Church services, drop-in parties and hearty gumbos are Christmas Eve traditions for many south Louisiana families. While our city’s French Creole settlers broke their fast after midnight Mass in a celebration known as Réveillon, schedules now adhere to earlier gatherings to accommodate Santa.
Réveillon fare in the 1800s included daube glacé, grits and grillades, gumbos, breakfast items and sweets, and libations such as eggnog and cherry bounce. Some traditions continue today in restaurants serving elaborate Réveillon menus during December, as well as at-home parties where gumbo, turtle soup and grillades still connect.
When it comes to gumbo, you’ve got choices from a simple and delicious shrimp and okra, to a robust chicken and smoked sausage. You could knock yourself out with the rice-stuffed quails in “Death by Gumbo.” In that case, look for recipes from the late chef Chris Kerageorgiou and chef John Folse.
My choice this year is a duck, andouille, oyster gumbo that will have special appeal for families of hunters since duck season is in. But don’t let that stop you. There’s no hunter in my family. Domestic ducks are available frozen in most grocery stores, and they are – well, almost – just as good. They run five to seven pounds, and if you are feeding a crowd, buy two and double the recipe.
It just so happens oysters are in season as well. You don’t have to use them if someone in the family doesn’t like them, but their presence is priceless in a turkey, chicken, duck or goose gumbo.
Gumbo may be the most representative of our settlers than any other single dish. Common ingredients and their contributors are: a roux, French; okra, African; sausage, German; a variety of spices, Caribbean; file, native American; and rice combining with seafood, Spanish.
And, so it is with our holiday tables being different from others around the nation. Like the rest of New Orleans, our food is unique. Fortunately, it is the best, we think, but we’re not being snobby. It’s just the way it is.
Filé powder, yes or no? Ground sassafras, introduced to cooking by Native Americans, is an ingredient used by some cooks to thicken and flavor gumbo. They do not agree on when to use it, however. Some add it to gumbo while cooking. Others say that makes the gumbo ropey and it should be added after cooking. Or placed on the table for diners to add their own. Even rewarming with filé has been cautionary. But many cooks leave it out altogether and let the roux do the thickening.
Duck, Andouille, Oyster Gumbo
1 5-to7-pound domestic duck such as frozen Maple Leaf, or several smaller wild ducks, dressed
Salt, cayenne pepper and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound andouille sausage
2 dozen oysters with their liquor
3 tablespoons plus 1 cup vegetable oil, divided
1 cup all-purpose flour
3 large onions, divided
1 bunch green onions, chopped, white and green parts separated
1 bell pepper, chopped
4 stalks celery, divided
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 quarts duck or chicken stock
3 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/3 cup chopped flat-leaf Italian parsley
1. Rinse and dry duck. Save neck and gizzard. Discard liver or use for other purpose. Sprinkle with salt and peppers all over and in the cavity. If using small wild ducks leave whole and season. Heat 3 tablespoons oil in the bottom of a large heavy pot and brown on all sides. Remove to a plate and cool. Cut sausage into ¼ inch slices and brown. Strain oysters, saving their liquor, and check each oyster for shell.
2. When duck or ducks are cool enough to handle, debone them, placing all bones and skin in another large pot with 8 cups of water, 1 quartered onion and 2 stems of the celery, roughly cut. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer over medium-low heat for one hour. Cut duck meat into bite-size pieces. Remove as much fat from the stock as possible. Chop remaining 2 onions and 2 stalks of celery.
3. In the same pot, cleaned if necessary, heat remaining 1 cup of oil over high heat and stir in flour. After a few minutes, reduce heat to medium-high and eventually medium, stirring constantly, until mixture becomes a dark brown roux. Add white onions, bell pepper and celery and simmer over low heat until wilted. Stir in garlic and simmer 1 more minute. Gradually stir in stock. Add black and cayenne peppers, bay and thyme. Do not salt until oysters are added later. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 45 minutes or until duck is tender.
4. Skim fat off top of gumbo. Add oysters and parsley and continue simmering until oysters curl. Remove from heat. Taste and add salt if needed. Serve in bowls over rice. Serves 8 as main dish or 15 in small cups for a party.