When it comes to good gumbo, coastal Texans stir the pot with advice and savory secrets
Dark or light roux? Okra or not? Inevitably, the topic of gumbo stirs up spicy culinary debates. But cooks on the upper Texas coast can agree on this: Good gumbo takes patience and skill. And most importantly, it brings families and friends together at the table.
Coast Monthly coaxed tips, secrets and even some recipes from some of the most popular island and mainland purveyors of gumbo.
CONCETTA MACEO-SIMS, MACEO SPICE & IMPORT CO.
The Cajun-style gumbo served at Maceo Spice & Import Co., 2706 Market St. in Galveston, is a daily staple, consumed by devoted fans who love its chunky pieces of seafood and spicy flavors. Known as the Maceo family recipe, the gumbo’s ingredients are a guarded secret, known only to owner Ronnie Maceo. But every now and then, Maceo’s daughter, Concetta Maceo-Sims, gets a hankering to make her mother’s Creole-style recipe she calls Wendy’s New Orleans-Style Gumbo.
“It takes two days to make, and is quite a process, but the outcome is nutty, sweet, thick and delicious,” she said.
Although Cajun and Creole cuisines are both native to Louisiana, the main difference between the two is that Creole typically features tomatoes or tomato-based sauces while Cajun gumbo doesn’t. Thanks to Emeril Lagasse, the pioneer of Cajun/Creole fusion, many people don’t know the difference.
Regulars at Maceo Spice & Import Co., a restaurant and grocer selling herbs, spices, sauces and more, often ask Maceo-Sims when she’ll make her gumbo.
She’ll probably whip up a batch when the weather gets cooler, she said.
“My gumbo has the consistency of stew,” she said. “You won’t see pieces of shrimp, crabmeat and vegetables because they’re all cooked down.”
With most gumbo, the die-hard rule is: make the roux first. But Maceo-Sims first slowly simmers down okra, she said.
“That okra flavor takes on a roasted, nutty goodness and once it’s cooked, I set it aside and start my roux,” she said. “I’m looking for a color that resembles the bark of an oak tree — not a red-brown — but a dark, dark shade. Don’t step away, don’t get a drink of water, go to the bathroom, answer the phone or the door. Just keep stirring that pot over high heat, alternating between medium high and back up to high heat. It should look like wet sand before you start adding the other ingredients. Once done, the entire pot goes into the refrigerator so that all the flavors can marry overnight.”
As for okra detractors, Maceo-Sims recalls serving her gumbo during a birthday celebration when a guest remarked how delicious it was, saying: “I just can’t stand it when people put okra in gumbo.” Maceo-Sims just smiled and replied: “My gumbo is good, huh?” and didn’t say another word.
Maceo-Sims’ Sicilian heritage is what likely sparked her decision to become a chef, she said. Growing up, she ate the typical Italian and Sicilian dishes, but favored red beans and rice, and New Orleans style-roast beef. Although she had early aspirations of being a doctor, she decided on nursing school after college, but all that changed when she returned to Galveston six years ago.
“I realized that my heart was in the middle of this little family grocery store and café,” she said.
A few months ago, she started her own YouTube channel — “Cooking with Concetta.”
During the early days of COVID-19, customers who were staying home and cooking more were going to the shop to buy spices and were seeking advice on how to prepare things. Maceo-Sims thought “Cooking with Concetta” would be a good way to reach a large audience and offer tips as well as share recipes.
“It’s been a beautiful experience,” she said. “People I don’t know are now messaging me and showing me pictures of what they’ve made and how much they love it.”
As for the dueling gumbos, both are winners, she said.
“I learned my cooking skills from both sides of my family, and we all have different theories about certain things when it comes to gumbo,” she said. “My dad will never put tomatoes in his gumbo or cook his roux as dark as mine. And although there is a bit of competitiveness, we are Maceos and we kind of know what each other does best.”
– Sue Mayfield Geiger
“Making this gumbo takes time and patience, so don’t be in any rush,”Maceo-Sims said. “But man is it worth it when you take that first bite, and the flavors unfold upon your taste buds. I’ve never met a single person who doesn’t want to just drink this gumbo. My momma taught me well, and I’m excited to share this recipe with y’all.”
Wendy’s New Orleans-Style Gumbo
For the okra:
2 pounds fresh okra, sliced
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cups water
For the roux:
¾ cup vegetable oil
2 cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup green bell pepper, diced
½ cup yellow onion, diced
½ cup celery, diced
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
For the seafood and seasonings:
2 pounds shrimp
1 pound lump crabmeat
½ can tomato sauce
8-10 cups shrimp stock (made from the shells)
3 bay leaves
2 tablespoons Maceo seafood seasoning
1 tablespoon gumbo filé
Cook down the okra in the vegetable oil over medium high heat, adding a little water as needed and stir often, about 45 minutes. Once the okra becomes a paste, set it aside.
In a large stock pot, add ¾ cup of cooking oil over high heat. When oil is glistening, pour in flour and whisk continuously until the roux becomes a dark oak color. This usually takes 15-30 minutes, but varies by the pot you’re cooking in. Once the color turns that rich, dark brown, add in the vegetables and cook over a medium high heat for a few minutes.
Toss in the shrimp, and when they turn pink, stir in the okra and tomato sauce. Slowly add about 8-10 cups of shrimp stock so that the roux mixture is completely incorporated. Add in your seasonings and bay leaf. Once the gumbo comes to a boil, add the crabmeat. Cook over medium high heat until a rolling boil, stirring occasionally, so it doesn’t stick. Cook a minimum of 4-6 hours on medium heat. Remove from heat and when cool, put in refrigerator overnight. This allows the gumbo to fully develop its complex flavors. The next day, return the pot to the stove over medium heat until it begins to boil.
Serve over rice or with potato salad, and garnish with a sprinkle of green onion.
CHEF MUNDO RODRIGUEZ, LITTLE DADDY’S GUMBO BAR
At Little Daddy’s Gumbo Bar, 2107 Postoffice St. in Galveston’s downtown, diners have a front-row seat to the making of the eatery’s namesake dish known for its dark roux.
Chef Mundo Rodriguez has never seen gumbo made like this anywhere else on the island, he said.
“You see the process,” Rodriguez said. “You see everything.”
One of the secrets to Little Daddy’s gumbo is the restaurant’s special 15-spice blend, said Billy Bunch, director of operations at the restaurant.
“We create our own seasoning pack for the gumbo, which is really the key thing,” Bunch said.
And unlike many other restaurants that pre-cook their seafood, Little Daddy’s Gumbo Bar cooks its shrimp, oysters and crab directly in the pot, Rodriguez said.
“When you cook the seafood separate, you can’t even taste the seafood,” Rodriguez said. “When you boil the shrimp separate, the taste is wrong.”
The restaurants — there’s also a Little Daddy’s Gumbo Bar in League City — use a dark roux, the thick sauce that forms the base of the gumbo dish, Bunch said.
After cooking the roux, the chef will start with the vegetables, then add the meat and spices, Bunch said.
Oysters and crab, which don’t take very long to cook, go in last, he said.
In Galveston, gumbo is an important dish because it’s traditional, just like it is in Louisiana, Rodriguez said.
Gumbo is the best-selling dish at the downtown restaurant, and in two days, Little Daddy’s will make 16 gallons of it, Rodriguez said.
“People want gumbo,” Rodriguez said. “They love it.”
What’s great and unique about gumbo is how varied the styles are and how different the recipes can be, Bunch said.
Everybody has a different opinion about what they like, whether it’s a light roux or a dark roux, okra or no okra, spicy or not spicy, he said.
“A fried shrimp is a fried shrimp,” Bunch said. “But gumbo, everybody’s got their own recipe.”
– Keri Heath
SHIRLEY AND CHRIS CROWDER, MAMA FRANCES SOUL KITCHEN
When something is this good, sometimes you just can’t wait.
Shirley Crowder, who owns and operates Mama Frances Soul Kitchen in La Marque with her husband, Chris Crowder, said that was certainly true of one customer.
“We offer a sample gumbo for customers to give it a try before they jump into the large size,” Crowder said. “This particular customer wanted to try it. The aroma from the sample got the best of him, so he took a sip on the drive home.
“Then he came back and ordered a large,” she said.
Mama Frances, 199 Vauthier Road, has been in business since 2014, but gumbo hasn’t always been on the menu. Even though customers requested it, Shirley Crowder was hesitant because she always associated it with cold-weather eating.
She finally created a recipe, but it still took nearly a year to put it on the menu.
“Frankly, I felt it was just too hot for gumbo,” she said. “Clearly, that was my Southern roots. Gumbo is indeed a Southern comfort food for me, traditionally eaten during the coldest months of the year.”
But there’s no looking back now — and no reason to. The gumbo at Mama Frances is a fan favorite. Many guests order it a few times a week, every week, Crowder said.
“Some even call it the best gumbo around,” she said.
Crowder holds her gumbo recipe pretty close to the vest — understandably so. But she did share the part of what makes it stand out — she makes her own chicken stock and uses butter rather than oil for the paste.
She’s happy to share some tips for making a great gumbo.
• Patience and time — don’t rush it.
• Harmony — all of the ingredients must share in the dance and complement each other.
• Use just the right amount of seasoning.
The dance Crowder refers to comes from her description of how she wants people to feel when they eat her gumbo, she said.
“I want their experience to be like music and a happy dance on the palate.”
When gumbo goes wrong, it can go really wrong, such as adding too many ingredients that don’t complement each other, burning the paste instead of browning it, or cooking it too long, to name a few don’ts.
The harmony required in making a good gumbo is something Crowder strives for not just in the gumbo pot, but in her relationships with customers, as well, she said. The current iteration of the dish has been influenced by feedback from customers, which Crowder said is welcome and for which she is thankful.
“My gumbo started out as a very Southern-style gumbo with crab meat, oysters, lots of fish,” she said. “I’m very happy to share that the finished product today is a shared collaboration between me and my faithful customers. I’m humbled by their support, always.”
– Margaret Battistelli Gardner
BRETT OTTEMAN, KATIE’S SEAFOOD HOUSE
A good gumbo has a way of bringing people together, said Brett Otteman, general manager of Katie’s Seafood House on Pier 19 in Galveston.
“There’s a code of decorum in many cultures and communities in the making of a proper gumbo,” Otteman said. “I believe gumbo was invented to feed family and friends with the passions of camaraderie to enjoy the friendliness, goodwill and conviviality of all that we hold dear — food, hospitality and celebration.”
Fresh seafood is the key ingredient in the gumbo served at Katie’s Seafood House, Otteman said.
“I’ve been making gumbo for 40 years, and eating it for 60 years, so I’ve definitely tried a bunch of variations of gumbo,” Otteman said. “We catch and serve the freshest, never frozen, Gulf of Mexico fish, which is why our gumbo is a popular menu item.”
Katie’s Seafood House gumbo features some of the freshest fish, shrimp, crab and oysters that you can get your hands on, Otteman said.
“Throw all of that into the most traditional flavored homemade stock and roux for an extraordinary flavor of ‘fresh,’ complemented with the farm trinity, okra, filé, spices, and a little bit of smokey ‘oink,’ and you have yourself some of the best gumbo this side of heaven,” Otteman said.
Gumbo, the official state cuisine of Louisiana, has many variations, including seafood, chicken and sausage. But the recipe pulled together for Katie’s is a little bit of everybody’s, Otteman said.
“The complex flavors in our gumbo can be tasted in just about everyone’s homemade gumbo around the world,” Otteman said. “And, when you sit down to a bowl of our gumbo, you think you’re at home with cousins, aunts, uncles and parents, and you’re just a child again.”
– Angela Wilson
If you’re going through the trouble of making gumbo, go for a big batch. This recipe makes 10 gallons of gumbo base. For a backyard party or get together, serve the whole pot. Or freeze it in smaller batches so you can enjoy gumbo later with little effort. Two gallons will serve 6 to 8 people.
Katie’s Seafood Gumbo
Makes: 10 gallons of gumbo base
For the roux:
12 pounds flour
1 gallon oil
For the gumbo base:
3 pounds bacon
2 pounds okra, chopped
2 pounds bell pepper, ¼-inch dice
3¼ pounds celery, ¼-inch dice
6 pounds yellow onions, ¼-inch dice
4 pounds andouille sausage, sliced thin
5 gallons seafood water
5 gallons water
2 pounds seafood base
28 ounces Rotel tomatoes
1 pound tomatoes, ¼-inch dice
¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons thyme
1 cup garlic, chopped
¼ cup black pepper
1 ounce gumbo filé
5 pounds claw meat
1½ cups Zatarain Pro Boil
2 pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 pounds fresh fish, diced into ¾-inch cubes
1 pound raw oysters
½ pound Texas blue crab claw meat
For the roux, mix oil and flour in wide, oven-safe pan with hand mixer until smooth. Bake in 400 F oven for 4 hours until toasted dark brown, stirring every hour.
Fry bacon in 20-gallon stock pot until brown. Remove bacon.
Add okra and fry on medium high until no longer slimy and okra is toasted brown, about 30 minutes.
Add pepper celery and onion and sauté until soft, about 20 minutes.
Add sausage and cook 5 minutes.
Add seafood water, regular water and seafood base, bring to a boil. Cook for 15 minutes.
Add roux and cook for 2 hours.
Add Rotel and tomatoes and bring to a boil.
Add all seasonings and add 1-gallon water, if needed. Stir and cook 1 hour. Turn off gumbo and let sit until settled and remove any oil.
Add the claw meat. Bring to a boil and stir. Add Zatarain Pro Boil and cook for 10 minutes. That’s the gumbo base. Split the gumbo base into 2-gallon containers until ready to use.
To finish the gumbo, add raw seafood. For every 2 gallons of gumbo base, add the freshest seafood from Katie’s Seafood Market.
Bring gumbo to a boil and cook until seafood is thoroughly cooked through. The seafood must be added raw and cooked into the gumbo base as this is where the flavor is enriched.
Garnish with a side of white rice, chopped green onions, a sprinkle of gumbo filé, corn bread and a whole-boiled blue crab.
*If you want to serve the whole pot, multiply the raw seafood by 5 times.
JEFF ANTONELLI, SHRIMP ’N STUFF
The roux is the glue that holds together Shrimp ’N Stuff’s acclaimed homemade gumbo.
“It’s a process you can’t rush,” owner Jeff Antonelli said. “We don’t believe there’s a quick process for roux. The process for us is a multi-day process.”
Although the recipe for the roux has been a closely guarded and unchanged secret since its creation in 1976, it’s used in both Shrimp ’N Stuff’s shrimp gumbo and chicken and sausage gumbo, both of which include a variety of other ingredients.
“That way we have consistency in our flavor,” Antonelli said. “We have a great roux, and it would be silly to not use it.”
While the shrimp gumbo is a longtime favorite at both Shrimp ’N Stuff’s original 3901 Ave. O location and newer 2506 Ball St. restaurant — both in Galveston — the chicken and sausage gumbo is a more recent addition to the restaurant’s menu and only available at the downtown restaurant, Antonelli said.
“We were looking for an alternative for people with seafood allergies and also, believe it or not, what I’ve run into is that people have problems with textures,” Antonelli said. “The chicken and sausage gumbo is a great alternative. The flavor profile has become very popular.”
And although the roux is the same in both versions of the gumbo, Chef Suceli Salazar, who began working for Shrimp ‘N Stuff when the downtown restaurant opened in December 2014, adds some of the secret spices from her own family’s gumbo recipe to the chicken and sausage version.
“The seasonings are different; it’s a totally different base, which is chicken-based versus seafood-based,” Salazar said through a translator. “The shrimp gumbo, its vegetables are chopped a little bit smaller, and the chicken and sausage gumbo, the vegetables are a little bit more coarse and bigger chunks.”
In addition to each gumbo’s main ingredients and secret seasonings, other ingredients include bay leaves, chives, red bell peppers and onions. The shrimp gumbo also includes okra.
Shrimp ’N Stuff’s shrimp gumbo comes from a recipe from the original owners of the restaurant that dates back generations, Antonelli said.
“They were from Mississippi, right on the border of Louisiana, and that’s their great-grandmother’s gumbo recipe,”
– James LaCombe
CHRIS LOPEZ, BLVD. SEAFOOD
Executive Chef Chris Lopez didn’t have gumbo recipes on his menus before arriving in Galveston.
Lopez, the executive chef at BLVD., 28th and Seawall in Galveston, had come up in restaurants in Atlanta, Portland and Seattle, where the gumbo wasn’t a specialty.
But when BLVD. opened with Gulf of Mexico views, there was little question patrons would expect a seafood gumbo to be on the menu, Lopez said.
“I figured I’d give it a shot,” Lopez said.
Lopez looked for inspiration in what he didn’t like, he said.
“I went to four different restaurants and had the same gumbo — the exact same color, the same everything,” he said. “I didn’t think this is what gumbo is supposed to be.”
BLVD.’s gumbo includes shrimp, crab and andouille sausage, but its secret is the house-made roux, which is lighter than the store-bought roux used in some other places, Lopez said.
“Not to name names, but a lot of people are using a store-bought roux; it comes in a bucket and it looks like chocolate,” he said. “I didn’t want to do that.”
Lopez adds tomatoes to his roux, which he thinks produces better flavor, he said.
The restaurant makes about 15 gallons of the gumbo base a day, Lopez said. One of the keys to a good restaurant recipe is to create something that’s both repeatable and widely appealing to customers. When Lopez is feeling experimental with his gumbo recipes, he turns to another arena: the annual gumbo cook-off during the Galveston Island Shrimp Festival.
“Every year, I come up with different ingredients,” he said. “I’ve used tasso ham or jalapeño bacon, just switched the ingredients around. I have a lot of experience messing around with it, but I think the version I have at BLVD. is a good, solid version. It doesn’t have too many things.”
Although it’s his goal to have his recipes stand out from similar fare served at island restaurants, Lopez wasn’t interested in reinventing dishes, he said. It’s about finding small things that make one dish a little special, he said.
“You want to make yourself different,” he said. “You want to make people come to the restaurant for something different. If you’re just the same as everybody else, they’re not going to come. It’s got to have a piece of me in it, it’s got to be different.
“Otherwise, nobody will care.”
– John Wayne Ferguson
PHIL PALMER, BIG PHIL’S SOUL & CREOLE CAFE
Gumbo will be the central attraction at Big Phil’s Soul & Creole Café, soon to open at Mainland City Centre, 10000 Emmett F. Lowry Expressway in Texas City. Palmer, who owns Big Phil’s Smoke House and Catering in Texas City, will serve his family’s gumbo daily, featuring the works — chicken, sausage, shrimp, crab and okra — as well as a version without shellfish for diners who might be allergic, he said.
Palmer speaks with a nearly religious fervor about gumbo’s ability to bring together a family around a big table, to prepare, stir and share together whenever the spirit moves them. Gumbo doesn’t require a special occasion, but makes all ordinary occasions special, he said.
“I come from a big family and making gumbo is just one of those things that brings everybody together,” Palmer said. “If they call and I say, ‘I’m making a pot of gumbo,’ they’ll say, ‘I’m coming over.’ There’s no such thing as a small pot of gumbo.”
Born and raised in La Marque, Palmer has family roots in Louisiana and shares a secret recipe he declined to pass on to the public, but offered several techniques and spicy opinions.
Before starting the gumbo, Palmer and family gather the night before to prepare ingredients, like shelling the shrimp, and to make a flavorful seafood stock using the shrimp shells, crab pieces and a mélange of vegetable ends and pieces simmered for a long time.
At the heart of every good gumbo is the roux — a cooked paste of fat, flavorings and flour.
Palmer makes his roux with the homemade seafood stock he prepared the night before, in a 3:1 ratio of stock to flour, working it constantly in a large pot with a whisk.
“The color of your roux determines the color of your gumbo,” he said. He scrapes up the dark parts sticking to the bottom of the pan and whisks until the mixture is creamy and thick and about the color of a good cup of hazelnut coffee, he said.
Palmer makes a gumbo seasoning from a variety of spices and spice mixes, including traditional gumbo filé made from ground, dried leaves of sassafras, Zatarain’s New Orleans Style Creole Seasoning and Slap Ya Mama Cajun Seasoning. He also adds a splash of Kitchen Bouquet, a browning and seasoning sauce.
The gumbo can cook as long as needed and shouldn’t be rushed, Palmer said. But when the crab legs have been added, once they’ve marinated a while and turned red, the gumbo is ready.
How to serve
Gumbo is nearly always served with rice, but Palmer offers one caution: Make it a scoop of rice served atop a bowl of gumbo, not gumbo poured over rice. Rice on top matters, he said. And a sprinkling of fresh, chopped herbs over the finished bowl — rosemary, thyme, sage — makes for a fragrant and refreshing first bite.
Corn on the cob is the perfect side dish, Palmer said.
Goodness of gumbo
For Phil Palmer, making gumbo with family is an occasion for remembering, for catching up with one another and for incorporating everything that everyone brings to the table into the flavorful dish, he said.
“Gumbo just brings us all together,” Palmer said. “We all have different stuff going on in our lives, jobs we do, and making gumbo is a conversation piece. We’ve all got something to put in.”
– Kathryn Eastburn
ADAM NEWELL, TOOKIE’S SEAFOOD
Gumbo is serious business at Tookie’s Seafood, 1106 Bayport Blvd. in Seabrook.
Before becoming executive chef at T-Bone Tom’s Steakhouse Restaurant in Kemah, Adam Newell, spent years mastering the recipe for the tricky dish now served at Tookie’s Seafood.
And his boss, Barry Terrell, who owns Tookie’s Seafood, T-Bone Tom’s and hamburger joint Tookie’s, is a tough gumbo critic.
Terrell also has spent much time working out the best way to prepare gumbo, and takes a lot of pride in it, he said.
“The keys are going to be the roux and the stock,” Newell said. “With the roux, obviously, you have to make sure that it’s smooth and hasn’t burned. It needs to be cooked down into the gumbo, so it doesn’t have the chalky aftertaste.”
The trickiest part of recreating a restaurant gumbo at home is making the stock, Newell said.
“Getting a good, flavorful stock is key,” he said. “You’ve got to get the taste of seafood in it. Not just via the shrimp and the crab, but that flavor being in the broth itself. It’s similar to making a good soup.”
Making a traditional stock might involve taking shrimp shells and fish bones and using those to make it, Newell said.
Fresh ingredients are key with gumbo, Newell said.
“I’ve been working in different seafood restaurants for 20 years in the area,” he said. “I’ve taken a lot of different types of gumbo, and made a few revisions. It comes down to knowing how long to cook the roux, and what you’re looking for.”
– Matt deGrood
Tookie’s Seafood Gumbo
For the roux:
1 pound of margarine
1 pound of flour
For the stock:
2 pounds shrimp stock
2 gallons water
2 quarts onions, diced
1 quart celery, diced
1 quart green bell peppers, diced
2 pounds dark roux
Spices and flavors:
1 teaspoon dry thyme
1 teaspoon dry oregano
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning
15½ ounces diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons garlic, freshly chopped
1 ounce Tabasco
¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
4 pounds shrimp, peeled
2 pounds oysters
2 pounds blue crabmeat, cooked
In a cast-iron skillet, melt margarine and slowly whisk in flour at medium heat to create blond roux. Reduce heat to low and stir every few minutes until a dark roux is reached. Be careful not to burn the roux. The color should be like chocolate. Transfer to a mixing bowl to cool to room temperature.
Add shrimp base (or seafood), water and vegetables to a stock pot and bring to a boil. Cook for 15 minutes. Turn down heat.
Transfer one cup of stock to the room-temperature roux in the mixing bowl and whisk. Do this 3 more times to temper the roux and stock together.
Slowly add the tempered roux mixture back to the stock while whisking to prevent any lumps. Simmer for 3 hours while stirring every 10 to 15 minutes.
Add spices and liquid ingredients to the gumbo and simmer for 15 minutes.
Add shrimp and oysters and simmer for 10 minutes while stirring gumbo every couple minutes.
Add crabmeat. Remove gumbo from heat and serve with white rice.