Ask any native of Acadiana, an area of South Louisiana composed of 22 parishes, what the most commonly prepared dish is, and they’ll tell you it’s gumbo or jambalaya. Ask them for their recipes for these two iconic Louisiana dishes, and you’ll probably get as many versions as there are bayous that crisscross the state.

Although the locals will tell you that just about every gumbo begins by first making a roux (a combination of flour and oil), the method of making a roux varies from cook to cook.First, about the oil. In the old days, lard was used, but usually vegetable oil is preferred these days. (OK, some people also use peanut oil.) Some will tell you to use equal parts of flour and oil; others will tell you “Non, use more flour than oil.” The flour part is easy – all-purpose flour. Self-rising flour will produce a bubbly mess.

I was taught, at the tender age of 8 years old, to put equal parts of flour and oil into a cold, heavy pot and stir it slowly and constantly over medium heat until the desired color was reached. Then again, some cooks choose to heat the oil a bit before adding the flour and continuing with the cooking. And yet others may prefer heating the pot before adding the oil-flour mixture all at once.

And how long is this roux cooked? My mother preached that it usually took about 30 minutes. She would announce to the household when she was going to be making her roux. She was not to be bothered under any circumstances. You could die at her feet, and she wouldn’t even bat an eye. Armed with a highball (usually bourbon and water), she planted her feet in front of her six-burner stove and slowly stirred the roux until it was just the right color. Ah, and what is the “right” color? Well, for a crab stew, Mama said it was to be the color of peanut butter. A darker roux, she claimed, was a little heavy for delicate seafood. For a chicken-and-sausage gumbo, the roux was darker, like chocolate.

Mama would roll her eyes when she witnessed other cooks “mistreating” a roux, like when people cooked the roux so fast, it almost burned! And if it burned, then it had to be thrown away, and they had to do the whole process all over again. I think Mama was no fool. Stirring the roux slowly over medium heat allowed her sometimes to have a second bourbon and water.

As to completing the cooking of gumbo, it would take days and a book to do so. For example, cooks will debate whether to use stock or broth as opposed to water in their gumbo. They will also endlessly discuss what kinds of seafood go into a seafood gumbo. Shrimp, crabmeat, oysters? Yes, but what about crawfish? No? Fish? It just depends on who you talk to. Should chicken be browned first before adding to the pot, or should you just add the pieces raw? Should you combine seafood with meat, like andouille or tasso? What about fresh pork sausage in gumbo? And what about okra in gumbo? If you make any kind of okra gumbo, do you use a roux or not? Do you use filé powder? When do you add it? Should it be added at the end of the cooking time or offered at the table?

There might even be a discussion as to what kind of rice – long-grain or short-grain – over which to serve the gumbo.

Ah, and then there is the question of what to serve with your gumbo. Potato salad? Baked sweet potatoes? Do you put your potato salad in your gumbo or serve it on the side? Ditto for the sweet potatoes?

Again, it depends on who you’re talking to and where in Acadiana you might find yourself sitting down to eat gumbo. Personally, I prefer potato salad to eat alongside my chicken-and-sausage gumbo, not in it. But sometimes I find myself spooning my potato salad into my seafood gumbo. And now and again, a perfectly baked sweet potato hits a high note with my taste buds when I’m having a thick (almost stew-like) chicken-and-sausage gumbo. The combination of sweet and savory makes me groan with pleasure. Of course, around Opelousas, home of the annual Yambilee Festival, there is no question as to what they like with their gumbo.

And about the potato salad? Well, my mother insisted that potato salad should not be all mashed up. The potatoes had to be cut into chunks; so did the hard-boiled eggs. And never did she use jarred mayonnaise for her salad. She made her mayonnaise from scratch. She even hesitated to add such things as chopped celery or onions, and please do not put sweet pickle relish in the potato salad! (I can hear people screaming, “What?”)

Don’t even get me started on the topic of jambalaya. The locals will discuss (argue) about whether it should be brown – made so by the caramelized onions, chicken and sausage – or red, made so by the addition of tomatoes. I hear the gnashing of teeth across South Louisiana as I write this.

I even got into a heated conversation recently when discussing the appropriate sides to serve with fried fish. Around St. Martinville, my hometown, we serve fried fish with either potato salad or french fries. The people in and around Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes will tell you adamantly that the only things to serve with fried fish are white beans and rice. Huh?

Well, if nothing else, I hope I’ve gotten some of you talking, discussing or arguing about your gumbo, your potato salad or whatever you’re cooking tonight.

Here then are some recipes from my repertoire. And as my mama used to say, “Your gumbo is good, but it’s certainly not my gumbo.”

5 Great Gumbos

Chicken & Andouille Gumbo
Serves 6 to 8
1 hen, about 4 to 5 pounds, cut into serving pieces
Salt and cayenne
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups chopped yellow onions
1 cup chopped green bell peppers
1/2 cup chopped celery
10 cups chicken broth
2 bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon ground thyme
1 pound andouille sausage (or smoked sausage such as kielbasa), cut crosswise
into 1/4-inch slices
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
2 tablespoon finely chopped green onions
Filé powder (optional)

Season the hen generously with salt and cayenne.

In a large, heavy Dutch oven or black cast-iron pot, combine the oil and flour over medium heat. Stirring slowly and constantly, make a medium-dark brown roux, the color of peanut butter (some cooks prefer it the color of chocolate). Add the onions, bell peppers and celery, and cook, stirring often, until they are wilted and lightly golden, about 10 minutes.

Add the chicken broth, and stir to mix. Add the chicken pieces, bay leaves and thyme. Cook, uncovered, for about 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. Add the andouille, and cook for at least another hour or until the chicken is tender.

Remove the bay leaves. Add the parsley and green onions. Ladle the gumbo into deep soup bowls over steamed rice. Pass the filé powder at the table to allow guests to add their own according to taste.

Duck, Andouille & Oyster Gumbo
Serves about 8

If and when the ducks-hunters come in with their limit, make this gumbo, freeze, and pull it out for a dinner during the holidays.

2 mallards, cleaned and cut into serving pieces
2 teaspoons salt
3/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 cup plus 1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups chopped onions
2 cups chopped bell peppers
6 to 8 cups water or chicken stock
1 pound andouille, cut crosswise into
1/2-inch slices
2 dozen oysters, shucked, with their liquor
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh
parsley leaves

Season the duck pieces with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and 1/4 teaspoon of the cayenne. Heat 1/4 cup of the oil in a large, heavy pot (preferably black iron) over medium heat. Add the duck pieces, and brown, stirring often. Remove the duck, and set aside.

To the same pot, add the remaining 1 cup vegetable oil and the flour. Stirring constantly for 20 to 25 minutes, make a dark brown roux. Add the onions and bell peppers, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes or until they are soft.

Add the water or stock (the amount will depend on how thick or thin you like your gumbo). Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to medium-low. Add the duck pieces and the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and 1/2 teaspoon cayenne. Cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, for about 1 1/2 hours.

Add the andouille, and simmer for 30 minutes. Skim off any fat that rises to the surface. Add the oysters and their liquid, and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes or until the edges of the oysters curl. Remove from the heat. Add the parsley, and serve immediately over steamed rice in gumbo bowls.

5 Great Gumbos

SEAFOOD (shrimp, crabmeat & oysters) GUMBO
Serves 8 to 10

*Note: If you can, buy fresh shrimp with shells and heads still intact. If the heads have been removed, not to worry. Peel the shrimp, and use the shells to make shrimp stock. Put the shells (and heads if you have them) in a small stockpot. Add 6 cups of water, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer, uncovered, for about 1 hour. Remove from the heat, strain through a fine sieve, and set aside. If you don’t have shrimp stock, water can be substituted.

1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups chopped yellow onions
1 cup chopped green bell peppers
1 cup chopped celery
3 garlic cloves (peeled)
5 cups shrimp stock or water (or more as needed)
2 bay leaves
Pinch of thyme
Salt, cayenne and hot sauce to taste
1 pound medium-size shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 pound lump crabmeat, picked over for shells and cartilage
2 dozen freshly shucked oysters with the liquor
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves
3 tablespoons chopped green onions (green and white parts)
Filé powder (optional)

Combine the oil and flour in a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Stirring slowly and constantly, make a medium-brown roux the color of peanut butter. Add the onions and bell peppers, and cook, stirring, until the vegetables are wilted and lightly golden, about 5 minutes. Add the celery and garlic cloves. Cook, stirring, for 3 to 4 minutes.

Add the shrimp stock or water, bay leaves, thyme, salt, pepper and hot sauce. Reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer, partially covered, for 45 minutes.  

Add the shrimp and crabmeat, and simmer until the shrimp turn pink, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the oysters and their liquor, and simmer until the edges of the oysters curl, about 3 minutes. Remove and discard the bay leaves. Garnish with the parsley and green onions. Serve the gumbo over rice, and pass additional Tabasco at the table. The filé powder can be passed at the table to allow each guest to season according to taste.

5 Great Gumbos

Turkey Bone Gumbo
Serves 8 to 10

My friend Ronnie Foreman from Lafayette makes this gumbo every Friday after Thanksgiving. He goes around the neighborhood collecting the turkey carcasses to make this delicious gumbo.

3/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups chopped onions
1 cup chopped bell peppers
1/2 cup chopped celery
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 pound smoked sausage, chopped (optional)
1/2 gallon turkey broth (recipe follows)
1 1/2 pounds turkey meat, chopped, plus any reserved meat from the carcass in the broth
Reserved onions and celery from broth
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
2 tablespoons chopped green onions

In a large cast-iron pot or enameled cast-iron Dutch oven, combine the oil and flour. Stirring constantly and slowly for 20 to 25 minutes, make a dark brown roux, the color of chocolate. Add the onions, bell peppers, celery, salt and cayenne. Cook, stirring often, until the vegetables are soft, about 5 minutes.

Add the sausage, and cook for 5 minutes, stirring often.

Add the broth, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer for 45 minutes.

Add the turkey meat and the reserved onions and celery, and cook for 15 minutes. Add the parsley and green onions. Serve in soup bowls with steamed rice.   

makes 1/2 gallon
1 turkey carcass
3 ribs celery, cut into 4-inch pieces
2 medium onions, peeled and quartered
1 gallon of water or enough water to cover the carcass
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
4 bay leaves

Place the carcass in a large stockpot. Add the celery, onions, water, salt, peppercorns and bay leaves. Bring to a boil; reduce the heat to medium; and simmer, uncovered, for 2 hours. Remove from heat.

Skim any oil that has risen to the surface. Strain through a large fine-mesh sieve. Reserve any meat that has fallen off the bones, and pick off any meat that may still remain on the carcass. Reserve the onions and celery.

5 Great Gumbos

Mama’s Gumbo Z’herbes
Serves 10 to 12
1 pound collard or mustard greens (or both)
1 pound spinach
1 pound turnip greens (optional)
1 pound green cabbage leaves, cut into strips
1 large bunch fresh watercress (optional)
1 large bunch flat-leaf parsley
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon ground thyme
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 pound salt meat or ham, cut into small cubes
1 brunch green onions, trimmed and chopped
1 cup chopped onions
1 teaspoon minced garlic

Wash and pat dry all the fresh greens. Put the greens in a large, deep pot, and add enough water to cover. Add the cayenne, black pepper, bay leaves, thyme and allspice. Bring the mixture to a boil, pressing the greens down into the water. Cook until the greens are very tender and falling apart. Drain, and reserve the cooking liquid. You should have 3 to 4 quarts. Set the liquid aside.

Chop the greens, either with a knife or kitchen shears, or pulse them (in batches) in a food processor, but don’t purée.

In a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven, combine the oil and flour over medium heat. Stirring constantly, make a roux the color of peanut butter. Add the salt meat, green onions, onions and garlic. Cook, stirring, until the vegetables soften, about 5 minutes. Add the reserved cooking liquid, and stir to blend. Add the chopped greens, and simmer, partially covered, for about 2 hours. Adjust seasoning to taste.

The gumbo can be served over rice. And don’t forget the French bread. Oh, and I like to serve this with potato salad or baked sweet potatoes!

5 Great Gumbos

Mama’s Potato Salad
Serves about 10

3 to 4 pounds red potatoes, scrubbed
8 hard-boiled eggs, coarsely chopped

1 large egg
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 cup vegetable oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of sugar
Hot sauce

Blend the egg and the lemon juice in a food processor or electric blender for 15 seconds. With the processor or blender running, gradually pour in the oil through the feed tube. The mixture will thicken. Add the salt, pepper, sugar and hot sauce, and pulse to blend. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour before using.

NOTE: Because the mayonnaise is made with a raw egg, it’s best to use within 24 hours.

1/4 cup minced celery
1/4 cup finely chopped green onions
2 tablespoons sweet pickle relish
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

Boil the potatoes in lightly salted water until fork-tender. Drain, and cool. Peel the potatoes, and coarsely chop.

Combine the potatoes and eggs in a large serving bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Add the mayonnaise and whatever condiments you wish, and toss gently (so as not to break up the potatoes) to mix.

There indeed is another potato salad recipe that I do like, and it comes from Eula Mae Dore, who cooked for the McIlhenny family on Avery Island for years. This is her recipe from the book Eula Mae’s Cajun Kitchen, which I co-authored.

Eula Mae’s Potato Salad
Serves about 16

Eula Mae made me laugh one day when she told me she was going to show me how to make potato salad. I assured her that everyone made potato salad, although I did brag a bit on mine, which is made with lemony homemade mayonnaise.

“Perhaps that’s your secret, but I also have mine,” she said. “I like to add a little vinegar to the salad to give a little jolt!”

And indeed her potato salad was delicious.

There are not too many gatherings on the island where it isn’t served. Eula Mae picks potatoes in the gardens on the island when they are available or chooses the best ones at the grocery store. The salad goes a long way when serving a crowd.

5 pounds medium-size red potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters
1 tablespoon salt
1 dozen eggs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon white vinegar
2 cups Eula Mae’s Homemade Mayonnaise (recipe follows)
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon Tabasco
1/4 cup finely chopped sweet pickles
1 rib celery, chopped
1/2 medium-size green bell pepper, chopped

Fill a large, deep pot two-thirds full with cold water, and bring to a boil. Add the salt and potatoes. Cover over medium heat for 7 minutes, and then add the eggs. Continue cooking until the potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes.

Remove the eggs, and drain the potatoes. Peel the eggs, and separate the yolks from the whites. Mash the yolks in a large bowl, and stir in the oil and vinegar. Add the mayonnaise, cayenne and Tabasco.

Dice the potatoes, and add to the mayonnaise mixture along with the pickles, celery and bell pepper. Chop the egg whites, and add to the salad.

2 egg yolks, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon Tabasco
1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
1 3/4 cup vegetable or olive oil

To make it by hand, combine the egg yolks, dry mustard, salt, Tabasco and vinegar in a bowl. Whisk to blend well. Add the oil, about 2 tablespoons at a time, whisking in between each addition, until thick and smooth.

To make it in a blender or food processor, process the egg yolks for about 30 seconds. Add the dry mustard, salt, Tabasco and vinegar. Pulse several times to blend. With the machine running, slowly drizzle in the oil until the mixture thickens. Stir to mix. Refrigerate for 15 minutes before serving.