Hungry Hound: Gumbo in Chicago

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Fat Tuesday is right around the corner. Our Hungry Hound said there are several traditional dishes to eat before Lent, including the paczki, of course, from the Polish community.

But in New Orleans, where Mardi Gras is in full-swing, you're more likely to find bowls of gumbo over the next few days.

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For the past four years, Nita's Gumbo has been ladling up bowls in Avalon Park at 81st and Stony. But about a year ago, they built a larger space in a Country Club Hills strip mall, where they have seating.

The success of their gumbo stems from the owner's grandmother, Anita, and her original recipe.

"She'd always cook her famous gumbo. We noticed the crowds started getting larger and larger, and we had to start charging people to come. So then we came up with the idea of 'Hey, let's try to sell this thing,'" said Sheldon Blanton, one of the owners.

They slowly cook their roux - that's a base of flour and oil - with a trinity of celery, peppers and onions in a 120 gallon pot. After several hours, the dark gumbo is ladled over scallops, shrimp, chicken andouille sausage and crowned with enormous crab legs.

Served with rice on the side, to add as you wish, Blanton said it's more like a soup or bisque, than it is a traditional Cajun gumbo.

"It's that New Orleans base, but she added her Chicago flavor to it, changing the thickness of it and adding a different flavor," Blanton said.

On the North Side, Fifolet Cajun & Cocktails has been making its gumbo the old-school way for over a year. They begin with butter and flour, slowly cooking and constantly stirring until it turns blonde, then caramel, then chocolate-colored.

At that point, they add the holy trinity of peppers, celery and onions, plus okra as a thickener and chicken stock. The resulting gumbo is topped with crawfish, andouille sausage, shrimp and blue crab.

In the Loop, the Bannos family has been serving cajun and creole fare for 35 years at Heaven on Seven.

"It was the first thing that I made here," Jimmy Bannos said. "We do a darker peanut butter roux. The darker the roux, the thinner the gumbo. I don't like to go really black. When we did that before, when we first opened, it got a touch bitter taste, so a lot of people didn't like that."

His chicken and andouille gumbo has the holy trinity, but also a stock fortified with chicken and neck bones. He's also added a vegan-friendly gumbo z'herbs, with no roux as a base. Cooked for 22 hours, it's a healthier option headed into Fat Tuesday.

"We do over 29 different varieties of leafy greens; collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, beet greens, carrot greens, escarole, swiss chard..." Bannos said.

Vegan gumbo? Really? Maybe for somebody else. I'm going to go with the old school chicken and andouille, since they've been doing it for more than 30 years at Heaven on Seven.

Nita's Gumbo
4153 183rd St., Country Club Hills

Carryout only:
8100 S. Stony Island

Fifolet Cajun & Cocktails
1942 W. Division St.

Heaven on Seven
111 N. Wabash Ave.
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