From The Catholic Foodie archives I bring to you a delightful conversation with chef and food writer Marcelle Bienvenu. We talk summer cooking with fresh vegetables and fresh Gulf seafood, and I share with you a recipe for Shrimp & Okra Gumbo.
MARCELLE BIENVENU: THE QUEEN OF CAJUN COOKING
Born and raised in St. Martinville, in southwest Louisiana, Marcelle Bienvenu grew up “where good cooking was almost as large an article of faith as the Catholic religion.” As a child her daily life was filled with good food… like “freshly baked sweet potatoes slathered with homemade butter and drizzled with locally-made pure cane syrup”, dark and deliciously thick gumbos made with whatever was in season (from chicken and sausage to freshly-caught seafood from the local waters… to the occasional rabbit or wild duck). She also savored “spicy jambalaya that often contained shrimp, smoked sausage and chunks of tomatoes.”
Professionally, Marcelle started out as a writer. A food writer, to be exact. She wrote for the Times-Picayune of New Orleans and also served as a researcher and consultant toTime-Life Books, contributing to many projects including Foods of the World, American Cooking: Creole and Acadian, and The American Wilderness: The Bayous. Marcelle has also worked with many publications such as Food & Wine, Southern Living, Redbook,The New York Times, Saveur, and a host of local publications.
She may be most well-known locally for a little book she published in 1991 called Who’s Your Mama, Are You Catholic, and Can You Make a Roux? A sequel to that book followed in 1998.
From 1992 to 2005, Marcelle worked on many special projects with Emeril Lagasse, including several cookbooks like Louisiana Real & Rustic, Emeril’s Creole Christmas,Emeril’s TV Dinners, and Every Day’s a Party. She also contributed to the following Emeril cookbooks: Emeril Primetime, From Emeril’s Kitchens, Emeril’s Potluck, andEmeril’s Delmonico: A Restaurant with a Past.
In 2002, Marcelle co-authored Eula Mae’s Cajun Kitchen with Eula Mae Dore. She also co-authored Stir the Pot: The True Story of Cajun Cuisine with Carl Brasseaux and Ryan Brasseaux in 2005. And she is also the author of Cajun Cooking for Beginners and, more recently, No Baloney on My Boat!
In addition to writing about food, Marcelle has had quite a career as a chef. Her professional cooking started in the 1970s when she was hired to work at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. While there Ella Brennan took Marcelle under her wing and taught her the ins and outs of the restaurant business. From 1981 to 1984 she owned and operated her own restaurant in Lafayette, LA called Chez Marcelle.
Marcelle has also worked with Chef Paul Prudhomme at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, and with Emeril Lagasse. Currently, Marcelle teaches culinary arts at the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute on the campus of Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, LA.
Marcelle Bienvenu is one of my early culinary mentors. As I say on the radio show below, I brought one of her cookbooks (Who’s Your Mama, Are You Catholic, and Can You Make a Roux?) into marriage almost 15 years ago. My wife brought another of Marcelle’s books into our marriage: Louisiana Real & Rustic. Both cookbooks are excellent, and Marcelle is always an absolute delight. She is truly a classy southern lady. Listen to our conversation below.
SHRIMP AND OKRA GUMBO
I love me a good gumbo.
As I have said before, I make chicken and andouille gumbo (or turkey!) throughout the year. But seafood gumbo is reserved for special occasions, like Christmas. One reason that we save the seafood gumbo for special occasions is that it is so expensive to make. But now I think I have found a variation of seafood gumbo that I can make more often. It’s a Louisiana favorite: Shrimp & Okra Gumbo. It’s still more expensive than chicken & andouille, but it’s not too expensive. I was able to pick up some fresh Gulf shrimp today for $4.75 / pound. Not bad.
But what makes gumbo a gumbo? Well, as all good cajuns and creoles know, a gumbo always starts with a roux, which is equal parts flour and oil. Roux has two purposes: it colors the gumbo and it thickens it. And since gumbos are always thick and rich, rouxs are oh so important.
But, I have to tell you that making a roux is an act of love. It takes time.
If you ask several different cooks from south Louisiana how long it takes to make a roux, you’ll get answers that range from “two beers” to “two Bloody Marys” to “two sides of a Louis Armstrong album.” Everybody has a different approach. But since it is so easy to burn a roux, you can’t leave it. I used to take the easy road… I’d keep the burner on medium-low. But that took WAY too long. Like four beers too long. And since that’s not good for your health, I had to make a change. Now I make my rouxs at medium-high heat and it usually takes about 15 minutes. A roux for a gumbo has to be the color of dark chocolate. You want to take it to the gates of burndom and then add the “trinity.”
You’ll hear lots of Louisiana cooks talking about the “trinity.” They’re not talking theology. Down here, when it comes to cooking, the trinity means onions, green bell peppers, and celery… The basic ingredients to lots of Cajun dishes.
OK. Gotta state this up front: Okra is slimy.
Some cooks want to “cook the slime out” of the okra before adding it to the gumbo. But, here’s the deal… Okra is an excellent thickener. Even if you try to “cook the slime out” before adding it to the gumbo, it doesn’t matter. Adding it raw is just the same. The “slime” will “cook out” after being added to the gumbo. In this recipe, I do “brown” the okra before adding it to the gumbo (in bacon grease, which is like a gift from heaven!), but that’s just because I wanted to bathe the okra in the delicious goodness of bacon. Everything – and I do mean everything – tastes better with bacon!
- 1 cup canola oil
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 4 or 5 yellow onions, chopped
- 2 green bell peppers, chopped
- 2 stalks of celery, chopped
- 6 cloves of garlic, minced
- 6 strips of bacon (I prefer Applegate Farms)
- 2 lbs frozen okra, cut and thawed
- 2 cans Rotel Diced Tomatoes with Chilis
- 8 cups shrimp stock (can substitute chicken stock)
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 2 teaspoons Kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons Konriko Creole Seasoning (or similar seasoning)
- 2 bay leaves
- 5 lbs medium or large shrimp, peeled and deveined (if the shrimp are too big, you can cut them into chunks)
- 1 cup green onions, chopped (will need extra for individual bowls)
- ½ cup parsley, chopped (will need extra for individual bowls)
- Heat your skillet over medium-high heat.
- Add canola oil and heat until it begins to sizzle.
- Add flour and whisk to incorporate. Continue whisking until the roux reaches the color of dark chocolate. Be careful not to burn the roux.
- Once the roux has reached the desired color, add the onions, bell peppers, celery and garlic. Stir well, and allow to cook down for about five minutes or so. You want the veggies to soften and become translucent.
- Once the veggies have softened and become translucent, remove from heat and set aside.
- Heat a high-sided skillet over medium-high heat.
- Add the bacon and cook until it's crispy.
- Remove the bacon and set aside.
- In the drippings from the bacon add the okra and cook down ("brown") for about 12 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Add Rotel Tomatoes (including the juice)
- In a gumbo (stock) pot add the roux and the stock.
- Heat on medium-high heat.
- Add the okra.
- Stir well to help incorporate all the ingredients.
- Add the wine, bay leaves, red pepper flakes, salt, and Konriko.
- Stir well, and bring to a simmer. Allow the gumbo to simmer for about 20 minutes.
- Reduce the heat to medium low, continuing to allow the gumbo to simmer.
- Taste for seasoning and thickness. Make adjustments as necessary.
- When your rice is made and you are getting close to dinner time, you can add the shrimp. You have to be careful not to overcook the shrimp. They will only need about five minutes of cooking.
- Once the shrimp are cooked, you are ready to eat! Serve gumbo over rice in an bowl. Keep Tabasco or Crystal on hand in case anyone wants to add it to their bowl. Also have chopped parsley and chopped green onions available to add to individual bowls.