DISCOVER, CREATE PLATE: FILE POWDER
Several years ago, I was invited to be a part of a gumbo-making competition. Never having made gumbo, I did what I do best -- I [recipe] faked it! I practiced several batches till I created a recipe I was happy with.
In my recipe research, I came across filé powder, which I had never heard about before. Filé powder is made from the dried ground leaves of the Sassafras tree. Sassafras, also called Cinnamon Wood, is indigenous to North America and filé was first used in cooking by the Choctaw Indians. Historically sassafras root bark was used in medicines. However, the bark contains safrole which has cancer and liver concerns therefore safrole-containing products are banned in the US and several other countries.
Filé powder is safrole-free so it can be used in cooking. You might not find it in your everyday grocery store but you can find it in well-stocked epicurean markets like Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and on Amazon.
Filé powder has a flavor that is hard to describe. It is a little bitter, reminiscent of cloves, and adds an earthy flavor. You don't need a lot. It is often used in Cajun and Creole dishes like gumbo and jambalaya. Stir in the powder at the end of cooking after the food has been removed from the stove because adding filé to high heat can cause your dish to have a stringy texture. If you are preparing the gumbo in advance, add the filé powder after you reheat the dish, just before serving it.
Filé has a mild thickening effect but is most often used for flavoring. You could leave it out of the recipe, but some Gumbo connoisseurs might have your head for it. Then again other Gumbo lovers prefer to use okra in place in filé -- the debate on which is better is still ongoing! My gumbo also contains a dark, mahogany roux and a hit of bourbon for maximum flavor. Find the recipe here!
Slow on low-heat cooking gives the flavors in the gumbo plenty of time to marry. But I find gumbo best the next day.
Serve with hot-long grain rice and buttery cornbread for a comfort dish worth waiting for.