From Sassafras to Filé: Make your own soup seasoning

Amy Peterson’s Matthews-famous (maybe world?) gumbo.

Amy Peterson’s Matthews-famous (maybe world?) gumbo.

Despite the feeling that the temperatures will never drop below the 80s, fall is on the way. This means it’s your last chance to harvest sassafras leaves before they change color and start to drop.

The leaves on the sassafras tree vary in lobed shape.

The leaves on the sassafras tree vary in lobed shape.

Grab a pair of loppers and go find a sassafras tree, usually in the understory of wooded areas, perhaps near a dogwood or another low growing tree. They grow in colonies, so you’ll usually find several of the small trees together. Even if you don’t know it, you’re probably familiar with sassafras, it’s fairly common around Matthews. The leaves can be several different shapes on the same tree: three-lobed, left-hand mitten, right-hand mitten, and sometimes (when young) an oblong pointed leaf. Rarely you might even find a four-lobed leaf, but it’s pretty unusual.

Harvest a small branch of healthy green leaves and find a sheltered spot to hang it. The leaves need air flow around them so they stay green and don’t mildew as they dry. In about 2 days those green leaves will be crispy and ready to turn into filé powder, a magical green, earthy-flavored seasoning commonly use as a thickener in gumbo.

Once you have fully dry, crispy sassafras leaves just trim off the brown stem (don’t worry about the veins) and stuff your leaves in a food processor. Grind and grind until you have a fine powder. It’s that simple: filé is dried leaves pulverized into powder.

Cooking, though, is where the magic happens. As much as I love to cook a big batch of stew when it comes to gumbo you have to turn to a New Orleans native for a tried and true recipe. Enter Amy Peterson, my Louisiana go-to gal. Amy makes a gumbo that’ll make you want to marry her. Sorry, she’s happily taken (hi, Lyell).

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Amy bases her gumbo on a recipe from Cooking Up a Storm, a compilation of recipes lost during Katrina. After the storm, the community shared their family recipes in The Times-Picayune of New Orleans as a way to help others rebuild.

Chicken and Sausage Gumbo 

Makes about 8 servings

1 (4- to 5-pound) hen (stewing chicken), cut into serving pieces

Salt and cayenne

1 cup vegetable oil

1 cup flour

2 cups chopped yellow onions

1 cup chopped green bell pepper

1/2 cup chopped celery

About 2-1/2 quarts chicken broth

2 bay leaves

1/2 teaspoon dried powdered or leaf thyme

1 pound andouille sausage, sliced 1/4-inch thick

1/4 cup chopped green onions (white and green parts)

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Season the hen generously with salt and cayenne, and set aside. 

In a large Dutch oven, make a roux by combining the oil and flour over medium heat. Stirring constantly, cook for about 30 minutes, or until the roux is dark brown. Add the onions, bell pepper and celery to the roux and cook for 5 to 10 minutes, or until the vegetables are very soft.

Add the broth and stir to blend well. Add the chicken, bay leaves and thyme. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, partially covered, 2 to 3 hours, or until chicken is fork-tender. Add the andouille and cook for another 30 minutes. Adjust seasonings and add the green onions and parsley. 

As a departure from the traditional rice base, Amy suggested potato salad. Trust me, the lady knows. When you serve up the gumbo, sprinkle 1/2 to 1 tsp. of filé powder on top of each serving.  Enjoy!