Meatless Monday: Green Gumbo
Almost as soon as the last piece of King cake is inhaled and the Mardi Gras beads are hung up to rest, so begins Lent, the Christian season of abstinence and reflection.
If you’ve ever been to New Orleans, you know all about gumbo, a stew in both the gastronomical and historical sense; its role is beautifully summed up in “The Trout Point Lodge Cookbook”: “Gumbo evolved not only from the city’s history of trade and commerce but also from the interaction between aristocratic and slave cultures. Black cooks, unable to find ingredients they had used in Africa, substituted others closer to hand in a process that produced new culinary sensibilities in a new world. When you taste gumbo, it is like tasting history.”
Now, gumbo being a stew meant it became whatever the cook (or the family) had on hand --- one day, it might be shellfish from a day fishing in the river; another day, it might be rich in poultry after a day of hunting wild game. Sometimes it’s thickened with file powder and sometimes it’s enriched with okra (aka ngombo in West Africa), but for flavor, a roux is undoubtedly part of the equation. Equal parts fat and flour, a roux is slowly (and some would argue, lovingly) cooked on top of the stove, deepening in flavor as it darkens in color.
Observers of Lent are familiar with the theme of doing without an object of pleasure or luxury, which for many, means meat. Although particularly symbolic during Holy Week (the days leading up to Easter), meatless meals are a fixture of the 40-day season. Enter Gumbo z’herbes, aka green gumbo, a hearty stew made with the roux and all the fantastic Creole fixins but without a drop o’ meat.
You’ll have a hard time believing there’s no meat in this pot, but I’m tellin’ you the truth, Ruth: This is good eatin’ -- and good for you too, with at least five different greens tucked inside. Ideal if you make with a partner to cut down the prep time, but still do-able if you’re an organized solo pot stirrer.
P.S. It gets better on Day 2…and Day 3…
Gumbo Z’herbes (Green Gumbo)
Inspired by “The Trout Point Lodge Cookbook”
Here’s the trick: Get everything cleaned, chopped and ready to go before you even touch that stovetop. Stock can be made days in advance to eliminate the step – and yes, I highly recommend making your own veg stock, as it’s so easy and makes a big difference in resulting flavor.
2 leeks, thoroughly cleaned, trimmed and roughly chopped
3 cloves whole garlic, peeled
6-10 black peppercorns
small handful of parsley stems
1 bay leaf
Add all ingredients to a large saucepan, plus four cups of cold water. Bring up to a lively simmer, then cook over low-medium heat for at least 25 minutes. Strain and return to saucepan and keep at a low simmer.
½ cup fat – either unsalted butter or safflower, peanut or canola oil
½ cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
In a saucepan or soup pot large enough to accommodate the entire gumbo, heat fat over high heat just until either smoke rises from oil or butter begins to actively bubble. Add flour and stir with a tall, heavy-duty wooden spoon to completely blend. Prepare to stand by the pot for at least 30 minutes, constantly stirring the mixture as it changes color from blonde to brown. The color you’re looking for is a burnt orange, on its way to a shade of chocolate. You can go as dark as you like; the darker the roux, the more intense flavor, but it depends on patience and persistence.
One of the foundations of classic French cooking is mirepoix, a mixture of diced carrots, onions and celery, which is used to flavor sauces and soups. Its influences are felt deeply in Creole cooking, and its “mirepoix” called the “Holy Trinity” -- a mix of onion, celery and bell pepper.
½ medium onion, chopped
½ green bell pepper, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
Remove roux from heat and add the trinity, plus 2-3 cloves garlic, minced. Stir into the roux, return pan to medium heat and cook until softened, about 10 minutes.
Slowly add simmering stock to the roux, while stirring. Bring mixture up to a boil.
Gumbo seasonings and greens
Fresh thyme leaves, picked from approximately 4 stems (alternatively use 1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
1 chipotle chile in adobo sauce, diced
¼ teaspoon white pepper (traditional for Creole cooking, but optional, in my opinion, if you use all the other forms of pepper listed)
2 pounds mixed greens, cleaned, stemmed (if necessary) and roughly chopped, of any combination: collard, mustard, turnip, beet, kohlrabi, sweet potato, carrot tops, kale, chard, sorrel, dandelion, chicory – I recommend using about five different kinds of greens
Salt and pepper to taste
Add thyme, oregano, cayenne, smoked paprika, chipotle chile and white pepper (if using). Stir in greens – don’t worry; they wilt quickly and will make room for themselves in the pot. Season with salt and pepper and cook over low-medium heat for about 40 minutes, until desired tenderness.
Serve over rice.
Makes about six servings.
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