This recipe was pioneered in the campground at Stephen Foster State Park in the
Okeefenokee Swamp. Anything tastes good when you're camping, and camping by definition connotes some forethought going into a meal. Allowing for certain advance measures, this dazzling one-pot meal proved as quick and easy as it was popular.
In food articles in the big newspapers and in conversations with bonafide Cajuns, I have subsequently learned that what I made was not a true gumbo. It didn't matter then and it doesn't now. Soupier and more more varied in flavor than shrimp creole, this dish probably has a rightful name of its own up the bayou. It had a decided Cajun mood about it, and was the same kind of crowd pleaser as a good pot of spaghetti.
1 1/2 lb fresh or frozen okra
1 lb (or more) peeled boiled shrimp
4 fresh sausages, hot or medium, previously smoked over charcoal
1 29 oz can, tomato pieces
1 large onion, diced
Celery and/or bell pepper if desired
Salt, black pepper and hot red pepper sauce to taste
I started by boiling a pot (okay, a 3-lb coffee can) of water, on my 1970 Primus Grasshopper, an early propane camp stove.
No, that's not true. I started before I left my indoor, electric range kitchen in civilization. I boiled my shrimp in salty water, peeled them and packed them to travel in the ice chest. I also cooked up rice (you know how much your family will put away) to underlay the forthcoming stew.
If you didn't grow up as a backpacking Scout, these preliminaries would be unremarkable. But for a weekend on the trail, the rice would have been transported uncooked for weight considerations, and neither fresh shrimp nor fresh sausage would have been part of the weekend at all.
The first night out, we built a charcoal fire and ate some pieces of beef that had marinated for the entire trip down, another benefit of motorized camping. After the steak was cooked, there was plenty of heat left in the charcoal. I set the sausages on the grill and turned them frequently for 30 minutes or so. By this time they were probably done enough to eat, but I let them stay on the fire until bedtime, about four hours.
The slow smoking added flavor and a hard texture to the sausage, as it cooked out more of that evil hog fat. I never build a charcoal fire anymore without planning to set out sausage to smoke after the fire has served its short-term purpose. The charcoal is always still there, begging you to do more with it. I have tried out this recipe using pan-cooked, commercially smoked sausage, and the results were simply not up there with slow-smoked sausage. The sausage could be the pivotal feature of this dish.
Back to the pot of water: I had fresh okra on this occasion, and cut it into discs about 1/2 in. in thickness, as you would for frying. If you use frozen okra, be sure to get some that's naked, because the frying batter is not part of this recipe. I tossed in the onion and salt and pepper. The volume of water was probably 3 pt. to 2 qt. If I need to tell you how much water to boil okra in, you won't be attempting this recipe anyway.
Then I cut up the sausage and dropped it into the boiling okra broth, now beginning to thicken. This would be the time to add any other vegetables such as celery or bell pepper. I recommend against corn, which adds an unwelcome sense of starch to this stew.
This decidedly green looking mix stewed for a few minutes, and the sausage flavor cooked out into the general stew. I discovered that even after smoking for four hours, the sausage still had lots of flavorful fat to release into the stew. The results, I can only claim with an admission of dumb luck, were better than words can describe. At this point, all the ingredients that actually required cooking on Gumbo Night were ready.
I heated up the previously cooked rice, building a small charcoal fire largely because old Scouts need to build fires. The rice heated on foil over the grill, and I dumped the whole can of tomatoes into the green stew. Predictably, the red and green combined to an ideal, appetizing medium brown. Final adjustments were made to the seasonings. If you understand cilantro or garlic, this would be the time to add them.
Finally, I pulled the big can from the fire and dropped in the previously cooked shrimp. Gumbo can accommodate other meats such as chicken, as available or desired. There would be nothing wrong with cooking this stew an hour or two before dinnertime and allowing the seasonings to permeate the shrimp as the whole pot cools. Note that the shrimp was protected from any additional boiling. If you're still with me, you surely know that overcooking shellfish toughens it, a seriously unwanted result.
On my gumbo's inaugural night, the customers were not disposed to let the shrimp steep. They made short work of it. This recipe has since played to appreciative audiences at the beach, in the mountains and even in everyday suburbia, where it beckons to you. Would you go to the trouble to build a charcoal fire the night before? If your idea of a cook's reward is in the eager consumption of your work, your efforts will be highly rewarded.
Edited by editor, 18 October 2003 - 09:41 PM.