Anatomy of a Classic

Duck and Oyster Gumbo

Serves 8 – 10

Louisiana chef John Besh shares his favorite dish of the season

photo: Chris Granger


New Orleans has been good to chef John Besh, whose flourishing restaurant group doubled in size despite Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. And Besh, who grew up in Louisiana, has always returned the favor.

Following Katrina, when frying pans were as integral as hammers in getting the city running, Besh mobilized his employees—after rowing through the flooded streets to track down many of them—and fed thousands of workers in the decimated St. Bernard Parish. After Hurricane Gustav, the chef—assisted by only nine others from his workforce—made lunch for twenty thousand people a day stranded without food. “New Orleans has always been and will always be an incredible place to cook,” Besh says. “Food has more substance in New Orleans, more cultural significance because we have the only indigenous urban cuisine in the country.”

Busy as Besh is with four restaurants under his command (Restaurant August, Besh Steak, Lüke, and La Provence), when duck season rolls around, the avid hunter has one thing on his mind: gumbo. In the rich mythology of American regional food, gumbo resides in the domain of New Orleans, and the roots run deep. The cultures that settled the New Orleans area were dramatically different than in other American port cities, with little Anglican influence. “No matter where in the world our early settlers came from—France, Spain, Senegal, Haiti—and whether free or enslaved, they assimilated into the Creole culture, embracing everything from language to cooking,” Besh says. “That’s why our famous simple dishes like gumbo—the West African word for okra—have so many ingredients. Every culture stirred the Creole pot, adding a bit of its own.”

Depending on who’s in the kitchen, NOLA gumbo can contain chicken, rabbit, turtle, sausage, shrimp, crabmeat, duck, or oysters. In the western part of the state, where ingredients are more humble and one bird is sometimes used to feed many, gumbo is thinner—the consistency of chicken soup—and served with a side of egg-rich potato salad, scooped into each bowl to serve as a thickener. “In any case, it’s a soulful, sustaining dish,” Besh says.

When the chef and his friends head down to their camp in Cameron Parish each winter, duck hunting may be the reason, but gumbo is the sport. “If we’re not competing with each other over it, we’re cooking it together,” Besh says. There’s always a stop at Black’s Oyster Bar in Abbeville for fresh shucked oysters, ready to drop into the pot at the last moment. Then it’s gun to duck; duck to gumbo.

But first comes the very soul of the gumbo: its roux. Born of a classical French culinary technique, roux is a cooked mixture of fat and flour used to thicken a sauce. In Cajun country, a roux might be cooked until it becomes a dark chocolatey brown, developing a smoky, nutty flavor that lends a distinctive undercurrent to the gumbo. The guys gather around the pot, a crawfish boiler suspended over a propane burner on the cabin’s porch. But since a roux is impossible to taste while it’s cooking—way too hot—there’s always some debating about when it’s done. Here’s where experience comes in. The mix for Besh’s gumbo takes about an hour to make, or in the words of his friend Blake, it’s a “three-beer roux.” Budweiser, Budweiser, Budweiser, and you’re good to go.


Ingredients

    • 2 wild ducks (2 1/2 to 3 lbs. each), quartered

    • Salt and pepper

    • 2 tbsp. herbes de Provence

    • 1 cup rendered duck fat or lard (or vegetable oil if you must)

    • 1 cup all-purpose flour

    • 2 onions, diced

    • 2 stalks celery, chopped

    • 1 lb. andouille sausage, diced

    • 1/2 lb. smoked pork sausage, chopped

    • 1 tbsp. minced garlic

    • 3 qts. chicken or duck stock

    • 2 cups oyster liquor

    • 1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce

    • 2 tbsp. Creole seasoning

    • 2 bay leaves

    • 2 cups okra, diced (frozen works fine)

    • 3 cups oysters

    • Tabasco sauce

    • 1 quart cooked jasmine rice

    • 1/2 cup chopped green onion


Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 450°F.

  2. Liberally season the ducks with salt, pepper, and herbes de Provence. Slowly roast in preheated oven until most of the fat has rendered out and the skin is nice and crispy, about 2 hours. Remove the ducks from the oven, and reserve the fat. Once cool, pick all the meat and skin from the ducks, and cut into roughly 1½-inch pieces. Reserve.

  3. To make the roux, heat 1 cup of reserved duck fat (or lard) in a pot over medium heat, add the flour, and allow it to slowly cook to a light golden brown. This should take about ½ hour. Adjust heat if necessary (if cooking too fast) and allow the roux to further brown, stirring often, until it resembles the color of milk chocolate. This should take approximately another 5 minutes. Stir in the onions, and cook until the roux takes on a deep dark chocolate color. This should take another 5 to 10 minutes. Add the duck, celery, sausages, and garlic, and cook to combine for 5 minutes, stirring frequently.

  4. Add stock, oyster liquor, Worcestershire, Creole seasoning, bay leaves, and okra, and bring mixture to a boil. Lower heat and simmer until flavors marry, occasionally skimming the fat that rises to the top, about 1½ hours.

  5. Add the oysters, and continue to simmer for another 5 minutes. Season the gumbo to taste with salt, pepper, and Tabasco sauce. Serve over rice in a large flat soup bowl, and garnish with chopped green onions.

Recipe from chef John Besh of New Orleans, Louisiana


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