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Gumbo z’Herbes

(This dish has also been called “green gumbo”.)

The tradition behind Gumbo z’Herbes is that it was usually made on Holy Thursday for consumption on Good Friday. Since Good Friday was (and still is) a day of fasting and abstinence from meat for Catholics, something meatless had to be prepared for dinner. Catholics in New Orleans normally had no difficulties with the Church’s no-meat-on-Fridays rule, since we have such an abundance of seafood in the area. Good Friday was a bit different, however, since it is also a day of fasting. The regular Friday seafood feast had to be toned down dramatically in keeping with the tone of the day.

I don’t know much about all of the various levels of vegetarianism, but this version of the dish, based on a few different gumbo z’herbes recipes I’ve researched, is the one I’ve come up with that I like best. It contains meat only in the form of a smoked ham hock added for seasoning, and removed. You can omit it entirely if you’re strictly vegetarian, or go the other way and remove the meat from it, chop it, and add it to the gumbo. You could also make a hearty meaty dish by browning 1 pound each of diced smoked ham and diced veal, and adding it to the gumbo, or even andouille and/or Creole hot sausage.

You don’t have to use all these greens if you can’t find them, but I’d use at least five. I like using lots, ten or fifteen easily. It gets a bit more labor-intensive, but the flavors are marvelous. Don’t worry about being too exact — precision measuring is never done in this gumbo.

One magical ingredient — when I was a kid we used to pick this wild grass that was called “pepper grass”. If you chewed the stalk and seeds you’d get a distinct black-peppery flavor, but slightly more herbal. I once read that Creole women could be seen on neutral grounds and in vacant lots gathering pepper grass to use in their green gumbo. I’ve never tried this (not being entirely sure what pepper grass is, and if it grows anywhere outside Louisiana), but if you know what it is and you have it growing in your yard or nearby, I’m sure a bunch of this would add a wonderful dimension to your gumbo z’herbes.

This is an absolutely delicious gumbo. Don’t be afraid of it. I once served this to a dinner gathering in which I was the only Louisianian, and I was worried that I’d be the only one eating it, that everyone else would have a little taste to be polite and leave most of it in their bowls. They all went back for seconds and thirds, and this was before the main course and dessert!

1 bunch collard greens
1 bunch mustard greens
1 bunch turnip greens
1 bunch spinach
1 bunch watercress
1 bunch beet tops
1 bunch carrot tops
1 bunch radish tops
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley
1 bunch chicory
1 bunch pepper grass (if you can find it)
1 bunch arugula
1 bunch sorrel
1 bunch dandelion greens
8 or 10 sprigs of tarragon
1 head romaine, green-leaf or butter lettuce (not iceberg)
1 green cabbage
1/2 bunch green onions
1 gallon water, salted
1 large smoked ham hock (optional; omit if you want it strictly
6 tablespoons flour
4 tablespoons oil or shortening
1 large white onion, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
3 ribs celery, chopped
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
2 bay leaves
4 sprigs fresh thyme (please try not to use dried for this dish)
2 whole cloves
2 whole allspice berries
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Cayenne pepper to taste
6 cups cooked long-grain white rice

Wash all greens thoroughly and remove all stems or hard centers. Boil them all together in the water for about two hours. Strain the greens and reserve the water. Chop the greens finely and reserve. In a large, heavy-bottomed stock pot make a brown roux of the flour and shortening. Add the onion, bell pepper and celery and sauté for 10 minutes. Add the chopped parsley and sauté 5 more minutes.

Add the reserved cooking water, greens, herbs, spices, and seasonings. Simmer on low heat for 1 hour. Adjust seasonings as necessary.

Serve in large gumbo bowls. Put 1/2 cup of rice in each bowl, and ladle generous quantities of gumbo over it. Optionally, you may season each bowl with gumbo filé.

Yield: 12 servings

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