“That’s against the law,” Carla Arriola shot back when asked if tomatoes have a place in gumbo. The co-owner of NOLA-retailer Grande Krewe, Arriola also proscribes carrots in gumbo, the thickly textured and potently flavorful soup of the Gulf Coast. Arriola isn’t the only New Orleans wine professional with a strong opinion about this historic dish and its variations. Recently, I questioned six wine retail professionals in gumbo’s capital city, each with a sectarian view about what makes gumbo gumbo and what they like to drink with it.
Turns out, tomatoes and carrots are just the tip of the chicken bone poking through the simmering surface in the stockpot. There are firm opinions on thickening agents—okra vs. filé—as well as deeply held beliefs on how smoky or spicy the dish should be. Then there’s the ideological divide on whether the protein comes in the form of chicken and andouille sausage or seafood. Pre-eminent among these doctrinal debates is the color of the roux, a savory base of flour cooked in oil that governs the whole operation, thickening the broth and underlying the flavors of whatever else may find its way into the pot. Geoff Worden cites the color of the roux as a bone of contention at his NOLA Wine Merchant, where one of his colleagues calls Worden’s own fondness for a dark, rich roux “sacrilege,” preferring a blonder base for gumbo. And, because nothing about this dish is simple, there are even gumbos made without a roux at all—John Keife of Keife & Co., a bayou native, said that his grandfather didn’t make a roux for gumbo (“but did for spaghetti, weirdly”). Instead, his grandfather’s version gained all its thickness from copious amounts of okra.
To dip my spoon into this hearty debate, I went to the source, calling on Donald Link, owner and chef of Herbsaint, a 21-year fixture of the New Orleans dining scene. Nearly every retailer I interviewed had namechecked Link for his gumbo. As a native of South Louisiana, Link holds to the style of gumbo he started making as a teenager. He calls it “just a very straightforward Cajun style of chicken and andouille gumbo,” learned from his grandparents. Herbsaint’s roux is on the darker end of the spectrum, a rich reddish-brown, which it develops over close to an hour of slow cooking at the outset. But Link himself is no partisan: “I go back and forth, which [style]’s my favorite,” he says, “but I like ’em all.”
“There are so many variations for a dish that has very similar ingredients,” says Link, adding “I find it fascinating how vastly different they can be.
“There are two basic things you need for a good gumbo,” he believes. “One is a really good stock, and the other is a good roux, and then being able to keep those things proportionate.” He finds that the balance of stock to roux is crucial for retaining the density of flavor developed in the roux without the gumbo ending up oily; the right ratio causes the oil to rise to the top for easy skimming. “I want to say 5:1. It’s been a while since I measured it. I still can’t measure gumbo when I cook it, can’t follow my own recipe.” But you can—Chef was kind enough to share the recipe (below).
Obviously, the variations on a theme that collectively are gumbo call for different qualities in an accompanying wine. Each of the retailers I consulted gave two recommendations for wines under $30 to pair with their favorite style of gumbo and then they sent a bottle of their top choice along to Herbsaint, where everyone got to try all six with Chef Link’s bowl. This gave an advantage to the wines submitted by those folks whose favorite style of gumbo is similar to Herbsaint’s, but several participants noted that every wine brought something to the table. To conduct the tasting as safely as possible, each retailer tasted alone at different times throughout the day, and the Herbsaint staff managed the blind-tasting set-up for everyone.
Prytania Wine & Spirits
1300 Arabella St.
Brewer-Clifton 2018 Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay $28
Morgan Fouss is the buyer for Langenstein’s Supermarkets, the four-location NOLA group planning to celebrate its centennial next year. Prytania is Langenstein’s fine-wine arm in the Uptown/Audubon neighborhood featuring 1,500 selections. “For me, what makes a gumbo is a rich, dark roux—and we’re talking chocolate-colored,” a taste Fouss developed working at New Orleans mainstay K. Paul’s when the Ohio native first moved to the city seven years ago. “Some people who are not as familiar with Cajun cooking would say it’s burnt.” When it comes to wine and gumbo, “it’s pretty much always domestic wines. A bolder New World wine [works] because it has to match the intensity of the gumbo.” She likes Brewer-Clifton chardonnay for the pairing “because it’s big, and it’s rich, and it’s bold, and the oak treatment doesn’t overpower the wine. With the gumbo it just blends perfectly together because they actually play rather than fight.”
Tasting the Brewer-Clifton with Herbsaint’s gumbo, Darrell Greiwe was enthusiastic: “That’s a really cool pairing. It elevates the green onion and green herbal of the gumbo, the carrot-top herbiness, and it also brings out a sort of acacia note in the wine that makes me more confident that this is chardonnay. The creaminess of the wine with the texture of the gumbo—they both elevate. A classic case of a more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts pairing.”
NOLA Wine Merchant
5601C Magazine St.
Jean-Claude Lapalu 2019 Beaujolais-Villages VV $27
“There’s a lot of concentrated richness and complexity in that dish, and the wine’s got to stand up to it. More than anything else, I don’t want oak in it. Complement lighter and more subtle dishes and contrast more intense dishes is always a rule of thumb for me. [For a red with gumbo], I don’t want tannins. Beaujolais with a little oomph to them, or juicy Rhônes; if you know you’ve got something that is really, really, dark and rich and spicy, you can even go as far as zinfandel.”
He says the Lapalu is big for gamay. “The fruit just leaps out of the glass: slight hint of that natty earth note, but just pure wild fruit, a big, juicy, plumper, darker, fuller expression of Beaujolais. It’s just silky smooth from the moment you open the bottle.”
At Herbsaint, Fouss found that “[the gumbo] brings out the bigger fruit flavors in the wine. Both the wine and the gumbo are complemented at the exact same time. The gumbo tastes better with the wine, and the wine tastes better with the gumbo.”
In fact, this was the most universally liked pairing—yet the tasters appreciated it for different reasons. Greiwe found the pairing “symbiotic and harmonious: the dish and the wine elevate each other more than any of the other pairings. The fruit pushes the gumbo to emulsify and to show as one thing; the gumbo comes together as a monolithic thing with it.” Later, Arriola remarked, “Once I taste it after the gumbo, all the spice—everything that went into making that roux—just exploded in my mouth. I taste everything that was in the base of that gumbo.”
3500 Magazine St.
Heger 2016 Pinot Noir Baden $22
Originally from St. Louis, Darrell Greiwe came to New Orleans in 2014, after stints in New York and Chicago. He founded Spirit Wine two years later, with a focus on natural wines. For gumbo, he avoids tannins, “because this is not a soup, right—it’s a meal, and everything’s in there, and there are going to be tannins in there. So, let the food have that spot, and drink a light wine. I think a lot of people go for aromatic whites here, but if you can get a red and avoid tannins, that’s the way to go. Low alcohol.” He chose the Heger pinot noir for its texture: “The silkiness of it mirrors and would not get in the way of the silkiness of a good gumbo. And it’s got a lot of pepper to it. The depth is mostly in the minerality: It’s got that limestone echo, like when a wine is cavernous but not empty.”
This pairing received mixed reviews alongside Herbsaint’s gumbo with its dark roux. “The spice in the gumbo is kind of smacking it upside the head,” said Jim Yonkus. And Fouss agreed. “As far as the wine and the gumbo, the gumbo completely overpowers the wine,” she said. Meanwhile, Worden enjoyed this pairing: “Delicate pinot noir kind of fruit, rose petals, and a little bit of earth which with the minerality on the back entwines well with the gumbo. I think the gumbo overwhelms it to a point, but I think it’s a pretty good match.”
2305 Decatur St.
Ovum 2020 Oregon Big Salt $20
Carla Arriola is one of four founding partners of Grande Krewe, a Marigny retail shop they opened on Bastille Day in 2015; they now feature 1,500 selections. “For gumbo, it’s definitely all about the roux,” she says. “And a darker one, with more body. It showcases the spices and seasonings. So, I’m looking for something that’s not going to try to be too big on its own next to all of that.” That led Arriola to recommend Ovum’s Big Salt white, a riesling-gewurztraminer-pinot blanc-early muscat blend, a crisp, lean, mineral-tinged wine. “I don’t want to compete against the flavor complexity in the gumbo. The Big Salt is party-pleasing. Not too dry, not too sweet. It won’t walk over the gumbo—it will complement all the different proteins, whether it be shrimp, crab, etc. You don’t want anything to give you a funny taste with all you have going on in the blast of that gumbo.”
John Keife, who tends to prefer beer with gumbo, found the Big Salt played “crisp and beer-like” with the dish at Herbsaint. “It just cleanses the palate.” For Greiwe the Ovum was “playing against type. It’s strengthening the gumbo even if the wine is coming up a little bit shy. It’s really accentuating the smoke of the gumbo—one of those pairings that makes you want to drink more of the wine.”
The Independent Caveau NOLA
1226 S. White St.
Clos de la Roilette 2019 Fleurie $25
Jim Yonkus was schooled in gumbo from afar, by a co-worker in Nashville who hailed from NOLA’s Mid-City neighborhood and earned the nickname Rouxstir for his gumbo prowess. After Yonkus followed a job offer to New Orleans 30 years ago, he later went on to found The Independent Caveau in Zion City in 2019. For gumbo, he says, “The warm-weather aspect of where we are makes me want to say rosé, especially cabernet franc rosé. Or, if I’m going to do a red, something with a lot of minerality and good acid to balance the equation.” His selection of the Fleurie was based on the wine’s combination of freshness and richness. “I want something that’s really fresh-fruited but also dense and rich at the same time.”
For Worden, the Fleurie was his favorite pairing among the six wines with Herbsaint’s gumbo. “It’s a little less aromatic, a little less forward [than the other Beaujolais],” he found, “but that back end really stands up. It’s that finish that really makes it work with the gumbo. More persistent, more length.”
Greiwe thought the combination turned too salty—“the minerality pushes the salt in the gumbo,” he said, while Fouss liked how the wine cleaned the palate. “It’s a pretty wine on its own,” she said, “but with the gumbo it just doesn’t have the bigger characteristics to hold up.”
Keife & Co.
801 Howard Ave.
Rolly Gassmann 2017 Alsace Pinot Blanc $21
John Keife opened his Central Business District shop in 2012 with 3,000 selections, mainly European. He grew up in south Louisiana, where gumbo is made with seafood, calling for a lighter roux, a style he prefers on warmer days. But he also enjoys a hearty chicken-andouille gumbo in colder weather. Either way, “Beer is my number one go-to , I’m not going to lie.” But for this project, he went with a white from Alsace, saying, “I thought it was cool because it has a little residual sugar—you’ve got the spice and all the smokiness and the meat.” Drawing a parallel to smoky sausages in Alsace, he added, “smoky sausage with off-dry Pinot Blanc is a nice contrast.”
And it worked for our tasters at Herbsaint. It was the top choice in the lineup for Arriola: “The gumbo brings out a bit of spiciness in the wine. Which is what you want, because it’s also highlighting the spice in the gumbo.”
Worden also enjoyed it, saying, “I like the sweetness with the smoky gumbo. I wasn’t sure how that was going to play, but it’s a surprisingly good match—there’s the soft textural feel of the wine to offset the spice.”
“That pairing’s fun,” said Greiwe. “The wine and gumbo shout each other down on one level and open a new pathway in another way. The sweetness completely clears the smoke off your palate. They’re kind of yin and yang, they’re not even trying to work together. At old-school NOLA restaurants, that’s how all the pairings work, you just go for maximum pleasure and don’t worry about how they go together.”
Fried Chicken and Andouille Gumbo
Serves 10 to 12
From Donald Link
Where I grew up in Louisiana, there were only two kinds of gumbo: chicken and sausage, and seafood. I love both, of course, but this recipe in particular holds a special place because it’s similar to my granny’s. Unabashedly rustic, this gumbo has chicken bones and skin in the pot, two ingredients essential for depth and flavor (trust me on this, I’ve tried leaving them out). Frying the chicken first seasons the oil for making the roux, adding another layer of flavor.
The choice of sausage is important because the gumbo takes on its character. I use spicy andouille sausage or another smoked sausage as long as it isn’t overly smoky. You can use any sausage that you like, but you’ll want to adjust the seasonings accordingly (be sure to taste it before adding it to your gumbo). —Chef Link
- 1 (3-4 pound) chicken
- 2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 & 1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 & 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 medium onion cut into small dice
- 1 poblano chile stemmed, seeded and cut into small dice
- 1 green bell pepper cored, seeded, and cut into small dice
- 1 jalapeño pepper stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
- 3 cloves garlic minced
- 1 tbsp salt
- 1 & 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
- 1 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1 & 1/2 tsp chili powder
- 1 tsp ground white pepper
- 1 tsp paprika
- 1 & 1/2 tsp filé powder
- 3 quarts chicken broth
- 1 lb andouille sausage
- 3 cups okra (about 1 pound), in half-inch slices
- Cut the chicken into eight pieces with the skin on. Cut thebreast meat from the bones and chop into 2-inch pieces. Lay the chicken on aplate or sheet pan and season evenly on both sides with salt and pepper. Dustwith flour and shake off excess.
- Heat 1¼ cups of the oil in a large cast-iron skillet to 350°F over medium-high heat (a pinch of flour should sizzle in the oil when it’s ready). Fry the chicken in batches so as not to overcrowd the pan, about 3 minutes on each side, until light golden (the chicken does not need to cook all the way through; it just needs to color). Transfer the chicken to a plate lined with paper towels.
- Add the flour to the oil and stir gently with a whisk, preferably one with a long handle (see Note). Leave the heat on medium-high for the first 10 minutes. As the roux starts to darken, lower the heat in increments. When the roux reaches a light brown color, reduce the heat to low and continue cooking until the roux takes on a smooth dark brown color, about 40 minutes total.
- With a wooden spoon, carefully and slowly stir the onion, celery, peppers, garlic, salt, black pepper, cayenne, chili powder, white pepper, paprika, and filé powder into the roux. (Don’t use the whisk because the roux will be very thick at this point.) Be careful when adding the vegetables to the roux because it will create a burst of steam. Allow the roux to cool briefly.
- Transfer the roux to a large soup pot. Heat the roux over medium-high heat, stir in the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Whisk the stock frequently as it comes to a boil—to prevent the roux from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Reduce heat to low and simmer for about 30 minutes. Every now and then, skim off the oil that rises to the surface; a good bit will float to the top as the soup cooks.
- Add the chicken and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes. Add the sausage and simmer very slowly for about1 hour, skimming all the while, until the chicken falls away from the bones. Taste the stock. If it still has a strong roux flavor, add a few more cups of stock or water.
- Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the okra and sauté, stirring or flipping the okra in the skillet, for about 8 minutes until it’s lightly browned and the gooey slime has cooked out.
- Add the okra to the gumbo and simmer an additional 15 minutes.
- The gumbo is finished when there is no more oil rising to the top. As with all soups and stews, gumbo is always better the second day, so you’ll be happy to have plenty of leftovers.
This story appears in the print issue
of June 2021.
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