Every so often my husband, who was born and reared in Mobile, Ala., gets a hankering for gumbo, and I have to make this seafood stew using his mother's recipe. By virtue of its location on the Gulf of Mexico, Mobile is richly blessed with seafood, which the locals eat almost daily. My mother-in-law made crab gumbo as frequently as my own mother, who kept house in the Midwest, made beef and vegetable soup.
Using the basic proportions of my mother-in-law's recipe (she claimed to have gotten her recipe directly from a professional fisherman on Mobile Bay), I have microwaved many types of gumbo. Usually, we use crab or surimi --the imitation seafood made from whitefish cooked, colored and shaped to look like crab. At my store, surimi is sold at the fresh seafood counter as "crab delights" and costs much less than fresh crab. You can also use shrimp or other seafood to add protein to your gumbo. Or you can make do like the Cajuns do by using cooked chicken, ham or even sausage.
My mother-in-law always used okra in her gumbo. Okra has become more popular in many parts of the country and can be found fresh, in either smooth or ridged varieties, during the summer months. To me, fresh okra has a more delicate flavor and greater thickening power than the canned or frozen variety. In the gumbo recipe that follows I found that the more fresh okra you add, the more water is necessary to thin the stew after it is cooked.
Start With a Roux
Although she didn't know it, my mother-in-law always started with what is called a roux. She cooked butter and flour together for several minutes before adding the vegetables and crab meat. Some of today's gumbos start with an oil-based roux, which can be cooked to a dark-enough stage to impart an almost burned flavor to the stew. Either the butter or the oil roux may be used with the recipe that follows. However, the oil roux gets so hot during its browning process that you must microwave it in glass or Pyroceram, not plastic.
Although gumbo has many ingredients, it's not difficult to make if you think of its three distinctive steps: making the roux, cooking the vegetables and adding the seasonings and meat. By interchanging a few ingredients, you can tailor the gumbo to your own tastes. The recipe that follows makes a lot of gumbo. That's great because it mellows in flavor as it sits and can be stored in the refrigerator up to three days. Reheat in the microwave, of course.
Because of the volume of gumbo in the following recipe, you need a casserole or bowl with at least a four-quart capacity. If your only large container is of microwave-safe plastic, you can either start with the butter roux (butter browns more quickly at lower temperatures than oil) or you can make an oil-based roux in a smaller glass or Pyroceram casserole and combine it after cooking with the vegetables in the larger casserole. Be sure to use potholders. And remember, no matter how long you cook the stew, and no matter how thick it gets, it will never stick and burn on the dish. That's one of the pleasures of microwaving.
MOBILE BAY GUMBO
1/4 cup butter or oil
1/4 cup flour
4 cups chopped tomatoes
2 cups chopped green peppers
3 cups chopped white onions
3 cups sliced fresh okra
3 cups sliced celery
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon minced fresh garlic
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1 cup water
1 1/2 pounds uncooked crab meat or chopped surimi
Place butter and flour in 4- to 5-quart microwave-safe casserole (glass or Pyroceram if using oil). Microwave at HIGH (100% power) 3 to 5 minutes for butter roux, until butter has lightly browned, then stir to mix with flour. For oil roux, microwave at HIGH 6 to 9 minutes, stirring every 2 minutes, until flour has separated, mixture has become gritty and is very dark brown.
To roux, separately add tomatoes, green peppers, onions, okra and celery, stirring to coat pieces with roux. (Coating vegetable pieces with hot roux helps to soften them so they fit more compactly in dish.)
When all vegetables have been added and mixed, cover casserole with lid or plastic wrap and microwave at HIGH 10 to 14 minutes, stirring after 5 minutes, until vegetables are soft. Okra will seem sticky when stirred.
Add nutmeg, garlic, salt and peppers. Add water and stir well. Stir in crab. Re-cover and microwave at MEDIUM-HIGH (70% power) 25 to 35 minutes until mixture has cooked down and is heated throughout. (If using uncooked crab, check that it's cooked throughout gumbo, surimi is precooked and needs only to be reheated.) If gumbo is too thick, thin with 1/2 to 1 cup water, if desired. Serve gumbo over rice in large individual soup bowls with crackers. Makes 8 to 10 servings.
Note: Substitute 2 cups each cooked chicken and cooked ham (1 1/2 to 2 pounds total) for seafood. For very Southern flavor, double amount of okra, omit celery and add 2 cups water.