When I think of gumbo, I think of a rich and velvety base that is punctuated with tender and juice pieces of sausage, shredded chicken, plump shrimp, okra or all of the above. I don’t think a good gumbo needs rice but it is almost always served with it. I wanted to make something traditional for the week of Mardi Gras but I didn’t feel like running around Los Angeles to procure the right kinds of meats or sea foods to create a gumbo that I could be proud of. I decided to go in a different direction. Make it from what I had. I’ve been getting a ton of greens in my CSA boxes lately and I remembered that there was a green, veggie version of gumbo I had seen on some Emeril Lagasse show once (after reading cookbooks, watching any cooking show ever is my second favorite pastime). I looked the recipe up and almost every recipe I found had some kind of pork product as the base. A ham hock in the greens, a slab of tasso in the broth. There might not have been chunks of pork meat in the final product but it was in there. Deep in the broth. So I decided to improvise which always makes me nervous.
I really wanted it to taste like New Orleans, like gumbo, like home, even without the meat. I read a lot of veggie and vegan blogs and I remembered reading somewhere that the smoky flavor is really what the meat brings to this sort of dish. I happened to have applewood smoked pepper and salt on hand so I decided to give it a whirl. Worst case scenario I’d have half a gallon of something disgusting to compost. Best case scenario I’d have a really amazing veggie version of gumbo that made good use of the truck load of greens I had in my fridge.
This version of gumbo is actually pretty traditional and serves a purpose. New Orleans is a traditionally Catholic city and Mardi Gras is a religious celebration. For real. Mardi Gras is the big blowout on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday when Catholics begin the fasting period they call Lent. During Lent every Friday is supposed to be meatless Friday. The exceptions are products made from animal fat which is where I think New Orleanians play fast and loose with the rules and why it was so hard to find an actual vegetarian recipe. You could probably make this vegan too, just use a plant based oil for the roux instead. I just didn’t want to cut too many corners when making this since I was deviating so far from the recipe path. I still wanted it to taste like Gumbo!!!
In spite of all of my hesitations and consternation about making a vegetarian Gumbo, it came out fantastic! It smelled and tasted like gumbo!!! I couldn’t believe it!! Turns out the thing that makes gumbo taste like gumbo is the spices, seasoning and the roux. The smoky salt and pepper that I added gave it what it would have been missing without the meat. It is completely delicious and satisfying, I don’t have to feel horrible for eating two helpings and all of the greens in my fridge found a useful purpose! I hope you love this as much as I do.
Adapted from Emeril Lagasse, Leah Chase, John Besh
- 4 bunches of greens (kale, spinach, collard, radish, chard, turnip greens, carrot tops, etc.)
- 2 cloves of garlic, smashed and peeled
- 3 allspice berries
- 5 peppercorns
- 1 whole clove
- 4 Tablespoons of unsalted butter
- 4 Tablespoons of All Purpose Flour
- 1 green bell pepper, chopped
- 2 large celery stalks, chopped
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 teaspoon smoked ground pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
- 1/2 teaspoon dried parsley
- 2 bay leaves
- 4 cups of veggie stock
- 1 teaspoon smoked salt
- 2 teaspoons filé powder (ground sasafrass leaves)
- Pull out two pots. One is for the greens and the other is for the roux and ultimately the gumbo.
- Wash your greens to make sure there is no dirt in there. Then coarsely chop them and add them to the pot with the smashed garlic cloves and spices (allspice, peppercorns, and clove).
- NOTE: You want to flavor the greens with the allspice, peppercorns, and clove as they boil but you don’t want to include them in the final product because it’ll be a little too intense. You have a few choices here, you can put the spices in a reusable tea infuser, or tie them up in cheese cloth or use a coffee filter that you tie or sew shut or use an empty tea bag or come up with your own ingenious solution with something you have at home that will make it easy to pull them out when the greens are done cooking.
- Add enough water to the pot to cover the greens and then boil the greens for about an hour.
- Strain the greens and garlic from the broth and then puree them until smooth. Reserve the cooking liquid and use it to thin the gumbo where necessary.
- In the other pot melt the butter over low heat and then add the flour. Cook stirring often until the roux has a nutty smell and is a dark golden brown. It is always recommended to do this over low heat because if left unattended for even a few seconds you could burn it and have to start all over. However, I always get too impatient and turn up the heat at some point to get it going faster. It requires constant stirring so that it doesn’t burn but it goes way quicker. Do this at your own risk!
- Add the “Holy Trinity” of onions, bell pepper and celery along with the chopped garlic and smoked pepper. Saute over medium heat until the veggies are translucent and soft. You do not want these to brown so keep the heat medium to medium low.
- Add pureed greens to the sauteed veggies and stir well. Add the reserved cooking liquid and stock to thin the soup to the desired consistency. Stir in thyme, oregano, basil, parsley, bay leaves, and filé powder. Cook for another 30 minutes. Season with smoked salt and additional salt to taste.
- Serve warm with rice or serve by itself as a soup.