Catholic Cook Matt Maggio: Stirring Up Tradition With a Cajun-Italian Twist

Featuring a simple recipe for Chicken and Sausage Gumbo that will be a fan favorite for large gatherings

Matt Maggio
Matt Maggio (photo: Courtesy Photo)

Cradle Catholic Matt Maggio was born in Southeast Louisiana and raised in a devoutly Catholic family in the Dallas area. He became very deeply rooted in his faith while in high school and became active in the Knights of Columbus. Now as an adult, Maggio is married and is immersed in the faith.

“We are living the Catholic life,” he said. “My wife is also a cradle Catholic, and we both have a deep connection to our parish, St. Edward in Spring, Texas. The priest gives excellent homilies, and the Mass is very reverent. We teach our kids to pray, to talk to God throughout the day, and our son knew the St. Michael prayer before he was 2. We volunteer for the church. And with the Knights, I have cooked for a lot of events, serving spaghetti, fried fish, and full dinners. … At home, I like to cook, and I take care of the meat; my wife does the vegetables. We are big on feeding other people and we like to cook. We joke that we are going to heaven by feeding people.”

Considering how he grew up with relatives who loved to cook and now cooks with his own family, it is not surprising that Maggio has stepped into the kitchen and participated in cooking contests. As Maggio noted, cooking has always been an important factor in his life.

“Italian and Cajun food was the central part of our family life,” he said, “and we would always celebrate every event, and everyone cooked. Sometimes Grandma did the bulk of it, and we would help with pies and other dishes.”

“And on my dad’s side,” he continued, “we had more Italian cooking and everyone helped. My grandma on my mom’s side taught me to cook pies and gumbo, and how to make side dishes. Dad taught me the Italian language of food and, when I was in high school, how to cook chili. He liked chili a certain way and no restaurant around where he grew up cooked what he liked. In the south, no beans were cooked with chili so he learned to cook it without beans.”

Living in Texas adds to his love for chili — and accounts for Maggio’s participation in chili cookoffs. As he said, “Living in Texas, we eat a lot of it. There’s a good restaurant called Tolbert’s in the town of Grapevine and the chili there is wonderful. Frank Tolbert was a newspaper editor and he wrote a book about Texas chili, and he started the first cookoff.”

The first cookoff began in the ’60s and became an annual event in a town in Southwest Texas. Maggio instead cooked at several events in College Station outside of Houston, and then only participated in Knights of Columbus cookoffs. “Every one of them has a different feel,” he said.

“The day before, I made a 5-gallon batch,” he said, “So the day of the challenge, the chili would change. I now cook on-site in the morning, starting at 8 a.m.  It is all done by 10 a.m., and cooks in about two to four hours (the competition batch takes a little longer, but the batch for the public takes two hours).”

Why is his chili so distinctive? He picks chunky meat like chuck or brisket and started with a recipe posted online from Tolbert’s. He tweaks it a bit and cooks the meat until it is tender and absorbs all the spices and chili seasoning. “It is really edible,” he said.

He also said he loved to slow-smoke brisket, which he has done for several events. “I started in college where I ate brisket. … Dad got me a smoker when I was in college, and I started learning how to smoke brisket,” he said. “We had an event in college to raise money for the local Catholic pro-life center and we called it a ‘hoe down.’ … I scheduled it for a day when I had nothing on the calendar and smoked the brisket for 24 hours. I slept overnight next to the smoker, and it was the best brisket ever made. I’ve been chasing that result ever since.”


Recipe: Chicken and Sausage Gumbo

“It is not a ‘fast’ recipe, but it is not complex and is a fan favorite for large gatherings. Essentially, when you serve the gumbo, we spoon some chopped parsley and scallions into the bowl and those who like it a little spicier will add hot sauce at this point. My preferred brand is Louisiana. My brother prefers Tabasco,” Matt Maggio said. “Our family debates the origin of this, but some in my family add a scoop of cold potato salad to the bowl right before eating. I think it adds a creamy taste that I like but is pretty regional and not all Cajuns agree on it. For an additional option, I sometimes add duck to the meat if I have it on hand.”


Ingredients:

  • 1 whole chicken, deboned
  • 1 pound andouille sausage
  • 1 cup diced celery
  • 2 diced onions
  • 1 whole green bell pepper 
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 jar premade roux (Savoie’s Dark or Kary’s Dark are my go-to)
  • 4 cups rice
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  • 1 bunch scallions, chopped rough
  • 1 bunch Parsley, chopped fine


Directions:

Brown the chicken and then the sausage. Slice the chicken up in strips but don’t shred or cube. Slice the sausage.

You’ll want to use a large heavy pot (think an 8-quart Dutch oven at the smallest). Simmer the … celery, onion and bell pepper in the oil. Some people try to skip the bell pepper, but it is crucial to the Cajun dishes. As my cousin Johnny Blancher says, “Like our Catholic Faith, (these three ingredients are) not up for debate.”

As soon as you start the meat, you’ll want to get your roux ready. “No self-respecting Cajun would use jarred roux,” you may hear your proudly Cajun friend saying. Introduce him to confession and spiritual direction to deal with his pride, because there are plenty of Cajuns south of I-10 in Louisiana who just don’t have the patience to stand over a stove for hours making a homemade roux and resort to jarred roux. I typically warm my roux from the hard brick covered in oil to the correct consistency by boiling 1/3 sauce pot of water and standing the uncapped jar in the water until the roux turns to the consistency of melted peanut butter. Don’t allow the water to get into the jar or the hot water and oil could react. Warming of the roux should be complete by the time the celery, onion and bell pepper are cooked down.

Scoop/pour the liquid roux into the celery, onion and bell pepper and mix around. Really coat the vegetables with the roux. Sometimes you need to add a little more oil to mix well. Go ahead and add water to cover the vegetables and mix again. Add in your chicken and sausage, add in 1 teaspoon of salt, and 1 teaspoon of pepper, and add water until the pot is 3/4 full. Simmer for 1-2 hours, until the meat is nice and tender.

Cook your American-grown long-grain white rice: ratio your rice as needed, depending on the number of people you’re serving. 1 cup of rice to 2 cups of water, lightly salted is the best ratio. Bring to a boil and then turn to low and cover the pot for 40 minutes.

Serve by adding a scoop of rice and filling the bowl with the gumbo. Add the preferred amount of chopped green onion tops and chopped parsley to finish it off. A couple of dashes of Louisiana hot sauce add the right amount of spice right before eating.

Edward Reginald Frampton, “The Voyage of St. Brendan,” 1908, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin.

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