FOOD: Gumbo z’herbes
Lent and soups have shared a connection on European tables for centuries. Here in New Orleans that link was strengthened when innovative Creole cooks incorporated American Indian ingredients, African techniques and Caribbean flavors. They turned meatless meals into powerhouses of taste and nutrition, using legumes, corn and other vegetables. Fish and shellfish stocked many fasting-day soups, but the 1901 Picayune’s Creole Cook Book lists 17 Lenten soups containing no meat or fish whatsoever. Instead, they relied on carrots, cabbage, parsnips, dried peas and beans, celery, lettuce, rice and lots of herbs.
A novelty soup that could go either way – vegetarian or seasoned by meat – stands today as the soup most identified with Lent: “gumbo z’herbes” (herb gumbo), also known as green gumbo. Its creation is attributed to the Creoles, who first served the soup during Holy Week. Peculiar to New Orleans and labeled a gumbo, it is made of at least seven different greens. However, the more greens, the merrier, because tradition says that for every green a cook puts into the gumbo, they’ll make a new friend that year.
Imagine the Creole cook starting her day early at the French Market, selecting from young cabbage, radish tops, turnip and mustard greens, spinach, watercress, parsley and green onion. They surely chose fresh herbs such as thyme and sweet marjoram, and if meats were a part of the preparation, veal brisket or lean ham. By noon a meal would be ready, served with rice and fresh French bread.
Okra is not an ingredient of most green gumbos. Nor did early cooks make a roux for them, but later recipes used one.
Some cooks used filé powder. Choctaw Indians made this thickening agent from young and tender sassafras leaves and also used it for medicinal purposes. The Creoles found other uses for it – such as in filé gumbo. Filé still is manufactured today and widely used in gumbo.
Gumbo z’herbes recipes beg for experimentation with different greens and herbs, with and without a roux. Consider the possibilities: turnip, mustard, dandelion and collard greens; kale; celery stalks and leaves; beet and carrot tops; chicory and more. In the springtime, fresh herbs are pushing up through the soil; these will not only add fragrance and flavor to the gumbo but run up the number of new friends.
1 bunch collard greens
1 bunch mustard greens
1 bunch turnip greens
1 bunch kale
1/2 cabbage, shredded
1 bunch beet tops
1 bunch carrot tops
1/2 bunch Italian flat-leaf parsley, leaves only
1 bunch watercress
1 bunch (or bag) spinach
1 bunch radish tops
1 bunch green onions, chopped, white and green
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup flour
1 large onion, chopped
3 stalks celery with plenty leaves, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound andouille sausage (sliced) or smoked ham (cut in
chunks) or a combination*
Salt, pepper and Creole seasoning to taste, about
1/2 teaspoon each
3 bay leaves
1 teaspoon thyme leaves
1/4 teaspoon marjoram
2 quarts water or vegetable stock
Choose at least seven of the above greens. Rinse well, making sure that no soil, sand or insects cling to the leaves. Remove any coarse or tough ribs. Greens can be rinsed several times in a sink or leaf by leaf under running water. Roughly chop all and set aside.
In a large, heavy pot, make a medium-dark roux with oil and flour. Add chopped white onion and celery stalks and sauté until soft. Add garlic and sauté a minute longer. Add meat, seasonings, half the water or stock and the greens, including the green onion and celery tops, and cover and simmer for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add remaining stock and simmer for 1 1/2 more hours, stirring occasionally. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve with cooked rice. Serves 8.
*Using meat is optional. Traditionally, the gumbo is made with meat except during Lent. When not using meat, seasonings and spices can be increased slightly, and might include a clove and sprinkle of allspice.
Cream of corn soup is another Lenten favorite. Creoles often added eggs, but today’s chefs might prepare the soup with shrimp or crab meat. However, the soup is tasty without these enhancements and is made thick simply by scraping the corncobs.
8 ears corn, yellow or white
2 tablespoons butter
1 onion, chopped
4 cups vegetable broth
Pinch of Italian seasoning
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup half-and-half
Remove shucks and silk from corn. With a sharp knife, slice off half the kernels into a large bowl or plate. With a dull knife, scrape the rest of the corn from the kernels. Set aside.
Melt butter and sauté onion in a medium-size heavy pot. Add corn, broth and seasonings, and cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove 1 cup of the soup and puree in a blender. Return to the pot along with half-and-half. Heat to serve but do not boil. Serves 4.