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Meatless Monday: Gumbo Z'herbes -- Mardi Gras' Afterparty

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It's not only Meatless Monday, it's Occupy Our Food Supply Day, so get involved. The ingredient in the secret sauce for making real food safe and accessible to all is you.

On Ash Wednesday last week, New Orleans sanitation workers held their noses and hosed down Bourbon Street, many Mardi Gras revelers still festooned in beads fumbled for their hangover remedies, Lent began and I blissfully chopped greens for a pot of gumbo z'herbes.

Gumbo z'herbes, or green gumbo, is a New Orleans tradition, complying with the Lenten abstinence from meat. Carnival, as Mardi Gras is also known, comes from the Latin carne vale -- literally, farewell, meat. You could also translate it as farewell, flesh, which no doubt the Catholic church would have preferred as part of the whole 40 days of penance, prayer and cleansing before Easter thing. The thing is, that just won't fly in New Orleans. Gumbo z'herbes is meatless, but one taste of this big, honking pot of greens stewed down to their essence proves the party's still going on come Ash Wednesday, and everyone's invited. You don't need to be Catholic (or hungover) to love it.

I've been making gumbo z'herbes for years, pronouncing it all this time with a French accent. Silly me. In Louisiana, they looked at me like I was crazy. There, they say gumbo zav, and they created it, so who am I to argue. And I can't argue with any recipe that gets the goodness of leafy greens in you. We're talking a lot of greens. Pounds of them, as many kinds as you like, as long as they're an odd number. This is believed to bring good fortune to those enjoying a pot of gumbo z'herbes, and if not exactly sanctioned by the Catholic church, it makes a good story and is easy enough to do.

It's especially easy now in Louisiana and points south, as the growing season kicks into high gear. Fresh, leafy greens are busting out of home gardens, community shared agriculture boxes and farmers markets, we're talking enough to give a home cook pause. Gumbo z'herbes takes what people too often think of as lowly greens -- collards, chard, spinach, watercress, sorrel, parsley, tatsoi, kale, dandelion, mustard and turnips greens, and whatever else you've got going -- and transforms them into something worthy of psalm. And being all green and no meat, it's pretty damn good for body as well as soul.

Gumbo z'herbes is not fast food. Its secret ingredient is time. It's a slow-cooked wonder. What holds all those greens together is love, but also roux, fat and flour cooked together. First, they form a paste, then with time and gentle heat, they become imbued with a deep, nutty flavor and form the backbone of any gumbo. You can't rush a roux. So don't try. Surrender to leisurely, expansive, luxurious gumbo z'herbes-making experience. Most of the work happens in the pot without your help, and the result is amazing. But you're allowed to cheat a little. If you've got a food processor, you've got it made.

At the risk of being heretical, I think of gumbo z'herbes as something akin to magic. The ingredients are basic and cheap, like maybe $1.50 per serving. And it makes a lot of servings, enough to feed a crowd. But gumbo z'herbes is more than Lenten sustainance. It's a party all its own, no beads or hangover cure required.

Gumbo Z'herbes

Serve over cooked brown rice, keep the Tabasco handy.

1/3 cup olive oil, plus 2 tablespoons
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
4 pounds of greens -- an odd number for good luck but otherwise the choice is up to you and what's fresh and available -- I used what came in my community shared agriculture box this weekend -- escarole, collards, parsley, tatsoi and beet greens.
6 cloves garlic
2 onions
4 stalks celery plus leaves
2 red peppers
a handful of thyme
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
6 cups vegetable broth
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Wash your greens really, really well. Best way I've found to do this is to plop them down in your sink, start with a thorough rinse, then pick them over, getting rid of grit and odd stemmy bits. Then shake in table salt and rinse again. The salt seems to help rid the greens of stubborn sand and such. Give a final rinse and blot dry.

The old school method for gumbo greens is to blanch or boil them, but I prefer steaming, which keeps all their lovely nutrients intact. Steam greens in batches -- it may take several batches, but the steaming itself should go quickly, no more than 8 to 10 minutes a pop, so the greens are tender but still vivid green.

Place greens in a colander with a pot beneath to catch all the good veggie broth.

In a large soup pot, make your roux. Pour in 1/3 cup olive oil and heat over very low heat. Whisk in the whole wheat flour so the two form a smooth, thick paste. Continue cooking, whisking occasionally, for a really long time, maybe 45 minutes, or until the roux starts to give off a toasty scent and turns chocolately in color.

Meanwhile, heat remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.

In a food processor, pulse onion and garlic so they're well-chopped, not mushy. Don't have a food processor? Get chopping. Add chopped vegetables to the skillet and stir.

In batches, pulse celery, peppers, and finally, the greens. Add each batch to skillet and stir. Once vegetables start to soften, about 5 to 7 minutes reduce heat to low, cover and continue cooking for another half hour or so, giving the thing an occasional stir.

Your roux and vegetables are now ready to meet each other. Gently stir in vegetable mixture into roux, so everything is well-combined. Bring heat up to medium-high. Add vegetable broth plus any good juices from the drained greens. Add thyme, bay leaf and cayenne. When mixture starts to come to a low boil, cover, reduce heat to medium-low and cook for another hour, stirring occasionally. Oh, don't complain, be generous of spirit. Call a friend, check your e-mail. Pour yourself a glass of wine, if it helps and the church doesn't mind (I won't tell if you won't).

After an hour, you can puree the gumbo with an immersion blender, if you like. Or not.

Splash in the vinegar, season with sea salt and pepper.

Then ladle up and enjoy.

Serves 8 to 10.

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