Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Easy Being Green (Gumbo z'Herbes)

Cajun cuisine may be stereotyped as all pork fat and crawdads, but gumbo z'herbes stands as a saucy testament to the cardinal importance of vegetables. While no dish would be complete without "the Holy Trinity," a blend of celery, onion, and green bell peppers, gumbo z'herbes raises the stakes by rounding up a potful of fresh greens and letting them rock out front and center. This recipe is extremely timely as April rains coax new shoots of tender green from the warming earth and budding leaves form misty plumes of color painted along the limbs of trees. Gumbo z'herbes is a fun, family-friendly dish that packs magnificently satisfying body and flavor with nary a shellfish nor ham hock in sight.

Cajun and Creole cooking are too often conflated, owing to their shared French origins, extensive blend of Spanish, German, Italian, African, Caribbean, and American Indian influences, and a reliance on the local game and produce of Louisiana. Both lay claim to gumbo as a signature dish, but, while there are no hard and fast rules with gumbo, there are distinct variations. One of the primary distinguishing traits between the two is the fat of choice used to make the roux ("roo"), a pan-bronzed paste of fat and flour that forms the base of sauces and gives them their heft and body. The Cajuns, exiles from what is now known as Nova Scotia, were used to making do without dairy products and thus tend towards oil, whereas the European-trained Creole chefs continued the grand Continental tradition of butter and plenty of it. Another giveaway is the addition of tomatoes, a loan to Creole cooks from Italian kitchens that should never find its way into a Cajun gumbo.
I still snuck in some Italian parsley
Most people I know weren't even aware that gumbo comes in green, thinking the stew was defined by its inclusion of parabolous combinations of meat and seafood. This may be because gumbo itself tends to be something of a mystery beyond the South, or perhaps because the vegetable version is often reserved for the prohibitions of Lent. Either way, I think it certainly deserves more attention and is worthy of making throughout the year. In a taste test, gumbo z'herbes beat renditions featuring shrimp & tasso ham and chicken & andouille sausage, a remarkable recommendation if ever there was one. In addition to the seasonal edge and flavor advantage, the absence of meat makes this gumbo a cheaper and healthier alternative.

Veggies, hooray!
Like a lot of stewed dishes, this one is pretty relaxing, something you can mind for an hour, stirring occasionally, while still keeping up with family and friends. The fruity richness of extra virgin olive oil mingles with rustic whole wheat flour to form a hearty, complex roux that gives the sauce a substantial, stick-to-your-ribs texture. While burning is to be avoided, the toasty depths of the the roux are important to develop, as they balance the bouquet of bittersweet greens and a liberal dusting of Cajun spices. An ideal way to employ the first greens of spring while the nights are still chilly, no one will leave the table disappointed. 
0% disappointed

Gumbo z'herbes

Adapted from

Traditionally, gumbo z'herbes is made with a gathering of seven different greens for luck; like Voldemort's horcruxes, or the colors of the rainbow before 1996. For this gumbo, we chose a mix of arugula, baby spinach, dandelion greens, flat leaf parsley, and radish sprouts, but other good options are collards, mustard greens, kale, watercress, and the various tops of carrots, beets, radishes, and turnips.

3 lbs mixed greens, carefully washed and drained
3 c water

1 tsp sea salt

For the gumbo base:
2/3 c extra virgin olive oil
2/3 c whole wheat flour
1 large yellow onion, medium dice
1 bunch scallions, white and light green parts thinly sliced, green tops reserved for garnish
2 large green bell peppers, medium dice
6 celery stalks, medium dice
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 c vegetable stock
3 tbs Cajun seasoning (recipe follows)
2 bay leaves

Tear the greens into large pieces and place in a large Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid (~4-5 quart capacity is good) . Add water and salt, cover tightly, and bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to medium low. Cook the greens, stirring occasionally, until they are wilted and yielding, about 15 minutes.

Defiant 'till the end
As the greens cook, heat the olive oil in another large, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven, over medium heat and warm the vegetable stock in a small saucepan on the back burner. When the olive oil is hot, slowly sprinkle in the flour, stirring constantly with a wire whisk. Reduce the heat to medium low and cook the roux, stirring constantly, until it is silky, toffee-colored, and emits a nutty, toasted aroma, about 15 minutes.

Are you getting nuttiness?
Stir in the onion, scallions, bell pepper, celery, and garlic. Cook, stirring often, until the vegetables are softened and the garlic smells sweet rather than sharp, about 5 minutes. By now, the greens should be finished.

Strain the greens, reserving their cooking liquid, and allow them to cool slightly in the colander. Slowly add the juice from the greens into the gumbo, stirring constantly to incorporate, then mix in the vegetable stock.

Increase the heat to medium high and bring to a simmer. Sprinkle in the Cajun seasoning and bay leaves and cook, stirring often, until the gumbo is thick and the vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes.

Once the greens are cool enough to handle, move them to a cutting board and chop into 1/2-inch pieces. Toss about half the greens into the gumbo.

Take the remaining half of chopped greens and mince them finely, then add into the gumbo and stir well.

Cover the pot and simmer for 10 minutes. Serve over hot rice, garnished with thinly sliced scallion tops. Serves 8-12.
Cajun seasoning

6 tbs sweet paprika
2 tbs smoked paprika
4 tbs kosher salt
2 tbs freshly cracked black pepper
2 tbs ground white pepper
3 tbs garlic powder
3 tbs onion powder
2 tbs dried thyme
1 tbs dried oregano
1 tbs cayenne pepper

Seal all ingredients in an airtight container and shake vigorously or whisk together in a small bowl.

A healthy hit of spices helps


Unknown said...

Love the addition of the cajun spice recipe!

James Pereira said...

Thanks! My mom always made her own at the countertop, though Paul Prudhomme's "magic" mix was always in the cabinet, too. I think the smoked paprika mixed into my recipe really makes a difference.

Ditto using gray salt instead of regular sea salt, the darker color comes from additional mineral deposits, which I swear translates to slightly sharper, tangier saltiness.