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Kitchen Mailbox: Creole and African origins influence hearty and versatile Gumbo

Thursday, January 11, 2001

By Arlene Burnett, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Ask 10 people to give a definition of chicken gumbo and you'll get 10 different answers -- so it goes with ethnic or regional recipes.

Cooking term
of the week

Dredge -- To coat food to be fried with flour, cornmeal or bread crumbs. The coating helps brown the food.

We checked cookbooks and all had different ideas about how this dish originated. For example, "Around the Southern Table" by Sarah Belk believes "it may have originated from the West Indian dish gumbo (okra stewed in water butter). Or from the African word gambo, meaning okra. Gumbo may contain a variety of meats and vegetables often depending what's on hand. Gumbo consists of a combination of tomatoes, bell peppers, okra, shrimp, sausage and chicken."

"The Food Lover's Companion" by Sharon Tyler Herbst tells us that gumbo is a "Creole specialty and a mainstay of New Orleans cuisine."

Gumbo is also thickened with File (FEE-lay) powder, made from ground dried leaves of the sassafras tree. We found file powder (also known as gumbo powder) at Renya's in The Strip and The Uncommon Market, Route 19. File powder must be stirred into gumbo after it's removed from the heat because undue cooking makes the powder tough and stringy.

We have three interpretations for gumbo. The first is a thick stew-like gumbo, the second is more of a soup and the third is a gumbo made with chicken breasts and frozen vegetables. We tested and tasted each recipe -- delicious. We served the gumbo over rice with cheese corn bread on the side.

Too busy to make corn bread from scratch? Try reporter L.A. Johnson's suggestion. Buy the packaged corn bread mix. Follow package directions, pour half the batter into the pan, toss in about 3/4 cup cheese (your choice), pour in the remaining batter and bake as directed. Thanks, L.A.

As with some soups and stews, gumbo is tastier the second day. Two of the recipes call for whole chickens cut up. We took a shortcut -- we bought skinless chicken pieces equivalent to a whole chicken. One more note: The gumbo can be frozen.

Alice Richardson of the Hill District requested a recipe for chicken gumbo. Here's an assortment of recipes.

The following two recipes were sent in by Mary Ann Devlin of Dravosburg.

Chicken Gumbo

2 whole chickens, cut in pieces
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
1/4 teaspoon ground pepper
Pinch cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons dried mustard
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
4 stalks celery, diced
2 red bell peppers, cored and diced
1 green pepper, cored and diced
1 tablespoon garlic, chopped fine
28-ounce can plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped, drained, with juice reserved
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped coarse
4 cups sliced fresh or frozen okra
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

Rinse chicken; pat dry. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a small bowl, mix first six spices.

Rub onto chicken pieces. Place chicken in a shallow baking pan (since we used skinless chicken, we sprayed the pan with cooking spray). Bake 15 minutes; set aside. Place oil in a large pot. Add celery, onions, peppers and garlic. Cook over low heat, stirring for 10 minutes. Raise heat to medium; add okra and cook, stirring an additional 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, paste, thyme and bay leaf. Add chicken and any pan juices to the pot. Cover with reserved tomato juice. Simmer over medium-low heat, partially covered, until chicken is tender, about 1/2 hour. Stir in 2 tablespoons parsley and cook an additional 15 minutes. If gumbo begins to boil, reduce heat. Adjust seasonings to taste and garnish with remaining parsley. If desired, serve over hot cooked rice. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Chicken Gumbo

3 tablespoons corn oil
16-ounce bag frozen vegetable mix (see note)
14-ounce can stewed tomatoes
1 pound skinned and boneless chicken breasts, cut into pieces
1 1/2 cups water or chicken broth used chicken broth)

In a Dutch oven or large, deep skillet, heat oil until hot. Add chicken and cook until brown, about 10 minutes. Add frozen vegetables, tomatoes and water or broth. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, cover and cook an additional 15 minutes or until vegetables are tender.

Note: Broccoli, green beans and red peppers is a good choice.

Helen Lamison of Carnegie sent us this version of chicken gumbo.

Chicken Gumbo

1 quart okra (4 cups or 2 boxes frozen okra)
1 frying chicken
1-pound slice of ham
4 tablespoons butter or other fat
4 cups fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped, or 2 28-ounce cans tomatoes
1 large onion, chopped
1 sprig parsley
3 quarts boiling water
Salt and cayenne pepper to taste

Wash and stem the okra and cut in 1/2-inch slices. Cut the chicken up as for fricassee. Dice the ham. In a large pot, melt 2 tablespoons of the fat; add the okra and cook until lightly brown, then remove. In the same pot, melt the remaining fat; add the chicken and ham; cover and cook for 10 minutes, turning as necessary to brown. Add the tomatoes, onion, parsley, water and okra. Simmer for 1 hour or until the chicken and ham are tender. Salt to taste; add a pinch of cayenne pepper.

Serve in soup plates with rice.

Note: We decided to make this gumbo a bit thicker, so, before serving, we added 1 tablespoon of the File powder.


"During Christmas days of baking, several members of my family talked about the old-fashioned tea cakes that our mother baked. There were most likely made with shortening, no butter; they were soft rather than crisp and probably cut from rolled dough with a biscuit cutter. Several of us tried to duplicate them but failed. As with so many childhood memories, perhaps Mom's tea cakes were not all that wonderful, but we had the pleasure of reaching into the cookie tin and having a treat most any day."

Jane Bara
Dumas, Texas


Marilyn Honsperger of Verona is looking for a recipe for a Mardi Gras King Cake.

The Allegheny County Conservation District is looking for a recipe for butterscotch pie.

If you want to answer a recipe request from a reader or are looking for a recipe yourself, please write to Kitchen Mailbox, c/o Arlene Burnett, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh 15222, or e-mail to aburnett@post-gazette.com. Please include a name, neighborhood and a daytime phone number on all correspondence. All recipes are kitchen-tested by the Post-Gazette.

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