Saturday, March 29, 2014

Accidental Grace: Gumbo Z'herbes

At some point contributor Jim Dixon of Real Good Food must have lived a past life in New Orleans, so in love is he with the people, music, culture and food of that city. Here he shares the lore and a recipe about one of his favorite dishes from the Big Easy.

I didn’t realize it was Maundy Thursday when I stopped at Dooky Chase’s for fried chicken. It was one of our first trips to New Orleans, and I was determined to try as many of the city’s iconic foods as I could. I had an extra hour, it was around lunchtime, and I was a few blocks away.

The place was packed. As I squeezed into the bar to order some chicken to go, I saw the specials board inked with the magic words, “gumbo z’herbes.”  It suddenly clicked that Easter was a few days away, but all I really cared about was getting some of this special once-a-year gumbo, made with a garden’s worth of leafy greens. And I got the chicken, too.

Always use an odd number of greens.

I’d read about Leah Chase’s famous green gumbo, and it had inspired me to make a simple gumbo with greens. I’d always thought gumbo z’herbes was a Lenten dish made without meat, but when I tucked into the bowl I’d brought home I found chunks of sausage. Miss Leah’s version calls for several pounds of meat, and I learned it’s eaten on the Thursday before Good Friday to prepare the faithful for a day without meat. A committed heathen, I like it any day of the week during gumbo season.

Make a dark roux.

While the early Spring sunshine heralds the approaching end of gumbo season, we’ve still got months of cool, damp weather ahead, perfect for a bowl of something hot and spicy. While my variation makes less than the original from Dooky Chase’s, it’ll still feed a small crowd, so invite some friends and have a party.

Gumbo Z’herbes

My own gumbo influences are Cajun, so I start with a dark roux. Combine about a half cup each of extra virgin olive oil and whole wheat flour in a cast iron skillet. Cook in a 350° oven for about 90 minutes or until it’s the color of dark chocolate. You can do this ahead, it keeps in the refrigerator indefinitely (or make twice as much and save half for the next batch).

While the roux’s cooking, chop an onion, some celery and bell pepper (about half as much of each as you have onion) and cook them in extra virgin olive oil in a large Dutch oven. Toss in a chopped jalapeno if you like things spicy. In a separate skillet, brown about 2 lbs. of cubed pork shoulder and at least one smoked sausage or andouille (I like the ones at Laurelhurst Market).

Add the meat (and scrape all the browned bits out of the skillet, deglazing with a little water if necessary) and the roux to the vegetables. If you’ve got any homemade vegetable stock or nettle broth, add at least 2 quarts, using water to make up the difference (or all water if you don’t have any). Bring gently to a boil.

Tradition calls for an odd number of greens, a nod to Catholic symbolism. A letter-writer to the Times-Picayune explained, "This is a traditional Holy Thursday meal for Creole families in New Orleans. The Nine Greens represent the Nine Churches visited on Good Friday in remembrance of Jesus' walk to be crucified." I used green cabbage, Swiss chard, beet greens, rapini, collards, cavolo nero and kale, but nettles, spinach, arugula, mustard greens, turnip greens, escarole, dandelion, carrot tops and bok choy all serve well. But use a mix of 7, 9, 11 or 13.

While most recipes call for a bunch of each, which makes an enormous pot of gumbo, use about a cup or so of each green for this more modest quantity. Chop your chosen greens coarsely to give you about a cup of each, and add them to the pot. Stir well and taste, adding salt if necessary. Cover and simmer for at least 2 hours. I usually don’t use it, but a few shakes of filé (pron. FEE-lay), ground sassafras leaves, are traditionally added just before serving.

Make some Kokuho Rose brown rice. Put about a cup of rice in a wide, shallow bowl and ladle the gumbo over it. Sprinkle with sliced green onion and pass the Crystal hot sauce.

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