Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. It's a tiny town. A tiny, tiny town. You could probably take a deep breath once you cross the bridge arriving in town and hold it until you pass through on the other side.
Just the kind of town that reveals the secrets of small town America ~ cornerstones of hospitality and good eats.
On our weekend getaway, we decided to stay out of the hustle and bustle of nearby Lafayette and instead chose the sleepy, nostalgic, quintessential cajun town called Breaux Bridge, or Pont Breaux as the locals say.
It's all about crawfish in this town. In fact, Pont Breaux is the largest producer of crawfish in the world. The early Cajun settlers watched the native American Indians trap for them.
Being poor and hungry, the Cajun settlers learned to adopt this crustacean into their humble diets.
Gumbo is a signature dish of many Cajuns in this area. Everyone has their opinions about what makes the ideal combination of gumbo - chicken and okra, or okra and shrimp, or sausage and okra...oyster...crawfish...
The variations shuffle according to family traditions but everyone agrees that an authentic gumbo starts from a beautifully slow cooked richly browned "roux".
A "roux" is a base of equal parts flour and fat that is stirred and stirred until it turns the perfect color brown...saddle brown...strongly brewed coffee with a touch of cream brown...or a rich milk chocolate brown. This slow cooked "roux" gives the gumbo its distinctive flavor.
In our family, gumbo was the main course every year on Christmas Eve. All of the gumbo plates were turned upside down at the table. As children, we knew and feverishly anticipated what this arrangement meant.
Under each bowl rested a crisp $100 dollar bill. When that kind of treat was underneath, the gumbo was feverishly anticipated so we could lift up the tip of the bowl, slide out the brand new bill and stare at this sight rarely seen.
Breaux Bridge has a quaint B&B called "Maison des Amis". It's just around the corner from the main road on a quiet side street.
If your looking for a 4-star abode, this is not it. However, the absolute charm of the creaking wood floors, mossy green shutters that extend from floor to ceiling, and moody light that filters softly into the dark art filled rooms is enchanting and romantic indeed.
There will be little doubt that one is far from any metropolitan hub. The stillness and quiet of Maison des Amis is captivating, alluring, and intriguing.
A long slanted porch outlines one side of the B&B, leading to the unmanicured and tangled back gardens. I caught my breath when I saw a little kumquat tree sagging under the burgeoning weight of hundreds of tiny orbs of fruit.
I literally skipped down the steps and trotted over to the tree, promptly plucking a ripe kumquat off, closing my eyes dreamily, and popping it into my mouth with sheer anticipation of delight.
P. tried to do the same but after a few seconds, he spit it out. Looking at me with wonder he couldn't understand my love for the overlapping taste of sweet mixed with sour. Then, there is the conflicting texture of tart citrus peel intertwined with sweet juiciness.
We ate some deliciously spiced gumbo while in Breaux Bridge. In addition to that all-important "roux", it's important to point out that the type of sausage used in gumbo is critical.
It just cannot be any type of sausage found in the market. It really should be Andouille sausage. This type of sausage is a heavily smoked spiced pork sausage. It was brought to Louisiana by french immigrants and can be found readily in Louisiana.
Breaux Bridge is not the dream destination for all things perfectly touristy. If you want a destination off the beaten track then this town is keenly laid out for a slow consumption of the cajun culture.
It is a town that introduces itself in layers of mystique and unravels itself upon chance meetings with the local shopkeepers, in tastes of the delicious food, and ...
while hunting in Breaux Bridge's many antique shops!
Breaux Bridge was certainly dressed in its finest for the Mardi Gras celebrations that were well underway. Shop fronts on main street were festively adorned with swaths of purple and green trimmings.
The antique stores lined up one after the other beckoning to be searched for treasures of bygone eras.
My list was starting to form of the treats that I would stir up in my kitchen when I returned home. The more french-derived classic "Galette de Roi" had to be conquered. And it was attempted, indulged and then shared here.
Most importantly, it was time for the annual hulking pot of gumbo on my stovetop. This little town, tucked away in the boot of Louisiana, stirred up my cravings for the scents and tastes of this iconic cajun stew.
Of course, as is with all cajuns who are of the stubborn persuasion (which is the overriding trait of most cajuns) I have my own tweaks and twists to my gumbo.
After making the roux, and then adding in the vegetables, okra, and spices, I keep all of the main ingredients cooked separately until the last 30 minutes.
I roast a chicken. I grill the sausages. I spice up the shrimp ~ all separately. At the last 30 minutes before serving, everything goes into the pot. Whole chicken legs, thighs, and wings are dropped in, chunky slices of sausage, and hulky Louisiana shrimp all slide into the pot.
I prefer adding these main ingredients at the end so there is variation in the gumbo and the distinct individual flavors don't all get diluted in the liquid too much.
And of course, gumbo is one of those soups that just gets better in the following days.
Enjoy mes amis!
**Pleased to learn that my blog has been nominated as one of the choices for "Best Food Photography" for this year's The Kitchn Homies. If you would like, you can vote here.
Roasted Chicken, Andouille Sausage, Okra, and Spicy Shrimp Gumbo
(adapted from the cajun cookbook, 'Talk About Good II')
1 large roasted chicken (I buy mine already roasted)
1 pound large shrimp, peeled (can be rubbed with cajun spices if desired)
1 large onion
1/2 cup chopped celery
1 cup of oil
1 cup of flour
1 (10 ounce) package frozen or fresh sliced okra
1 1/4 tablespoons salt
1/2 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon red pepper
2 bay leaves
1-2 pounds smoked Andouille cajun sausage, spicy
4 chicken bouillon cubes
filé (crushed sassafras leaves used for flavoring when serving) or crushed thyme leaves if you cannot find filé.
**Either roast your own chicken or buy one of the delicious already roasted chickens found in many of the U.S. markets.
Cut up the onions and celery. Make the roux in a heavy black iron skillet as follows:
Heat the oil for 3 minutes on medium-high heat and then add the flour slowly, stirring constantly. Cook on medium-high heat until brown. (Snippet's Note: Be ready...this is a long process. You might be stirring upwards of 45 minutes to get just the right milk chocolate brown color)
Turn heat to low and add the onions and celery and cook until soft. Transfer roux, onions and celery to a large gumbo pot. Add 2 quarts of water and bring to a boil. Add the okra, salt, black pepper and red pepper and chicken bouillon cubes.
Cook 1 hour on simmer; then skim the fat off the top. Cut up the roasted chicken leaving the legs, wings and thighs whole and add them to the pot. Simmer for 30 minutes. Add some parsley and onion tops and cook about 5 minutes.
A few minutes before serving add the sliced sausage and shrimp. Cook until shrimp turn pink. About 5 minutes.
Season with salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper to taste.
Ladle gumbo into individual bowls...adding whole chicken pieces evenly. Typically, gumbo is served with a mound of rice in the middle of the bowl, but we like the rice in a little bowl off to the side.
Sprinkle each bowl with filé (if desired) for flavor. Serve with a loaf of hot french bread. Some cajuns like to sprinkle a bit of tabasco sauce for an added spicy "kick".