Jump straight to the Gumbo Z’Herbes recipe or to the step by step instructions.
New Orleans seems to be one of those locations where everybody is born knowing how to cook. (Others are Jamaica, India, and southern France.) Endlessly inventive and with good instincts, those who make the food of the city share much with the inventors of that other iconic NOLA institution, jazz. Both music and cuisine throw multiple ethnic influences into a big old pot, and end up with magic.
Gumbo Z’Herbes is pronounced so that the er sound in “z’herbes” sounds like “air” rather than “urban.” It’s a French thing. One very authentic-seeming recipe that I found, from an old cookbook, failed to use roux, the flour/butter paste cooked to various shades of nut brown. I tried it without, but you gotta have roux. But, a relief for many, there’s definitely no okra. Originally, gumbo z’herbes was a dish you made at Lent. No meat, and an odd number of greens for luck, preferably foraged from your garden that morning. But the dish became so popular, you can now get it anytime, with meat added.
Watch the real deal as Leah Chase makes it and explains it at her famous NOLA eatery, Dooky Chase.
Gathering the Greens
It’s a great time of year to harvest greens if you either have your own backyard patch or a friend who’s pretty much done after a summer of weeding. My friend Cathy King at Frog Holler Farms here in Brooklyn, MI, gave me a tour of her farm and we picked and snipped along the way.
We ended up with the requisite odd number of greens for good luck: kale, collards, daikon tops, beet tops, carrot tops, arugula, and parsley. I especially like the soup as a good repository for vegetable tops. But if you don’t have access to those, consider cabbage, watercress, spinach. If it’s leafy and green and not lettuce, which is not something I’m comfortable cooking, it’ll work.
Gumbo Z’Herbes: The Step by Step
Now here’s the thing: Southerners cook the hell out of their greens. They like ’em that way. I made my first batch of Gumbo Z’herbes as close to authentic as possible, letting the torn and destemmed greens cook down for a solid 2 hours. My initial batch did indeed look like the ones in the video.
Problem is, I just don’t like the way my greens taste when they’re quite that done. Also, you can maybe get away with cooking them in plain water when you add the vast amount of meat that the traditional recipe calls for. I wanted just a little pancetta and some andouille as more of a garnish than an actual component. Still, I found I was relying on the meats way too much for flavor—because I’d effectively cooked out the flavor of the greens. I didn’t want folks making the vegan option to be shaking wooden spoons at me in rage for delivering a crappy recipe. Even with with meat, I honestly felt my initial effort was super meh.
So I remade a batch, this time starting with a sturdy vegetable broth base. Thanks to Issa Chandra Moscowitz, I’ve given myself the blessing to use the broth base from Better Bouillon. You add a spoon to some water, and voila.
I also made a roux. You can make an awesome, burn-proof roux in a crockpot. You get the rich color and don’t have to continually watch it. However, that will take a little planning, as it takes an overnight on low heat to get the roux to a rich brown. So I simply combined equal parts coconut oil and flour over medium low heat on the stove, and had a nice rich coffee-with-cream brown after about 15 minutes. You could cook it longer for a black coffee color.
By the way, once the roux gets to about a cafe au lait shade, it darkens fairly quickly. You don’t have to stir constantly up to that point as long as you keep the heat low, but you do want to keep a close eye on it the last 3-5 minutes.
Once the roux was at the color I wanted, I stirred in half a chopped onion, some green pepper, the sturdy greens—kale and collards, sliced thin—a heaping tablespoon of K-Paul’s blackened redfish seasoning, and topped it with garlic. Vegans may want to add a tablespoon or so of nutritional yeast for a little more umami.
I cooked that mix about 12 minutes. The sturdy greens hold their texture for about 20-30 minutes, and I like mine to be chewable, not mushy. Next I added the beet and daikon tops. After another 6 minutes or so, I turned off the heat, and added the carrot greens, arugula, and parsley. You can cover it with a lid to barely steam the delicate stuff until you’re ready to eat.
Vegans, shut your eyes. Carnivores, you can saute some chopped bacon or pancetta, then cook andouille in the rendered fat. I had a few shrimp sitting in the fridge, so I threw them in as well.
Gumbo traditionally hosts a scoop of fluffy white rice in its center. Wild rice is a great option for autumnal color and a pleasant nutty chew.
Just before you add the rice, give the soup a taste. Squeeze on a little hot sauce to make your witches’ brew just a tad devilish.