Filé powder, a Pantry Special (Recipe: gumbo ya-ya)
When Ted and I moved to a wooded part of Rhode Island, we never intended to become gumbo filé farmers. We didn't know that in our woods, among the pine and oak and maple, we would find several sassafras trees, or that sassafras -- often associated with the southern states -- actually is native to New England. And we didn't know that we could make filé powder from the dried, pulverized leaves of our very own sassafras trees. Filé (pronounced FEE-lay, and also called gumbo filé) lends an exotic, flowery, "root beer" flavor to gumbo, and when stirred in at the end of the cooking (as it always should be), it acts as a thickener. Though filé is most often associated with Cajun and Creole cuisine, it was the Choctaw Indians who first used it in their cooking, long before the Acadians arrived in Louisiana. I use it for gumbo, of course, and to thicken stews and lentil soups.
Is this Pantry Special new to you?
Make your own filé powder:
How to make New Orleans gumbo file powder
Where to buy filé powder:
The Spice House ($2.09/oz)
Zatarain's ($2.10/1.25 oz)
On the spice rack, for up to 1 year.
Adapted from FineCooking.com, this is one of the most delicious gumbos I've ever made. Gumbo ya-ya, a Cajun dish, contains no seafood. The recipe looks complicated, but it's not, and once you've made a brown roux, you've mastered the hardest part of this dish. I used two kinds of sausage, because that's what I had on hand (beef hot links, and a chicken-and-mango chorizo), and I'd go out of my way to use that combination again. Starting with boneless, skinless chicken thighs simplifies the preparation with no loss of flavor. Serves 8-10, with rice.
3 Tbsp + 3/4 cup canola oil
2-1/2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed of excess fat
Kosher salt and fresh black pepper
1 cup all-purpose unbleached flour
1 large bunch celery, cleaned and trimmed, finely chopped in a food processor (5 cups)
4 large onions, peeled and trimmed, finely chopped in a food processor (8 cups)
4 green or red bell peppers, finely chopped in a food processor
2 Tbsp minced garlic
1 tsp cayenne pepper
3/4 tsp dried oregano
3/4 tsp dried thyme
4 bay leaves
6 cups chicken stock, homemade or low-sodium
1-1/2 lb sausage: beef hot links or chicken andouille
1 Tbsp filé powder
6 cups cooked long-grain white rice
Chopped scallions for garnish (optional)
In a heavy Dutch oven or large soup pot (5-6 quarts), heat 3 tablespoons of the oil over high heat until almost smoking. Place 1/4 cup of the four in a bowl, and lightly dredge the chicken pieces in the flour. Shake off the excess, then place the chicken in the hot oil. Sear until golden brown, turning once. It should take 6-8 minutes to brown the chicken. Remove, and set aside.
Put the pot back on the stove over medium heat, and add the celery, onion and bell peppers. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are soft (10-12 minutes). Remove the vegetables from the pot and set aside. Wipe the pot with a paper towel, but do not wash. It's fine if a few bits of vegetable are stuck to the pan, but try to get it as clean as you can.
Heat the remaining 3/4 cup of oil in the pot over medium heat. Stir in the remaining 3/4 cup of flour, and stir constantly with a wooden spoon until the mixture (this is the roux) is the color of medium-dark chocolate. This is going to take at least 20 minutes, and probably longer. Go slowly, stir thoroughly, making sure to break up any lumps as you go. (To learn a bit more about dark brown roux, watch Chef Paul Prudhomme in action.)
When the roux is a nice mahogany brown color, stir in the cooked vegetables, garlic, cayenne, oregano, thyme, and bay leaves. Stir until everything is combined (be sure to scrape up any bits stuck to the bottom of the pot). Cook for 3-5 minutes, then season with salt and pepper.
Pour in the chicken stock and water, and add the sausage and chicken. Bring everything to the simmer, and skim off any excess fat that comes to the surface. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 2-1/2 hours, skimming any foam or fat off the surface. Stir occasionally to keep the stew from sticking as the liquid reduces.
After 2-1/2 hours, add the filé powder, and stir vigorously for a minute or two as the stew thickens. Remove the pot from the heat. Taste, and add salt and pepper to taste. Remove the bay leaves.
Place some cooked rice in each bowl, and ladle the gumbo on top. Garnish with scallions, if desired, and serve hot.
More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:
Chicken and shrimp jambalaya
Slow-cooked beef and green chile stew
Other recipes that use filé powder:
Vegetarian gumbo, from 101 Cookbooks
Wild game gumbo, from Hunter Angler Gardener Cook
Red quinoa pilaf, from Gluten A Go Go
Turkey gumbo soup, from No Food Left Behind
Filé gumbo, from Nola Cuisine
Disclosure: The Perfect Pantry earns a few pennies on purchases made through the Amazon.com links in this post. Thank you for supporting this site when you start your shopping here.
This is brand new to me - do you actually pulverize the leaves and make your own? That would be true country cooking!
That looks like a great dish Lydia.
I love gumbo, but I have had to lighten it up to eliminate a lot of the fat. Instead of a oil and flour, I start with brown gravy mix packets. It darkens and thickens the gumbo and does not have a meat flavor like beef. When I get finished it is one of the best gumbo meals we have ever had, and I have been to Louisiana and ate the gumbo there many times. The mix is not expensive, and you never have to worry about burning it. All the flavors together make the gumbo. I usually use 2 packets for approximately 4-6 qts of gumbo.
I am a die hard seafood gumbo fan, but I have lots of cooked chicken and some Andoule sausage in the freezer. I may have to whip up some of this! I would have to have okra in mine though.
Sassafras grows here in OK also, and is a native plant.
I've never seen the sessafrass tree; how fun. I've had gumbo many times in New Orleans, but only with seafood and I'd love to try this variation. And I never thought of using file to thicken other types of dishes; great idea!
Another way to cut down on fat when making roux is to brown the dry flour in a heavy pan then mix it with a little of the cooking liquid before adding it to the complete dish. This also works very well for pan gravy of any kind. A jar of browned flour can be kept in the freezer.
TW, absolutely! But more often I buy from The Spice House.
Barb, it's always nice to know about alternative ways to make any recipe. I believe that this particular gumbo (ya-ya) never has seafood in it, but there are so many different gumbos. Got to have file for all of them!
Kalyn, next time you visit Rhode Island, I'll show you our sassafras. Nobody really thinks of it as a native New England tree.
Pauline, great idea. This is the kind of substitution that appeals to me.
Love this recipe and all of the great tips! Never had gumbo without the seafood and okra, two things that my daughter won't eat. I'll have to try your version.
Susan, I love seafood gumbos, but I'm not a great fan of okra, either. Your daughter just might like this one!
I'm Cajun, and the issue with the oil is easy to take care of - when the mixture comes to a boil and the oil come to the top - skim it off and discard it. Problem solved. You do need it for authentic caramalization and flavor. That is what I do and my Moma did all the time! - just before adding our chopped parsley, green onion, and file!
for me... this is one of those recipes best left to the experts!! Ironically our neighbor is an expert and makes her legendary once-a-year gumbo for a function down at the Franco-American club each year. And always gives us some!
I have never had gumbo or used file. I think I've stayed away from it because my husband can't take too spicy of food. I think I might be able to work around it, this looks very good!
I have pretty much everything this recipe asks for, even file (I'd have to run to my local Persian store for some wonderful Halal chicken thighs), and we love gumbo. But how do I attempt to make a variation on the sacred dish that is one of the few my Georgia-born husband makes with pride without breaking his heart?
I have to employ every diplomatic weapon in my arsenal, because I really want to try this.
Thanks for the great recipe! I just tried gumbo for the first time last week, and I've been itching to make it at home.
I never knew sassafras trees grew in New England, how interesting! I had my first gumbo in New Orleans a number of years ago, made with crawfish. Then, a few years ago, our family was in New Orleans for one of my boys' baseball tournaments and we had the pleasure of sharing a home cooked New Orleans meal with a local family. They used Slap Ya MaMa Creole seasoning. Your Gumbo Ya Ya looks like pure comfort food.
Jeanette, I never knew it, either, until I moved to my current house and found sassafras trees on the property. I fell in love with gumbo in New Orleans, as so many of us did, and I love this easy version of gumbo ya-ya. It's a great dish to teach how to make a roux.
Okra was first in African dishes THEN sassafras.