King of Crabs

New Orleans chef John Besh dishes up the ultimate seafood-gumbo recipe

Star chef John Besh on Lake Pontchartrain (Andrew Hetherington)
John Besh

No one has done more to keep Louisiana’s seafood traditions alive than John Besh. The 43-year-old chef, who grew up hunting and fishing along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, had just opened his second restaurant in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. He found himself cooking vats of red beans and rice in his driveway for emergency responders, and his life has been a blur of fundraisers ever since—first for Katrina relief, lately for fishermen forced out of work by the April 2010 BP oil spill. Besh, who now owns eight restaurants in New Orleans, makes it a point to use seafood from Gulf Coast waters, hundreds of pounds every day. That large-scale locavorism, combined with a willingness to stray from Louisiana’s tried-and-true recipes, has proved hugely profitable. The Besh empire now includes TV shows, three books, and a contract supplying meals for government emergency responders. I spent a day fishing with Besh last fall on Lake Pontchartrain, then cooking up the catch back at his house. (OK, he cooked—I ate.) We talked shop, and eventually I pried his gumbo recipe out of him. 

The Gumbo Chronicles

Seafood freak ROWAN JACOBSEN packs his bib and heads south to cook up a locally sourced gumbo in the aftermath of the BP oil spill recovery efforts.

OUTSIDE: What was your introduction to these culinary traditions?
BESH: So much of my cooking is rooted in my childhood. I love this marsh. Love being out here at sunrise. Fishing and hunting—that’s how I fell in love with food. The adventure of it all. It doesn’t stop with landing the fish. You catch a redfish: How you gonna cook it? That’s how this culture developed. It’s still like that today. You eat what you have. You shouldn’t see crawfish or soft-shell crab on a menu unless it’s in season. 

What was your reaction to the spill?
I was pissed off. Food is the thing that ties this culture together. When that’s threatened—not just livelihoods, but the actual food sources that we’ve all grown up with and reveled in—that’s scary.

Has the press gone overboard in its scrutiny of the Gulf?
The truth is, we need to be skeptical of our food supply. But we also need to ask these questions of the foreign fish and shrimp that are raised in unsanitary conditions in Southeast Asia, being fed who knows what. 

What are your feelings about messing with tradition in your own cooking?
One thing that worries me is when people start saying, “Oh, you can’t do it that way.” What we have in Louisiana is the ultimate fusion food. It came about because of all the different people who settled here. There’s nothing pure about it. It needs to continue to evolve. That being said, I think gumbo’s too important to deconstruct. You don’t fool around with that sort of thing. 

What’s the key to good gumbo?
I look for two things: first, a deep shellfish flavor, which I accomplish by allowing quartered crabs to cook for at least 45 minutes before adding any other seafood. Second, I’m looking for the seafood—shrimp, crabmeat, and oysters—to be perfectly tender, not overcooked, just as the gumbo is served.

Seafood Gumbo

Serves 10

Seafood gumbo
Seafood gumbo (Daymon Gardner)

The Gumbo Chronicles

Seafood freak ROWAN JACOBSEN packs his bib and heads south to cook up a locally sourced gumbo in the aftermath of the BP oil spill recovery efforts.

Ingredients

1 cup canola oil
1 cup flour
2 large onions, diced
6 jumbo blue crabs, quartered
1 pound andouille sausage links, sliced thick
1 celery stalk, diced
1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup fresh okra, sliced
1 sprig fresh thyme
3 quarts shellfish stock
2 bay leaves
1 pound medium Louisiana or wild American shrimp
1 cup shucked oysters
1 cup lump crabmeat
1 cup green onion, minced
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Creole spices
Worcestershire
Tabasco
4–6 cups cooked Louisiana white rice

Make a roux by heating oil in a large cast-iron or heavy-bottomed pot over high heat and whisking flour into hot oil. Reduce heat to moderate and continue whisking until the roux takes on a brown color, about 15 minutes. Add onions, stirring them into the roux with a wooden spoon. Reduce heat to medium-low and continue stirring until the roux is dark brown—about 10 minutes.

Add blue crabs and sausage and stir for a minute before adding celery, bell peppers, garlic, and okra. Increase heat to medium and cook, stirring, for about three minutes. Add thyme, shellfish stock, and bay leaves. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 45 minutes. Stir occasionally, and skim off any fat from the surface.

Add shrimp, oysters, crabmeat, and green onion and cook 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, ­Creole spices, Worcestershire, and Tabasco. Serve with rice.

Shellfish Stock

Makes 3 quarts

Seafood gumbo
Seafood gumbo (Daymon Gardner)

The Gumbo Chronicles

Seafood freak ROWAN JACOBSEN packs his bib and heads south to cook up a locally sourced gumbo in the aftermath of the BP oil spill recovery efforts.

Ingredients

1/2 cup canola oil
2 onions, coarsely chopped
2 celery stalks, coarsely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 leeks, coarsely chopped
8 garlic cloves, crushed
2 pounds shells from shrimp, blue crab, crawfish, or lobster
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 teaspoons black peppercorns

Directions 

Heat oil in a large pot over moderate heat. Cook onions, celery, carrots, leeks, and garlic, stirring often, until soft but not brown, about three minutes. Add shells, bay leaves, thyme, peppercorns, and six quarts water. Increase heat and bring to a boil. Immediately reduce heat to low and gently simmer until stock has reduced by half—roughly two hours. Skim off any foam. Strain through a fine sieve into a container, then cover. Allow stock to cool, then refrigerate. Skim off any fat before using.

Creole Spices

Makes 1/2 cup

Seafood gumbo
Seafood gumbo (Daymon Gardner)

The Gumbo Chronicles

Seafood freak ROWAN JACOBSEN packs his bib and heads south to cook up a locally sourced gumbo in the aftermath of the BP oil spill recovery efforts.

Ingredients

2 tablespoons celery salt
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 tablespoon coarse sea salt
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

Directions

Combine all ingredients and store in an airtight container.

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