Take a map of the United States, put your finger on Key West, then trace the arc of the Gulf of Mexico: up through the Keys, then gradually turning west along Florida’s big bend, across the Panhandle, around Mobile Bay, through Biloxi and into New Orleans.
Think of the culinary traditions, ethnic influences, and the seafood and other local ingredients that have contributed to the great dishes of the coastal Southeast. In Key West, Cuban black bean soup and lobster salad made with Florida lobsters. Fried oysters and oysters on the half-shell from Apalachicola Bay. Fried chicken, chess pie, pimento cheese, po’boys and cornbread all along the Alabama-Mississippi coast. And from New Orleans, muffalettas, shrimp Remoulade and gumbo. Especially gumbo.
This is the heart of “Gumbo Love,” a new cookbook by Lucy “LuLu” Buffett that is a culinary map of Buffett’s life. It spans the towns from Key West to New Orleans where she has lived (many) and the ones where she has restaurants (LuLu’s in Destin, Florida, and Gulf Shores, Alabama). Buffett will appear at Books & Books on May 22 to talk about “Gumbo Love.”
The recipes include traditional Southern dishes, updated classics with a twist, Cuban cuisine by way of Key West and dishes that aren’t particularly Southern but are among her favorites. The first chapter is about desserts, an acknowledgement of the Southern sweet tooth. A full chapter is devoted to fried food. There’s even a chapter of cocktails and mocktails, from mango margaritas to drinks inspired by the rivalry between her two home-state teams, Auburn and Alabama.
And then there’s gumbo, the Cajun-Creole stew (typically Creole gumbo has tomatoes, Cajun does not) that is one of Buffett’s early food memories and now her signature dish. This cookbook has recipes for five gumbos, including Gumbo Z’Herbe, an almost-meatless stew built on a variety of greens and flavored — if you’re not a vegetarian purist — with a ham hock that can be removed before serving. It also has Lucy’s Signature Summer Seafood Gumbo, with crab, shrimp, tomatoes and okra, which we tested for this article.
“My grandmother would have a pot of gumbo on the stove every Friday,” Buffett said in a phone interview, recalling the weekends spent at her grandmother’s house in small-town Mississippi. Being a Catholic, her grandmother made seafood gumbo on Fridays — usually with enough left over for a side dish at Sunday dinners.
Young Lucy loved hanging out in the kitchens of both her grandmothers, always underfoot, watching them prepare the enormous spreads for Sunday dinners. The passion for cooking skipped a generation, though, and her mother didn’t pass along any culinary skills. Later, as a divorced mother of two children, Buffett taught herself to cook.
“Gumbo is not the first thing I learned how to cook,” she said, “but it is the first thing I learned to master. So it has a lot of meaning for me.”
When she opened her first restaurant, LuLu’s Sunset Grill on Weeks Bay, Alabama, she featured gumbo. “Gumbo was something special from my earliest memories of family love and togetherness, and now here it was, paying my bills, making my customers happy, feeding my children,” she wrote in “Gumbo Love.” “People kept on coming for gumbo and the company and the atmosphere.”
Gumbo begins with roux, a combination of hot fat and flour that adds flavor and acts as a thickener. Then comes the Holy Trinity of New Orleans cuisine — chopped onions, celery and bell pepper — followed by stock, tomatoes for Creole-style gumbo and a long simmer. Seasonings are added, including chiles if you like it spicy. Chicken or sausage meat not too much later; seafood just a few minutes before serving, and finally chopped green onions and parsley or cilantro.
“It takes courage to make a gumbo,” Buffett wrote, and indeed it does. Okra is used to thicken some gumbos, but cooked wrong, it can make a slimy, stringy mess. Roux is intimidating even for experienced cooks. Cooked at a high temperature that requires constant attention, it is brought just to the edge of burning. Done right, roux adds a lovely, toasty flavor. A few seconds too long and it burns, its flavor scorched and bitter.
“Roux takes practice,” says Buffett, who writes about roux as if it were a person, a temperamental diva. It steams, it spits and leaves battle scars on a cook’s arms. “It’s kind of a rite of passage for Southern cooks.”
Buffett moved around a lot, learning the cooking styles of each place and developing her own takes on them, which she included in “Gumbo Love.” She lived in Key West with her brother, Jimmy Buffett (yes, that Jimmy Buffett), where the Cuban influence led her to include picadillo and black bean soup. She also included tres leches, in which she substituted buttermilk for heavy cream, giving the cake tanginess to offset the heavy sweetness.
From New Orleans, inspired by the muffaletta sandwich, she created recipes for a chopped muffaletta salad (salami, ham, Italian sausage, provolone, olives, pickled vegetables) and muffaletta sliders, made with tubes of Pillsbury French bread dough cut into roll-size pieces.
She developed recipes for many of the fish pulled from the Gulf: grouper with balsamic butter glaze, bronzed yellowtail snapper with citrus beurre blanc sauce, scampi amandine and crabmeat au gratin. True to Southern traditions, many of the recipes use lots of butter or cream, but Buffett notes: “I did put some healthy choices in there.” One of them is red snapper Veracruz, from a port city on Mexico’s Gulf Coast.
We tested about 10 of her recipes, starting with her signature seafood gumbo, which was delicious. Other favorites: shrimp and crab dip, pimento cheese (next time I’ll add more hot sauce and worry less about finding a specialty beer), corn salad (another healthy choice), pasta with crawfish cream sauce (I substituted shrimp for crawfish), and a traditional buttermilk chess pie jazzed up with orange zest.
Overall, I liked the variety of choices in “Gumbo Love” and the way Buffett strung together her favorites from a region already well-loved for its cuisine. Some recipes were complicated and some were simple, but all were easy to follow and more accessible than those in many cookbooks by celebrity chefs or big-name restaurants. Many of those we tested felt like comfort food.
“I’m not fancy and I’m self-taught. I don’t consider myself a gourmet chef,” Buffett said. But her food is good, and to make it, home cooks don’t need to be gourmet chefs, either.
Marjie Lambert is local government editor of the Miami Herald and author of eight cookbooks. Follow her on Twitter @marjielambert.
If you go
What: Lucy Buffett will talk about her new cookbook, “Gumbo Love.”
Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables
When: 6:30 p.m. Monday, May 22
Information: 305-442-4408, booksandbooks.com
Book info: “Gumbo Love: Recipes for Gulf Coast Cooking, Entertaining, and Savoring the Good Life,” By Lucy Buffett (Hachette Book Group, $30)