All About Filé Powder
by Sandra Bowens
"It's a sin to eat gumbo without filé." Zatarain's
To those outside of Louisiana, the subject of gumbo may seem a bit mysterious. Unusual words like okra and crawfish get tossed around casually. Topics such as the color of a roux or which brand of tasso to use can cause the sparks of a great debate to fly. Most everyone within the Bayou State will agree, however, there is no voodoo to a great gumbo, just a little magic powder from the sassafras leaf.
The sassafras tree, sassafras albidum, is native to the Eastern United States and is still found widely along the Gulf Coast. It may grow to 20 or 30 feet with distinctive leaves that take on three different mitten-like shapes. A tea is sometimes brewed from the roots. Both the bark and the roots were long used to flavor root beer, giving it that familiar taste and aroma.
Now we know that the roots and bark contain the carcinogen safrole so usage has declined. Some folks insist that if it didn't hurt their ancestors it won't hurt them. Distilled essential oils are still used cosmetically.
Lucky for us, the leaves do not contain safrole so we can use them safely. Filé powder, sometimes called gumbo filé, (say fee-lay) will thicken a gumbo and add a distinctive kick of flavor. It is a simple ingredient made from ground sassafras leaves. That's all, nothing more.
Although it is closely associated with Creole cooking, the Choctaw Indians were using filé powder when the Cajuns arrived in Louisiana from Acadia in the 1600's.
With an earthy taste that is similar to thyme combined with savory, ground sassafras will lend a unique flavor to stews, sauces and other hearty dishes. It also serves as a thickening agent but should only be stirred in at the end of cooking. If allowed to boil, filé powder will cause a liquid to become stringy and unappetizing.
One trick I learned while living in Louisiana is to pass the bottle of filé powder at the table with the Tabasco. This way, folks can add as much or as little as they like.
Follow this link to learn how to make your own filé powder or look for it along with the other spices at well-stocked supermarkets.
Yankee Cajun Gumbo
2 Tablespoons butter
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped fine
1/2 green bell pepper, chopped fine
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped fine
2 ribs celery, chopped fine
3 Tablespoons no-salt Cajun Seasoning, divided
1/4 cup flour
3 cups stock-choice depending on meats/seafood used
1/2 pound okra, ends trimmed without cutting into pod
1 can (15 ounces) diced tomatoes in juice
1/2 pound smoked sausage
1/2 pound meat, poultry or seafood of choice (consider shrimp, crawfish, crab, pork, turkey, chicken or duck), meats and poultry should be cooked, seafood can be raw
1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, according to taste
White rice, for serving
Filé powder, for serving
Tabasco sauce, for serving
In a heavy 3-quart saucepan over medium-high heat, melt the butter with the olive oil. Add the onion, green and red bell peppers and celery along with 1 Tablespoon of the Cajun seasonings. Cook, stirring regularly, about 5 minutes or until the vegetables are softened. Sprinkle in the flour; continue cooking, stirring constantly and with a wooden spoon for about 5 minutes more or until the mixture has taken on a deep golden brown. Scrape the bottom of the pot as you stir to prevent burning. Stir in the stock 1/2 cup at a time, mixing well to avoid lumps. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium or enough to maintain a gentle boil and allow to simmer until it thickens slightly. Reduce heat to medium-low, stir in the okra, tomatoes, smoked sausage and remaining 2 Tablespoons of Cajun seasonings. Simmer for 10-15 minutes or until the okra is cooked. Taste the stew, add salt to taste and adjust seasonings, if necessary. Stir in the meat or seafood of choice and simmer until heated or cooked through.
To serve: Mound about 1/2 cup rice in the center of a shallow soup bowl. Ladle 1 1/2 cups gumbo over the rice and sprinkle with filé powder, if desired. Pass the Tabasco at the table.
Makes 6 servings.
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