Eat Your Greens
It’s the Other Gumbo
By Tom Yates
Whether prepared with or without meat or with or without roux, the unusual gumbo z’herbes is always jam-packed with a multiple variety of greens — perfect for toasting a healthy new year.
Green gumbo requires a lot of greens.While purists claim it should never contain meat or roux, some versions of this deep south gumbo pack the double punch of both. Although a meat-filled version is customarily cooked, served, and eaten on Maundy Thursday during the week of Mardi Gras, it’s also served as part of many New Year’s traditions.
Unlike the more familiar gumbos of the deep south, gumbo z’herbes has deep rooted traditions that involve luck and good fortune. While almost any kind of greens can be used for gumbo z’herbes, tradition holds that an odd number ( 5, 7, 9, 11) ensures good luck and that the number used reflects the number of new friends to be made during the year. Because pigs move forward when they eat, eating pork is a lucky symbol for moving forward. Because greens are the color of money, they represent wealth and good fortune. So, whether it’s Fat Tuesday, Maundy Thursday, or any other day of the year, throw the dice, play the numbers, toss a pork-filled pot of green gumbo on the stove, and may the luck be with you.
A good gumbo takes time. It begs to be slowly coaxed and courted. Good things come to those who wait. And chop.
I rinsed, chopped, and set aside individual bunches (about 3 1/2 pounds) of Elmwood Stock Farm black kale and beet greens, Quarles Farm mustard greens, Shelby County turnip greens, Hoot Owl Holler Farm Appalachian greasy greens, scallions, fresh spinach, watercress, collard greens, fresh parsley, and 1/2 head cabbage.
With the chopping out of the way, I cooked the greens in 12 cups water for 30 minutes, drained them (reserving the cooking liquid), pureed half the greens with a hand held stick blender, tossed the pureed greens with the chopped cooked greens, and set them aside.
To roux or not to roux?
I’m all roux. Not so much for the slight thickening it provides, but more for the subtle smokey and nutty undertones it imparts.
I placed a very large stock pot over a medium flame before adding 1/4 cup peanut oil, 1/4 cup bacon grease, and 1/2 cup flour. Using a wooden spoon, I carefully stirred the flour into the fats and let it slowly bind into a creamy paste. With full attention, I stirred the roux constantly until it slowly turned from blond to light brown to medium brown. Just before it went to the dark side, I added 1 chopped onion, 1 chopped red bell pepper, 1 chopped green bell pepper, and 4 chopped garlic cloves.
After letting the vegetables sweat, melt, and caramelize in the roux, I added 1 quart brown turkey stock, the reserved 12 cups greens cooking water, 4 tablespoons lemon juice, 5 sprigs fresh thyme, 4 bay leaves, and 4 heaping tablespoons Cajun seasoning (2 teaspoon salt, 2 teaspoons garlic powder, 2 1/2 teaspoons paprika, 1 teaspoons black pepper, 1 teaspoon onions powder, 1 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano, 1 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme, 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper).
I brought the liquid to a boil, added 2 pounds smoked ham hocks, reduced the liquid to a simmer, partially covered the stock pot, and let it gently ripple for 2 1/2 hours, skimming the scum from the surface every 1/2 hour or so.
At the 2 hour mark, I scooped the hocks from the gumbo, pulled the meat from the bones, added it back into the pot, and tumbled 2 pounds pan-seared pork sausage (in lieu of andouille sausage) into the gumbo.
After 30 minutes, I pulled the gumbo from the heat, spooned it over white rice, and dusted it with filé powder (ground sassafras) before finishing with sliced scallions, blanched spinach leaves, and a pinch of cayenne pepper.
Tempered by the heat, mellowed with pork fat, and napped in nutty pot likker, the mixed greens surrendered their peppery bitter assertiveness to the long slow simmer, gently melting and swirling through the tender bits of meat. While the delicate ground sassafras (filé powder) added subtle hints of woodsy root beer-like earthiness, the fresh scallions perked up the sleepy gumbo with biting wet crunch. Soulful. Soothing. Humble.
Eat your greens.
This article also appears on page 16 of the January 2021 print edition of ace magazine.
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