Gumbo: A Love Story
Gumbo Z' Herbes (Green Gumbo)

Well hello there and Happy Mardi Gras!  Laissez les bon temps rouler!

Beginning on this day before, and continuing through the Lenten season, we'll be visiting the history of, including my own personal history with, gumbo. Just typing the word makes my heart flutter.

Though I'm a Texas girl now, and have been for 17 lively years, my culinary heart belongs to Louisiana, where I learned to cook beyond the nachos and ramen that served to fortify me as a teenager.

I spend a little time back in the area, and I'll be sharing some of those sojourns over the next few weeks, but still, today I'm homesick. Homesick for the big party of JOY that is Mardi Gras in New Orleans. For it was in New Orleans that I fell in love with a city, fell in love with its cuisine, and simply fell in love.

Today, I celebrate along with the Big Easy, with a non-traditional recipe for traditional Gumbo Z'herbes.

Customarily, Gumbo Z'herbes, also called Green Gumbo, or Greens Gumbo, is served meatless-- prepared on Holy Thursday for Good Friday. From that custom, it has grown to be served any time of the year, with or without meat, with one or all three members of the Holy Creole Trinity, with or without roux. I've tested recipes using all of the variations listed, and even a few more over the years (white wine used in the stock was a unique, and tasty version, but the one that added tomatoes? That was just wrong.).

This particular gumbo was made of, clockwise from upper left, Flat Leaf Parsley, Cabbage, Scallions-- green tops only, Collard Greens, Arugula, Turnip Greens, Dandelion Greens, Pea Shoots, and Lacinato Kale, center.

One of the fortuitous characteristics of this seasonal gumbo is that its season and greens season occur simultaneously. Greens, which can be grown all year long with success in Central Texas and most of the country, for that matter, are especially 'sweet' and at their very most prime in the colder months. As the temperatures in the field climb, the sometimes bitter, sometimes pungent greens become more so. Winter shows them off at their finest. Home cooks vary in the quantity of greens varieties to add, sometimes regulated by culinary lore and superstition, but usually agree on no less than 6, and as many as 15. Greens can include beet, turnip, radish, and carrot top greens, mustard greens, collard greens, any variety of lettuce including escarole, endive, spinach, or arugula, and any variety of cabbage, including tatsoi, bok choy, head cabbage and more,

Collect as many greens as suits you, but remember that variety in texture and pungency is your aim. For a large stockpot of gumbo, I used one bunch of each of the greens labeled above.

As is the case with so much culinary folklore, recipes are inexact, and quantities are more often measured in bunches, pinches, and handfuls, than exactly, so I will share this recipe in much the same way. It is an amalgamation of the many bowls of greens gumbo I've enjoyed over the years, and this particular version, the big crowd pleaser, has become the pot I stir most frequently. In fact I prepared it for the local farmers' market this weekend, and was pleasantly surprised by its reception by the young market-goers. One enthusiastic fella wrote down the name of my blog on his forearm with his Dad's pen, and approval. Those are the kind of votes of confidence that surprise and delight a chef or home cook, alike.

So where's the roux, you ask?  Well, as mentioned above, this dish is frequently made with, or without roux. There are three methods used for thickening a gumbo-- Roux, (golden, nutty-brown, or dark chocolate brown), Okra (currently not in season), and File' powder. We're using the file' powder here, for simplicity. Just this once.

Hint: I use trimmings and stems to fortify vegetable stocks, add to pesto, or even up the nutritional ante of a morning smoothie.

I'll share a little secret with you, while we're here. I never liked greens. They made me wretch. They were strong and slimy and YUCK. Until I learned how to prepare fresh greens, that is. Until I learned that I liked them smoky (with pork stock), a little salty, a little peppery, a little garlicky, and chopped very fine. Others have their own sworn-by methods, but for me and my gumbo pot, these are the rules. If there is among you those who also have turned up their nose at the mere mention of greens, this may be your gateway greens dish. Those kids at the market seem to think so.

So gather up all your greens, and get to work! To begin.....

Chop greens in bite-sized pieces or smaller, depending upon preference. Reserve in separate piles. Collect additional ingredients, below. (Refer to ingredient notes, after, for options, additions, and substitutions.)

  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 T lard 
  • 1 bunch each of an assortment of 6 or more edible wild or cultivated greens in varying tastes and textures (see photo, above)
  • 2 quarts chicken stock
  • Additional liquid (see notes)
  • 1 large smoked ham hock
  • 1 small bunch (about 6 twigs) of fresh thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • cayenne pepper, kosher salt, and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 4 cups prepared long grain white rice
  • Optional--Gumbo File' Powder

In a heavy-bottomed skillet, cook onion in lard until wilted and transparent. Add minced garlic and cook, stirring, one minute longer. Transfer to a large stock pot. 

Over medium heat, stir in greens in batches (using tougher greens like cabbage and kale, first), and allow to wilt slightly before adding the next batch. Greens wilt quickly, and you'll find that bushel of greens you had to very efficiently dress itself down to a soup pot in short order.

Add ham hock or other optional seasoning meat. Skip this step for a meat-free gumbo, natch.

Cover with chicken stock, adding additional liquid as necessary to cover greens by a few inches. Add fresh thyme and bay leaf, and season with cayenne pepper, salt, and black pepper, to taste.

Bring to a full boil, skimming any foam released by ham bone, then reduce to a low, rolling boil, for 2 to 2 and 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally.

Serve over cooked rice, optionally adding file' powder to individual dishes.

Ingredient Notes: 
  • Lard can be substituted for butter, bacon drippings, or neutral-flavored cooking oils, if you're opting for a meat-free version.
  • Greens can include anything you can get your hands on, keeping in mind a variety of textures and flavors. Pepper Grass, a type of wild edible weed found in the region, was a traditional addition, however it has become difficult to find-- I use arugula, and often scallion tops, to duplicate its flavor as closely as possible.
  • Chicken stock can be substituted by, or used in conjunction with filtered water, vegetable stock, or even a little white wine. I begin with chicken stock, and add filtered water as needed to maintain the desired level of broth. 
  • I love the smoky pork flavor that informs this particular version, and frequently use smoked ham hocks, smoked turkey necks, or when I'm feeling fancy a smoked, cured ham steak. You may also omit the meat altogether, for Lenten Friday's and vegetarian and vegan diners.
  • I prefer to serve this gumbo over a separately prepared bowl of rice, however you may add the cooked rice to the finished gumbo, adding more liquid and warming through as necessary. 
  • Gumbo File' powder is used as a thickener in place of the traditional roux, or okra, which is not in season. It is added to the individual serving, and stirred in. It should not be added to the pot, as boiling the file' will cause it to become ropey-- and yuck. (the technical term.)
Additional reading: 

Green Gumbo-- Saveur
Gumbo Z'herbes-- Gumbo Pages
Leah Chase's Gumbo Z'herbes-- NOLA Times-Picayune
Hank Shaw's Green Gumbo-- Simply Recipes
A short history of gumbo--Southern Foodways Alliance

Stop back by later this week for Chicken and Andouille Gumbo, a perfect choice for warming the tummy, and the heart, on Notes from Maggie's Farm.

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