more and more determined. I retired my now roughed up, scorched and stained Dad’s Own Cookbook and traded it in for other books, recipes my grandmother dictated that I jotted down on napkins and even ones arriving in tattered envelopes from family overseas. It was like an insatiable addiction.
With help from my mother, who is an incredible cook, and my father’s goading, my failed roasts turned into turkey dinners and my molar-shattering scones turned into braided challas and tuiles. But most importantly, I learned to make a roux.
Then I learned that grains were evil and I stopped making rouxs (although my sister still makes me cook up a batch of macaroni and cheese every time she’s home from the UK). I haven’t really eaten anything roux based since I went paleo and until now I never thought I would again unless I was cheating. But a little experimenting and here we have a ridiculously good, thick, bubbling pot of creole-style gumbo. Kind of. Because I’ve used tomatoes and okra, it’s creole. But because I’ve used both shellfish and fowl, it’s a sin. Because I made a dark “roux” it’s cajun. But because it as made of nut flours it is so nothing close to traditional that all that can be said is this is a delicious stew. Just don’t go telling your Louisiana grandma about it.
Gumbo is traditionally made with thickeners of dark roux, file powder or okra. Or all of the above. Or some. It can be made with any type of meat. It may or may not have tomatoes. Basically, gumbo is designed to use up what you have on hand in the tastiest way. Here I used a nut-flour roux for that nutty flavor and plenty of okra for their slimy thickening super powers. I used a turkey andouille, some chicken thighs and shrimp.
I’ve certainly come a long, long way from macaroni and cheese.
Paleo Creole Gumbo
3 tbs almond flour
3 tbs coconut flour (or more almond flour)
2 cups chopped onions