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A proper gumbo—thick, rich, affirming of hunger and soul—calls for a proper roux, the mix of toasted flour and fat that gives the stew a backbone.
But a dedication to roux, in theory, used to mean constant attention and stirring on the stovetop, and knowing to stop just when the mix landed on the prescribed shade of brick or chocolate. To look away at the wrong moment would invite a dark roux to turn ashen, and make you start all over again. This all made gumbo out to be an awfully big project, one we'd have a hard time getting right.
Alton Brown soothed all of these concerns, and got people making a lot more gumbo, when he stuck his roux in the oven. I suspected this would be a controversial move, like suggesting you cook your salmon in the dishwasher or scrambled eggs in boiling water. But digging deeper, I found all kinds of gumbo tricks: quick rouxs, microwave rouxs, dry rouxs. "There are as many gumbos as there are mamas," as they say.
Brown's trick, if we're to judge by the consensus of Food Network commenters and the internet at large, may be the most beloved. Call me biased; call me a proud grandma, but I'm always surprised to see a recipe comment thread that matches the enthusiasm of those on Food52. This one is is near-frenzy:
"Wish someone had taught me this technique years ago!" - sphinxylady
"I will always make roux this way. A.Brown is a roux genius." - FlavaFULL
"Oh Alton, thank you for making a roux that is easy, my arm doesnt fall off, and I dont get burned!" - Annapolis Chef
"I could never get it the right color before and now it is a no brainer!!!!!!!!" - flowerchild1959
As the roux bakes for 90 minutes, you'll whisk it a couple times, but otherwise you'll be free to pull heads off of shrimp and turn them into a deep pink stock, chop up your onion-celery-pepper trinity, crack a beer, go find some bangly beads, maybe even rustle up a king cake.
While I recommend following the recipe as written—and it's well worth the trouble of finding head-on shrimp and filé powder for what might be the most soul-stirring gumbo you've tasted—the most important lesson to take away here is that any gumbo is more within reach when you bake your roux.
You can make it vegetarian, or add lentils, or spice, or duck, or greens. You can make your stock from just the shrimp tails and peels or crab legs or lobster remains, if you simply can't find head-on shrimp (and that should be your only excuse, because shrimp heads will otherwise become your new favorite ingredient). You might want to skip the pale, out-of-season tomato, or use canned. You can leave out the filé powder if it's proving troublesome—the gumbo will lack a little flavor and thickness, but you'll manage (consider okra or more roux). Because that roux, no longer needy and unknowable, is never going to stop you again.
Adapted slightly from The Food Network
4 fluid ounces vegetable oil
4 ounces all-purpose flour (or about 1 cup less 4 teaspoons, if measuring by volume)
1 1/2 pounds raw, whole, head-on medium-sized (31-50 count) shrimp
2 quarts water
1 cup diced onion
1/2 cup diced celery
1/2 cup diced green peppers
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1/2 cup peeled, seeded, and chopped tomato (fresh or canned)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 bay leaves
1/2 pound andouille sausage, cut into 1/4-inch pieces and browned in a little oil
1 tablespoon filé powder
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Photos by Mark Weinberg