Green gumbo: A Creole Lent tradition

Gumbo Z'herbes is so good it's only supposed to be eaten once a year. Leave things be special

Published March 27, 2010 1:01AM (EDT)

Green gumbo is controversial stuff. Ask any three people who insist they know what gumbo is and you'll get at least four different definitions. It has to have okra; no, it has to have dark roux; no, it has to have filé powder; no, it's ... whatever my momma used to do. It's like arguing about the nature of truth. My personal stance is that if you sound like you're from Louisiana and you want to call something a gumbo, it's a gumbo. Which is convenient, because my favorite is green gumbo -- Miss Gumbo Z'herbes, if you nasty -- and it really doesn't look like any other gumbo at all.

What it is, though, is incredible: a subsistence-farm's-worth of greens, between seven to 11 types, stewed together until they dissolve and all their flavors melt into one another. So it can be an interesting vegetarian dish, but you know that's not how this is going to end up going down. This recipe is from the great Leah Chase, one of the great Queens of Louisiana Creole cooking, and taught to me by Sara Roahen, the woman who made me love New Orleans like it were my own home. Miss Leah's gumbo z'herbes is a Lenten dish, eaten specifically on Holy Thursday to anchor a body for the Good Friday fast. And so, along with the seven greens, it's got seven meats, so it really shouldn't be attempted much more often than once a year. "Leave things be special," Miss Leah said to Sara.

So as with many special dishes, this, dear friends, is going to be an all-day affair. But it is absolutely worth it -- so complex, so bulky with ingredients, two bites are rarely ever the same: one minute it's beefy and tender, the next it's intensely vegetal and finishing with smoky, porky goodness and a hit of cayenne that warms the back of your throat. It is, I confess, a chore to make on your own, but it's not actually difficult. With a couple of friends and some clothes you don't mind getting dirty, it's a perfect way to spend an afternoon -- cooking, laughing, smearing yourselves all over with chlorophyll, and trying to keep your nerve while cooking flour for your roux so hot it wants to set you on fire. Good times!

So this is technically a recipe, but I'll give Sara a final word of advice before we start, from her marvelous book Gumbo Tales, "Gumbo z'herbes is not a precision project; it doesn't matter if the bunch of turnip greens you buy in Salt Lake City is half or double the size of mine. Every batch is unique, dynamic in its own way. Mrs. Chase didn't glance at the weights of the meats she bought when we shopped together ... When I reported to her that the gumbo had reduced the judges to expletives, Mrs. Chase responded, 'Well, you don't need to curse at gumbo.'"

Green gumbo (gumbo z'herbes)

Serves 20-30. Seriously. Make some phone calls.

Adapted from Sara Roahen, who adapted from "The Dooky Chase Cookbook," which was probably adapted from however Leah Chase felt like making it that day.

Between 7 and 11 of the following (traditionally an odd number, for luck):

    1 bunch collard greens
    1 bunch mustard greens
    1 bunch turnip greens
    1 bunch or bag spinach
    1 bunch carrot tops
    1 bunch arugula
    1 bunch parsley
    2 bunches green onions
    1 bunch watercress
    1 head romaine or other lettuce
    1 head curly endive
    1 bunch kale
    1 bunch radish tops
    1 bunch pepper grass
    1 bunch basil

3 medium yellow onions, quartered
½ head garlic, peeled, cloves kept whole
1 pound andouille sausage
1 pound smoked pork sausage
2 pounds fresh, bulk hot sausage
2 smoked ham shanks (or 3 big, meaty ham hocks)
1 pound beef chuck, or other stewing meat
½ pound ham (we're showing restraint here)
1 pound chicken (drumettes or wings preferred)
Vegetable oil
1 cup flour
2 tablespoons dried thyme, or to taste
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper, or to taste
3 bay leaves
Salt, to taste
½ teaspoon filé powder, optional

Special equipment: An arsenal of huge pots, a wooden spoon, and be prepared to improvise.

  1. Before you even finish unloading the groceries: get those ham shanks (or hocks) boiling in 3 big pots on 3 burners, preferably totaling 6 gallons in volume, all half-full with water. (Did I also mention this is going to be an all-burner, all-kitchen affair, too?) When they come to a boil, turn down to a simmer.
  2. Look at the forest of greens you have! Think of all the nutrients, all the hard work and sweat and dirt that went into them. Now, it's hard work and sweat to get the dirt off of them! This is where your friends come in. Clean out your sink and wash all the greens, tearing off and discarding any tough stems, which is easy when you learn to hold onto the stem with one hand, stripping off the leaves with a pulling motion. Drain the greens.
  3. Get pots of stock back up to a vigorous boil and divide the greens into them, along with the onions and garlic. If the greens are overflowing your pots, well, you will probably just have to wait to cook another batch later, or see if there's more room in the pots as the greens wilt. Add water to cover if necessary. Get the pots back up to a boil, covered, and then turn back down to a simmer. Depending on the kinds of greens, it may take 30 minutes to over an hour to cook. When they're ready, the delicate greens like spinach or arugula will basically be melted, and collards and kale will be tender but should have a kind of sticky, "grippy" feel in your teeth when you chew them.
  4. While the greens cook, cut the ham and beef into ½-inch cubes and the link sausages into ½-inch coins or half-moons. Set all these aside. Roll the fresh bulk sausage into ½-inch meatballs.
  5. Heat a large, heavy sauté pan over medium heat until a sausage ball sizzles on contact, and brown the fresh sausage in batches. They don't have to be extremely browned, just enough to get a little color and render the fat out. Take them out with a slotted spoon, season the chicken pieces lightly with salt, and brown them in the sausage fat. (Those are magic words, aren't they?) When they are lightly browned all over, remove them, and pour the fat out into a heat-proof measuring cup. Look at your pan. Some browned bits are great, but if they're getting charred, clean it or use a new pan for the roux. If you have less than 6 oz of fat, add some vegetable oil; if you have more, pour it off.
  6. Check the greens. If they're done, great! Pull out the ham hocks and let them cool. Fish out all the greens, keeping the stock in the pots, and using a little bit of the cooking liquid to lube it all up, puree them in batches. Miss Leah traditionally uses a meat grinder, but when she loved the results from a blender or food processor. When the ham hocks are cool, pull off and shred the meat, and add to the rest of the meat.
  7. Now look at your pot situation. How many will you need to fit all the pureed greens, all the meats, and maybe half of the stock? Ok. Divide the greens and meats into those pots, and add enough stock to make it all a soup, not a sludge. Bring these pots to a boil, stirring frequently so they don't burn at the bottom, and turn them down to a simmer.
  8. Now for the roux. Heat that sauté pan (or a higher-walled saucepan if you're nervous about the very hot roux you're about to make) over medium-high heat. Pour in the 6 oz of sausage fat. If it's bubbling, let it cook and evaporate all the moisture. When there are no bubbles and the fat is hot enough to move around the pan with the consistency of water, slowly but diligently stir in the flour with a wooden spoon until it's well combined. It should be a tight, but stirrable paste. If it's too thick, add a little more vegetable oil, but just enough to make it stirrable; it will thin out as it cooks. Cook the roux, stirring constantly, being sure to cover the whole surface of the pan, and watch how it changes both in color and consistency. When it's nearly pecan-colored and about the texture of heavy cream (it takes a while) divide it into the pots of gumbo. Be careful! This stuff is insanely hot, and may cause the liquid to bubble when it hits the gumbo. If you're nervous, let it cool a bit in a heatproof bowl before stirring it in. And don't call a lawyer.
  9. Once everything is in the appropriate pots, you're almost home free! Let it all simmer together for about an hour, until the beef is tender. As it cooks, add the thyme, bay leaves, salt and cayenne to taste (I like it so that there's enough heat to catch the back of your throat, not hit you hard up front.) Check the texture after it's simmered for a while; it's up to you, but if it's sludgy, thin it with the stock until it's a thick soup consistency.
  10. If you're using the filé powder, make the gumbo a little thinner and put a few ladles of the gumbo into a mixing bowl at the end of cooking and stir the filé in. It will get very thick. Stir this mixture back into the gumbo with the heat off.

Serve with white rice. 

By Francis Lam

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

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