Most things are, actually, as the mercury vaults beyond comprehension by late June and heat makes the roads bubble. Add the dripping humidity especially prevalent in southern Virginia and everything becomes a sauna; it’s inescapable. Before air conditioning, the British Foreign Service considered Washington to be a tropical posting and compensated its diplomats accordingly. This was around the state’s northern limits too; the swelter was even more a hardship a couple hundred miles southward.
Cooks at the Williamsburg Inn faced these challenges as they sought to serve guests something that showcased the region’s unparalleled Tidewater crab, while providing a cool respite. They found the answer in New Orleans, home to crab gumbo. Virginia chefs adapted the recipe for their guests and served it chilled, making it as bracing as a dewing pitcher of lemonade. This effort brought about Williamsburg Inn Chilled Crab Gumbo, as described in The Williamsburg Cookbook.
Like any gumbo, sassafras powder (i.e., gumbo file) provides an identifiable boost, setting the dish’s music to a lilting tune. The allium family plays a big role too, with garlic, leeks and onions (or in this case shallots) spicing the soup with their bite. Chopped tomatoes grant a summery sparkle, and all this enlivens the tongue, priming it perfectly for the coolness that soon washes over.
Okra was something of an unfamiliar ingredient at first, but experience showed its flavor and texture to be like green beans’. It also has the added function of thickening the soup so, along with the gelatin, it coats the palate with a lingering chill.
Of course, dropping the soup’s temperature is an inspired development, making this a great part of a summer menu. Before refrigeration became common, this must’ve have been allowed to cool completely, then was served on ice. Nonetheless, crab gumbo also is excellent taken hot (this one was sampled both ways). Now that summer’s here, the chilled option is much more appealing, but a steaming service makes this great for colder seasons too.
That’s then, many months distant, and a cold soup is an ideal antidote to our current rolling simmer. Besides, by now it’s Virginia everywhere. It’s just a matter of degree, and chilled gumbo keeps things manageable.
Before continuing to the recipe, an off-topic moment about gardening. Just wanted to show you the violas that seem destined to settle the planet:
Actually, in addition to adding a flash of cheerful color, violas are edible, which, come to think of it, is their tie-in to a food blog. It’s also why the seeds were planted this spring. Crisp and cooling, violas most closely resemble a minty lettuce. Honeybees love them, and I do too, which is why they’ll brighten many a summer salad.
Now, about that gumbo…
Williamsburg Inn Chilled Crab Gumbo
For the bouquet garni:
- 6 parsley stems, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, minced (*1)
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme (*2)
- 1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram
- 2 bay leaves
For the soup:
- 1/2 cup celery, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup onion, finely chopped (*3)
- 1/2 cup green pepper, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup leeks, finely chopped
- 1 pound crabmeat, picked over and cooked
- pinch of saffron
- 1 cup okra, chopped (*4)
- 1 cup tomatoes, chopped
- 1 teaspoon salt, or more, to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon gumbo file powder (*5)
- 1 envelope unflavored gelatin, poured into half a cup of cold water and allowed to soften
- 1 cup rice, cooked (*6)
Make a bouquet garni by placing the herbs in the middle of a one foot-square piece of cheesecloth. Bring together the corners and tie low enough with culinary twine to form a seamless pouch.
Bring half a gallon (8 cups) of water to boil in a large cookpot. Add the bouquet garni, celery, onion, green pepper and leeks. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 20 minutes.
Add the crabmeat and saffron and continue to simmer, covered, for 15 minutes.
Add the okra, tomatoes, salt and pepper.
Remove half a cup of liquid from the pot and add the gumbo file powder to the removed liquid. Whisk this vigorously until the gumbo file is incorporated thoroughly.
Turn off the heat under the cookpot and stir in the gumbo file mixture. (*7)
Add the softened gelatin and the rice and stir thoroughly to mix.
Refrigerate covered, overnight if possible, until chilled. Remove the bouquet garni and discard it. Ladle the soup into individual servings. (*8)
1 – Your own taste will vary, but I added three cloves, as they elevated the soup without overpowering it.
2 – If you don’t have fresh sprigs, half a teaspoon of dried thyme leaves will do. Use powdered thyme only as a last resort, as it will flow right through the cheesecloth.
3 – Naturally, I substituted shallots. Half a cup equals about two medium-sized shallots.
4 – Fresh okra almost never is available at the market, as I’m much too far North. However, the canned variety is good too (at least it is in soups) and it’s available year-round.
5 – Gumbo file powder is available at larger supermarkets, in Creole specialty stores, and online. If you can’t find it, pour the liquid from the canned okra into the soup. While the end result won’t be quite as good, it still will do the job.
6 – Any variety of white rice you choose will be fine. I used jasmine rice, as it compliments the flavors involved.
7 – Take care not to let the soup boil after you add the gumbo file powder, as this will make the soup stringy. That’s why I turned off the heat before adding the file, and let it cool for a minute or two, until it was “merely” hot.
8 – Of course, if you would serve this traditionally, as a hot soup, skip the refrigeration. Chilling the soup does enrich the flavors and it allows them to blend more completely, but it also takes more time. Hot soup still tastes great, but maybe it misses a little extra something.
2 thoughts on “Colder than a Virginia Summer”
The soup looks excellent. Your friends and family are really lucky to have you cooking for them. The heat here has me craving for some. I’ll definitely try this one. But can I use chicken instead of crabs? They’re hard to get here, if at all.
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Thanks! Certainly, chicken would be a good replacement (of course, I’m a poultry fiend, so when wouldn’t I say this?). File powder may be a little more of a challenge – it’s fairly common here, being from another region of the same country, but it may be harder to locate elsewhere. Note #5, above, applies. I hope this works for you, because cold soup cuts right through the humidity.
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