Gumbo Z'Herbes

Accidental Grace

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.

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 tender pork and smoked 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.

My own gumbo influences are Cajun, so I start with a dark roux, albeit modified with my own preferences. Combine about a half cup each of extra virgin olive oil and whole wheat flour in a cast iron skillet. Cook in a 350F 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, brown about 2 pounds of cubed pork shoulder and about a pound of smoked sausage or andouille (If I don't have any from Jacob's or Verboort in the freezer, I get andouille at Laurelhurst Market). 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 to a boil, reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for an hour or more.

Use a slotted spoon to scoop the meat out of the pan; set it aside while you cook the z'herbes. 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 usually use green cabbage, collards, mustard greens, parsley, and nettles if I have them. Other options include cavolo nero, kale, spinach, arugula, turnip greens, escarole, carrot tops, Swiss chard, beet greens, rapini, and bok choy.

Chop your greens coarsely, stems and all, and add to the stock the meat was cooked in. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for an hour or until the greens are completely soft. Let them cool a little and use an immersion blender to make a coarse purée; alternatively, use a slotted spoon to move the cooked greens to the food processor to purée. It'll look like a brownish-green sludge but don't let that stop you.

Chop an onion, a few stalks of celery and a green bell pepper (called the trinity in Louisiana). Cook them in the roux over medium heat with some salt until soft, about 5 minutes.

Add the meat and the roux-trinity mix to the greens and put it back on the stove. Taste for salt and simmer for at least 30 minutes; you want the pork shoulder be very tender. Make some Kokuho Rose brown rice (I use the Italian method: add the rice to a large pot of boiling water, cook at an active boil for 35 minutes, drain, cover, and rest for 10 minutes). Put about a cup of rice in a wide, shallow bowl and ladle the gumbo over it. Sprinkle with a pinch or two of filé powder if you've got some, and pass the Crystal hot sauce.


grating tomatoes for samfaina

grating tomatoes for samfaina

With basically the same ingredients and cooking technique, samfaina usually gets tagged as Spanish ratatouille. But Catalonians would argue that their neighbors to the north are really just making French samfaina. We can leave the wrangling to the nationalist gastronomes and just be happy it's the time of year when all of the produce used in making this summery dish are abundant and delicious.

To make samfaina, you'll need an eggplant, a zucchini or two, an onion, some kind of not-very-hot pepper (green preferred, but not a green bell pepper unless that's all you can find), a clove or two of garlic, and a few good tomatoes. (If you're a fan of the version served at Bar Pinotxo in Barcelona, add raisins and pine nuts to the shopping list; add the raisins with eggplant, toast the nuts and add at the end.)

Start by chopping the onion and cooking long and slow in plenty of extra virgin olive oil. While the onion is getting soft and golden brown, cut your tomatoes in half (across their "equator" so the stem end is on one half). Most recipes, including Pinotxo's, tell you squeeze out the seeds, but the seeds and their surrounding "jelly" contain most of the umami-rich glutamtes, so leave them in. Rub the cut tomatoes gently across the large holes of a box grater (over a bowl, natch) until all that's left is the peel.

Add the grated tomato to the onions with some salt and cook for about 15 minutes (or longer) until they've thickened. Cut the eggplant, zucchini, garlic, and pepper into small pieces and add. Cook over low heat for at least an hour (or, if you have time, put the skillet in the oven at 200F for a few hours, checking and stirring every once in awhile).

In the end you want a thick, jam-like sauce. You can eat samfaina by itself, spread it on grilled bread, set a piece of fish on it, spoon it over chicken, or stir it into a bowl of garbanzos. It tastes like slow-cooked summer.

Basic Braised Greens

cavolo nero in the garden

cavolo nero in the garden

I think cavolo nero (aka Tuscan or lacinato kale) and collard greens taste better than curly kale. My basic approach is to braise them with onion, olive oil, salt, and water. The secret ingredient is time; these sturdy greens are best if cooked for at least 45 minutes. More tender greens (chard, spinach, beet, etc) cook more quickly, so they usually just get a quick sauté.

Chop an onion and start cooking it in enough extra virgin olive oil to cover the bottom of your pan (anything with a lid will be fine). While the onion cooks,chiffonade a bunch of greens: Roll several leaves at a time into a tight bundle and cut into quarter inch slices. Or stack several flat and slice them. I like to cut these ribbons into pieces about 2 inches long for easier eating. It isn’t necessary to cut out the central stalk; you’re going to cook it tender.

Add the greens to the onion along with some salt and at least a cup of water; use more water if you want more pot likker. Cover, reduce heat to simmer, and cook. Check after 20 minutes and add water if needed to keep the bottom of the pot covered (I’ve burned greens more than once; if they're not completely black just say they’re “caramelized). Let them simmer for at least 45 minutes, longer is okay (but check for water). Drizzle with a bit of fresh extra virgin at the table.

Portuguese Marinated Carrots

carrots algarve.jpg

These are often served with drinks as a petisco, the Portuguese version of a tapa. Cut 3 or 4 carrots into roughly half inch slices (I split them lengthwise, then slice) and cook them in well-salted boiling water for about 10 minutes. You want them just barely tender, not soft.

While the carrots cook, make the marinade by stirring together a tablespoon of honey or sugar with a couple of tablespoons of Katz Sparkling Wine vinegar, then adding 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Toast a couple of tablespoons of cumin seeds in a dry skillet for a few minutes, until they're aromatic and just starting to brown.

Drain the carrots and add them to the dressing along with the cumin and a couple of cloves of chopped garlic. Chop a nice handful of cilantro and add it; add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. If you can, let this sit for an hour or more. It's not traditional, but I like a little red pepper heat, and if you like things hot, add something spicy, like a pinch of cayenne. (In a few weeks I'll have some of Necton's new flor de sal with piri piri chile, and it's really good sprinkled over the carrots.)

Serve these with good olives and a nice drizzle of extra virgin. If it's sunny, open a cold bottle of vinho verde and pretend you're in the Algarve.