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Gumbo A-Ha: Roux, Okra Slime, and Just-Right Shrimp

An abundance of okra in my CSA box has given me a much-needed nudge into unfamiliar culinary territory. The first week, it led to my first stab at pickling okra--an overwhelming success. The second week, I felt lazy and gave it to an pod-loving friend. The third week, I decided to buckle down and try my hand at a dish that, until now, I had been too timid to attempt: gumbo.

It was the roux that scared me. Something about browning flour in searing-hot butter (or oil) screamed danger. I didn't know what a proper gumbo roux should look like (reddish-brown to almost-black) or smell like (just shy of burnt toast), and I had the vague notion that if I messed it up, it would spontaneously combust, possibly setting my hair on fire. But with an armful of green and daringly red okra before me, I felt obligated to give it a try.

Full disclosure: For my first gumbo, I chose a traditional, roux-based recipe instead of one of our more healthful Cooking Light versions. Many of our lightened gumbo recipes forego the roux (and with it, gobs of calories and saturated fat) by toasting the flour in the oven, or in a dry pan on the stove. But I decided that before I was ready to make it light, I should confront my fear of the roux.

My recipe called for heating a half-cup of Canola oil close to its smoke-point, then slowly whisking in an equal amount of flour until the roux turned a glossy dark-brown. I resisted a strong urge to don protective eyewear. I occupied my toddler outside of the kitchen. I turned on the fan and focused on stirring, stirring, stirring the roux. It became quite meditative. As it slowly changed color before my eyes, I felt like an alchemist. And like a real cook.

Epiphany #1: Avoid distractions, keep stirring, and your roux will be fine.

The rest of the gumbo was a breeze, really. Holy trinity--check. Andouille sausage--yep. Spices, etcetera--no surprises there. It wasn't until I added the okra that I had my real a-ha moment. The slime that makes okra, well, okra, is key to thickening the gumbo to that perfect consistency. (In some recipes, filé powder, a gumbo spice made from ground sassafras leaves, does that job.) I had never considered okra slime to be a particularly desirable property, and enjoyed learning ways to reduce the slime-factor (roasting or grilling work well, my colleagues tell me). I now respect okra.

Epiphany #2: Slime is your friend.

Because I was cooking for friends, I saved the last step--adding the shrimp--until just before serving. I added the shrimp when the gumbo was just at a simmer and cooked it for just three minutes. That, I learned, helped me avoid the tough and rubbery morsels I'd inadvertently made in the past.

Epiphany #3: Don't overcook the shrimp.

All in all: a success. My guests loved the gumbo, and it left me feeling confident and encouraged to try it again. Next time, I'll make it light.

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RECIPE PICTURED: Gulf of Mexico Gumbo