One of my favorite cities in the world is New Orleans. My brother went to school in New Orleans, and once he introduced my family to the city there was no turning back. There is a rich culture in this city that you can see in the festivals (like Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest), the music, and most importantly, the food.
If you have ever been to New Orleans, you understand what I’m talking about- the food there is out of this world. They’re known for their po’ boys (sandwiches with fried meat), bananas foster, étouffée (which is a type of rich shellfish stew that goes over rice and is one of my absolute favorites), and of course, gumbo.
On my first trip to New Orleans, my mom signed herself, my sister and I up to take a cooking class together. It was such a great experience to learn how to cook these traditional southern foods. We made gumbo, bread pudding, and jambalaya, but the recipe that really stuck with me was the gumbo.
Since then, my family will have a New Orleans feast at least once a year. We usually have our feast on Fat Tuesday, which is the day before Ash Wednesday. In Christian faith, people tend to have big feasts on this day since it’s right before Lent begins. They indulge in all of the food they won’t be able to enjoy once they begin fasting.
This is probably one of my favorite nights with my family, and it’s the best dinner we have all year. It takes a full day, sometimes two to prepare these dishes so there is a lot of bonding time in the kitchen. My mom and I usually make shrimp étouffée, gumbo, jambalaya, corn bread, crab and corn chowder, and red beans and rice. I’ve helped my mom with most of these dishes, but the gumbo is my specialty. When I make it, I work alone.
Part of the reason why gumbo is so delicious is probably because the base is made with a roux, which is equal parts flour and fat. You may have heard of a roux if you’ve ever attempted to make your own homemade macaroni and cheese. My recipe for gumbo calls for oil and flour, but you can also make a roux using butter or margarine.
To lighten this recipe up, I decided to do equal parts of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Light and whole wheat flour. By doing this, you can cut out a lot of fat and calories. Most New Orleans dishes start with a roux, so you can apply this tip to any of those dishes as well.
The instructor of our cooking class said that if you were to open a beer when you start your roux, by the time you were done drinking it, your roux should be about the right color. The darker the roux, the richer the flavor, but just be careful to not let it burn. You’ll need to stir the roux constantly!
You can use whatever kind of meat you’d like in gumbo, and the best part about this recipe is that you can customize it based on your own preferences with ease! Since I usually make gumbo in such large portions, I like to make sure I can feed this to everyone. In my experience there always seems to be someone in the crowd that doesn’t like seafood, so I personally like to use shredded chicken and Andouille sausage.
Now, if you’re planning on having a whole feast like the one I mentioned above, you’ll need a TON of green bell peppers, celery, and onions. This is what the natives of New Orleans refer to as “the trinity,” and you will find it in almost every recipe. In our feast, at least 3 of the dishes needed the trinity, which is what made me invest in a kitchen gadget that dices everything. It definitely helps cut down on time (and tears from cutting onions). If you really want to cut corners and save some time, you can use a package or two of frozen onion and pepper mix.
There are also a couple of cheats and tricks that I’ve learned for the chicken and the Andouille part of the recipe. I was taught to roast an entire chicken and use that in the gumbo. I found that it’s way easier to buy a rotisserie chicken from the store that’s already cooked and ready to debone. If your store doesn’t sell rotisserie chicken, you can do what I’m doing today. I threw some chicken breast in the slow cooker with some Cajun seasoning and a little water. After 4-6 hours, it should be good to shred.
As for the Andouille, I get mine at Trader Joe’s. They sell smoked Andouille chicken sausage, which is much lighter than the traditional kind. You can also use any sort of spicy sausage in its place if you can’t find Andouille near you.
The last tip I have is about the seasoning. I could easily put this seasoning on everything I eat, it’s that good. Unless you make food from this region already, you probably don’t have a Creole/Cajun/New Orleans seasoning. The legit kind that is really expensive and impossible to find, unless you’re a NOLA local.
Unfortunately, I work on a budget these days, however, I was able to find a few alternatives that I’m happy with. The Dollar Tree- yes, I get my spices from a dollar store- sells a New Orleans seasoning that’s pretty good, and once upon a time they also had a Creole seasoning which is what I ended up using this time around. You can also find dried garlic flakes and onion flakes there, which I usually throw into this recipe. They’re great for soups, stews, and the slow cooker.
If you don’t already buy your spices at The Dollar Tree, I'd recommend it. When I first moved out of my parents’ house, my dad passed on this piece of wisdom. At a regular grocery store, spices are $3-$6 depending on what it is. You can buy the same exact thing, usually in a bigger size, for just a dollar! You’re welcome.
Anyway, onto the recipe!
Lightened New Orleans Gumbo
10-12 oz chicken, shredded
2 links of Trader Joe’s Smoked Andouille Chicken Sausage
1/3 cup whole wheat flour
1/3 cup I Can’t Believe It’s Not Water Light 30% Vegetable Oil Spread
1 bunch of celery
2 green bell peppers
1 large yellow onion
2 cloves of garlic, minced (or dried garlic flakes)
4 cups fat-free chicken broth
2 bunches of scallions
Creole/Cajun/New Orleans seasoning (to taste)
Salt & pepper (to taste)
Water (as needed)
1) Start by dicing the peppers, celery, and onions (feel free to put the celery and peppers in the same bowl, but keep the onions separate). Mince the garlic cloves.
2) Make the roux by melting the butter in a large pot, then adding a little bit of flour at a time. If the mixture begins to just look like dough, you can add water to thin it out (I added about 1/3 cup at a time when needed to keep it smooth). Stir CONSTANTLY for 8-10 minutes to prevent burning.
3) Add the peppers and celery to the roux and mix well.
4) After a few minutes, add the onions and garlic, stirring on occasion to prevent burning.
5) Season with salt and pepper.
6) While the vegetables are cooking, dice up the sausage links.
7) Spray a pan with cooking spray and heat.
8) Add the sausage to the pan for a few minutes to brown.
9) Add the shredded chicken, and season with salt and pepper.
10) Cook together for a few more minutes, then add to the pot with the vegetables and mix well.
11) Add the four cups of fat-free chicken broth, then mix and let simmer for 15-30 minutes. Continue to mix on occasion to prevent burning on the bottom.
12) When you feel that the gumbo is thick enough, stir in creole seasoning (to taste) and scallions (I added 2 handfuls of scallions), then mix thoroughly.
Serve over rice, adding some more scallions on top if you’d like.
So how did the lightened version compare to the original? Personally, I couldn’t tell the difference! All of the bold flavors that I love so much are still there, and I think this version of the meal would make my family proud.
This feast is comforting, hearty, and rich with a ton of flavor and a bit of a kick from the seasonings. Seeing people experience these flavors for the first time is priceless! It’s also the type of meal that even the most inexperienced cooks could probably make. This is perfect for the chilly fall and winter weather that we’re going to be experiencing soon. Not only does it warm me up, but it brings me back to the days when I would make this with my mom.
The amount of time and effort put into this feast is totally worth it, especially if you invite people over who have never had such rich food. Don’t worry though, if you’re just making the gumbo, there are plenty of shortcuts you can take, and you can technically make it in 30-45 minutes once you know what you’re doing.
What’s even better? Gumbo freezes well, so it’s easy to make a big vat of it and freeze portions so it’s ready to go!
What comfort foods bring your whole family together?
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