This healthy weeknight gumbo is the perfect way to indulge in creole fare without extra fat and calories.
Those who know me are well aware of my love for Southern food. Creole food is of particular interest to me. The perfect combination of flavors and cooking techniques from Africa, Latin America, Spain, and France is so fascinating and a true taste of American history.
My first attempt at cooking gumbo was in 2015. I threw a Mardi Gras themed birthday party and my mom and I spent two and a half days cooking Creole food for 30+ guests. The menu included fried chicken and waffles, red beans and rice, jambalaya, and gumbo. We were exhausted but happy as our guest enjoyed the fruits of our labor.
Traditional gumbo, while complex and delicious, is heavy with flour and oil and can take hours to create. Real gumbo starts with dark roux, which is large amounts of oil and flour cooked slowly over a flame until it is the color of chocolate. The roux requires continuous stirring and can take an hour (or more depending on quantity) to reach the perfect shade of brown. Dark roux is important for gumbo not only for the color and slight thickness it provides but also for the distinct smoky flavor it lends the finished stew.
While nothing compares to the flavor and satisfaction of traditional gumbo, I wanted a healthy weeknight option that would fit into my busy schedule.
weeknight creole cooking
I’m a full time executive assistant in a fast paced Silicon Valley startup. Like many of you, who are busy with jobs and kids, I can’t spend hours in the kitchen on a weeknight to get dinner on the table. Loving creole flavors, I also can’t resign to only making and eating gumbo on sporadic event-free weekends.
I wanted to create a gumbo recipe that would be ready in about an hour with little babysitting. Healthful ingredients, lots of vegetables and protein were absolute necessities for a recipe that we could feel good about eating all week long.
When I cook during the week, I double or triple a recipe so my husband and I can enjoy leftovers for several days. It’s such a wonderful feeling to come home from a long day of work, knowing a delicious, healthy dinner is ready to heat and eat.
Cooking a big batch of gumbo would normally require lots of chopping to create perfectly diced onions, celery, and green bell peppers (the creole holy trinity).
To address the time consuming process of chopping the holy trinity I turned to a food processor. Cutting the vegetables into large chunks and pulsing them in the food processor allowed me to prepare large amounts of veggies in a fraction of the time. I normally wouldn’t use a food processor to dice vegetables because it results in uneven pieces and releases more liquid from the vegetables than when I chop by hand. For this purpose, the uneven vegetable size and extra liquid (along with a modest addition of flour) actually helped thicken the stew allowing me to forgo the dark roux all together!
Now that vegetable chopping and dark roux cooking were hacked, I turned my attention to flavor. To replicate the smoky nuance created by the dark roux I added a generous helping of smoked paprika. Along with tomato paste for added glutamates (savory flavor) and my go-to creole spices, the weeknight gumbo was delicious and lower in fat and calories than the traditional version. I also used chicken andouille sausage and chicken thighs for lots of protein and added flavor.
Cook this healthy weeknight gumbo and enjoy a lighter (easier) take on the Creole classic!
12 ounces chicken andouille sausage, cut into ½ inch cubes
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoon butter, unsalted
2.5 pounds chicken thighs, boneless, skinless, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
2 medium yellow onions
4 celery stalks
3 green bell peppers
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon dried oregano
2 bay leaves
¼ cup tomato paste
3 tablespoons all purpose flour
2 cups low sodium chicken broth
1 ½ cups filtered water
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon *filé powder, optional
½ cup scallions (green parts only), sliced
4 cups Jasmine rice, cooked according to package directions
Heat half of the oil and butter in a large shallow dutch oven over medium heat until the oil ripples and the butter melts.
Cook the sausage over medium heat until it starts to brown around the edges, 5-6 minutes.
While the sausage cooks, season the cut chicken pieces with 1 teaspoon sea salt and ½ teaspoon black pepper.
Move the cooked sausage to a clean bowl. Add the rest of the oil and butter to the pan and heat over medium heat until it begins to ripple.
Cook chicken pieces in the pan until golden brown on all sides, 6-8 minutes. Cook the chicken in batches if they don’t all fit in a single layer.
While the chicken is cooking, prepare the vegetables.
First peel the onions and cut them into 4-6 big chunks. Place the onions in the food processor and pulse until the onions are chopped into even pieces, about 6-8 pulses.
Move the browned chicken to the bowl with andouille sausage.
Add the chopped onions to the pan along with ½ teaspoon salt. Cook over medium heat while you prepare the other vegetables.
Cut the celery stalks into 4 big pieces, place in the food processor and pulse until the celery is evenly chopped, 5-6 pulses.
Add the celery to the onions.
Remove the core and seeds from the bell peppers and cut into big chunks. Place the bell pepper chunks in the food processor and pulse until evenly chopped, 4-5 pulses.
Add the bell peppers to the onions and celery.
Cook the vegetables over medium heat until excess moisture has evaporated and the vegetables are soft, 8-10 minutes. While cooking, use a wooden spoon to scrape up bits of food from the bottom of the pan.
Add the garlic powder, smoked paprika, cayenne, thyme, oregano, black pepper, and bay leaves to the onions. Cook until fragrant, 1 minute.
Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring frequently, until the paste coats the vegetables and turns dark red, 3-5 minutes. Deglaze the pan with water if the bottom of the pan is getting too dark at any point.
Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables and stir to cook the flour for a couple minutes.
Add the chicken broth to the pot, a little bit at a time, scraping food bits up with a wooden spoon. Bring the sauce to a simmer and allow it to thicken, 5-8 minutes.
Add the chicken and sausage to the sauce, along with any juices that have accumulated in the bowl. Lower the heat to low and simmer, uncovered until the chicken is fully cooked, about 20-30 minutes. Stir the liquid and drag a wooden spoon along the bottom of the pan occasionally to make sure it doesn’t burn.
While the stew simmers, cook the rice according to package directions.
At the end of cooking, add the apple cider vinegar and filé (if using) to the stew.
Taste the sauce and adjust seasoning as necessary. Top with chopped scallions and serve over steamed white rice.
*Filé powder is dried sassafras leaves traditionally added to gumbo at the end of the cooking process to help thicken the stew and add a distinct flavor. I add just a touch of filé to my weeknight gumbo for extra seasoning. You can leave it out all together if you don’t have any on hand.