I have, sadly, never been to New Orleans, nor am I Catholic, but when a friend gave me a huge bagful of fresh greens the other day, my first thought was to make that Creole Lenten specialty gumbo z’herbes. I did my usual Internet recipe research and discovered, as I expected, that there was a great deal of variation in how to make the dish–no consensus even on such basics as whether to thicken it with a Creole-style roux or with file powder. In fact, some of the recipes didn’t seem all that Lenten to me, containing impressive amounts of meat and sausage.
The one common denominator: greens, and lots of ’em–everyone recommended using a variety, preferably seven different kinds for luck. I was good for that: my friend had given me kale, beet greens, turnip greens, Asian mustard greens, and three different colors of swiss chard. A quick supermarket trip turned up no Creole sausage, but I got some Mexican longaniza that stood in quite well.
And then, on to cleaning and chopping all that vegetation. Every recipe said to discard all the stems from the greens, but I hate throwing out good food, which the stems are if you treat them right. I did remove them all, but only so I could simmer them separately, putting a little extra heat under them to get them as tender as the leaves. The chard stems especially were a great addition, as they’re so tender to start with; but even the kale stems got nice and soft with my treatment.
Cooking greens are notorious for hiding grit in all their nooks and crannies. To wash them properly: pile them all in a sink, fill with cold water, agitate the greens in the water as best you can, then pull them out and pile in a colander before draining the sink. Drain and rinse away all the grit left in the bottom of the sink, then repeat at least one more time, or until there is no more grit left in the sink when you drain it.
- Several generous bunches of fresh cooking greens, preferably seven different varieties, but in any case as many as you can manage–anything from collards, kale, and mustard greens to cabbage and lettuce counts
- 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup light-flavored vegetable oil (I used canola)
- 1 large onion, peeled and diced
- 2 to 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced fine
- 3 ribs celery, diced
- 1 lb. spicy sausage, cut into 3/4″ slices
- 1 dried red chile pepper
- several whole black peppercorns
- 2 whole cloves
- 1/2 tsp ground allspice
- 1 heaping tsp. poultry seasoning (I was out of marjoram)
- 2 bay leaves
- salt to taste
- Thoroughly wash all the greens as described above, then roughly chop into 1-inch strips. If you’re also using the stems, chop them into 1-inch segments too, and keep them separate.
- In a large heavy pot with a well-fitting lid, bring about a quart of water to a high rolling boil. Turn it down to a still very active simmer, and then add the greens (just the leaf parts). If they won’t all fit at the first go, don’t panic; just put the lid on the pot and let the first batch cook down a bit, then unlid and chuck in more greens, repeating till you get them all in. Turn the heat to low, cover, and let simmer until very tender, at least an hour. If using the stems, bring some more water to a boil in another pot, place the stems in, cover, and turn heat to medium-low, letting them cook till they too are tender.
- Drain the cooked greens and stems, reserving all the cooking liquid (the “pot likker”). Chop all the greens and stems finely and reserve.
- Rinse out and thoroughly dry your large heavy pot, and place back on the stove. Add the oil and heat on high until you can see the surface of the oil rippling. Add the flour gradually, whisking thoroughly after each addition so that all the flour is incorporated with no lumps. Cook this roux on medium-low, whisking continuously and watching that it doesn’t scorch, until the roux turns a golden peanut-butter brown, which can take a good 20 or 30 minutes.
- When the roux is ready, start adding the greens cooking liquid gradually, again whisking in each addition thoroughly so as to prevent lumps. Once all the liquid is incorporated, turn the heat up to medium, stirring frequently, until the thickened liquid bubbles but is not yet boiling. Now add all the rest of the ingredients, stirring as best one can so that everything is well combined. Turn the heat to low, cover, and simmer at least another hour.
- Stir again and adjust seasonings. Serve in large soup plates over mounds of steamed white rice. Makes 8 servings.
Notes: Feel free to use more or other meats (ham, pork, veal, a ham-hock or ham-bone, etc.), and to vary the seasonings. You can also leave out the meat altogether to make this vegan, in which case I’d up the seasonings even more, and maybe add some of that vegan soy-chorizo to preserve a sausage-y note. The flavor will also change depending on which kinds of greens you use–because of the kale in mine it tasted very green-y, which since I love greens is a very good thing. For a smoother texture, you can run some or all of the simmered greens through a food processor before adding to the thickened cooking liquid.