Many people love the rich, lavishly spiced dishes of cajun and creole cuisine, but the more austere home cooking of fast days deserves appreciation, too. Gumbo z’herbes, the meatless green gumbo (gumbo verte, to many cajuns) of Lent, is a lesser-known variation of Louisiana’s favorite dish. More than a few recipes for this dish call for flavoring with ham, veal, or oysters; my version is completely vegetarian, right down to the roux. Historic recipes often cook the greens first, separate from the roux & seasonings–I just cook it all together (around two hours).
This recipe is rather elastic; I made it in a 7-quart pot, but it will scale slightly upward or downward without much adjustment at all.
Start by prepping an odd number of leafy greens. Folklore holds that an even number used in the gumbo is unlucky; seven the usual number. For this batch, I used collards, leafy mustard, napa cabbage, spinach, and flat-leaf parsley. Other commonly used greens include beet tops, carrot tops, and the wild-foraged peppergrass (Lepidotum virginicum, I think.) Wash the greens well, and tear out any tough central ribs. About 6 quarts of torn greens flavor 4 to 6 quarts of gumbo.
Chop two bell peppers (colored ones make a nice contrast against the greens), three ribs of celery, and two onions (about 1.5 cups, chopped). Chop a bunch of flat leaf parsley, at least two bunches of green onions (aka scallions, about three cups chopped) and tie four or five branches of thyme together with cotton kitchen string.
To keep this gumbo vegan, I made a roux with olive oil. For roux-making, I’m partial to enameled cast iron; its heat-retention characteristics make it perfect for rouxs, and my 7-quart pot is large enough to contain the finished gumbo. Some gumbo z’herbes recipes will use bacon grease or butter for a roux; apparently, dairy or meat by-products were perfectly okay on fast days during most of the 20th century.
Heat 1/2 cup olive oil in a heavy pot over medium-high heat. When a tiny pinch of dropped flour sizzles in the oil, vigorously whisk in 3/4 cup all purpose flour, continuing to stir until all lumps are gone. Because of the gumbo z’herbes’ simplicity, I like to use extra flour. A thicker roux creates a silkier gumbo in the end, and this gumbo can’t depend on any animal fats or seafood for texture.
At this point, switch from a whisk to a spatula or flat-ended spoon. A wooden implement is a good choice, as it won’t absorb heat from the pot or roux, keeping your hand safely cool during the long stirring.
Keep stirring; over the next 12-15 minutes, the starches in the flour will cook and caramelize. At first, you’ll see bubbles forming and the roux will look a little like rested pancake batter. Keep stirring. Don’t answer the phone; don’t text anyone. Stay committed. STIR.
After 7 or 8 minutes, the flour’s texture will change a bit. The mixture will no longer be pasty, and it will darken. A light, nutlike, toasted aroma wafts up from the pot; the texture will thin a little, and stirring is easier. Keep stirring. Enjoy your “roux facial” of vapors rising from the pot.
At the 10-12 minute mark, stirring is key. The roux’s texture changes again. It is granular, noticeably thicker, and no oil separates at the edges. The color is much darker–past “peanut butter” and into dark caramel. Make it as dark as you like.
When it reaches your platonic ideal of brown-ness, quickly stir in the chopped onions to arrest the roux’s browning. Cook the onions in the roux for 5-10 minutes. The roux will stick to the onions, which will begin to brown at the edges.
Next, stir in the chopped bell peppers and celery. Cook, stirring often, until the veggies begin to soften.
Stir in three cloves of garlic, finely minced.
Now, add two to three quarts of room temperature water (depends on the size of your pot) and as many of the washed, torn greens as will fit into the pot. Put the lid on and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes, or until the greens have wilted sufficiently to accomodate any remaining greens.
Once all of the greens are stuffed into the pot, add 1/8 tsp ground cloves, 1/4 tsp allspice, 1/2 tsp black pepper, and 1/4 to 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper.
Stir the seasonings into the simmering greens.
Add three or four bay leaves, crushed lightly. Tie the bundle of thyme branches to the handle of the pot (I’m too lazy to pick off all those little thyme leaves). In lieu of fresh thyme, add 1/2 tsp powdered thyme. Cover the pot, and cook the greens at least an hour, stirring occasionally.
Once the greens are limp and tender, stir in the chopped parsley, chopped green onions, and four to six cloves of garlic, also chopped. The juice of a lemon is nice, too. Add 1 tsp salt (or more to taste), a few shakes of Tabasco, and simmer for an additional 1/2 hour.
If the gumbo is too thick for your taste, add a little water. If it is too thin, uncover and simmer for an additional 1/2 hour. At this point, you may want to add more garlic, thyme, allspice, cloves, salt, pepper, or Tabasco, depending on your personal preferences.
Serve over hot, cooked, long-grain rice. Sprinkle a little file atop each bowl, or pass the file at the table.