Saturday, April 23, 2011

Gumbo Z'herbes and faith

Gumbo Z'herbes and Rice by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I'm cooking from "Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life," New York Times food writer Kim Severson's memoir. In deciding on a recipe to accompany the interview, I lighted on the Gumbo Z’herbes, the recipe included with the chapter on Leah Chase, owner of Dooky Chase restaurant in New Orleans. The profile of Leah Chase is one of the most touching in "Spoon Fed," a woman of faith facing a tremendous crisis - the destruction of her historic New Orleans restaurant, Dooky Chase, in the floods following Hurricane Katrina.

Leah Chase serves Gumbo Z’herbes, or Green Gumbo, on Holy Thursday, to fill bellies before Good Friday fasting. It's a kitchen sink kind of dish, a boatload of greens and meats cooked separately then combined in a gumbo unlike any you've ever tasted. If you have a CSA (community supported agriculture) subscription, this is a dream recipe for using up the bunches of greens that show up weekly in the cool days of early spring. This is stevedore food, rib-sticking and hearty. Invite your friends and neighbors and ask them to come hungry.

I first read about green gumbo in an article Francis Lam wrote for and took elements from that recipe, Severson's instructions and Leah Chase's own barebones recipe in "The Dooky Chase Cookbook" to come up with this version. It's one of those recipes that comes out slightly different each time you make it - the combination of greens will change, you may or may not add okra (I don't have Louisiana cred, but I can't imagine making gumbo without okra.), you might add pork instead of beef, or chicken instead of pork. What matters is that you have faith, as in "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1) Cooking is all about stepping out on faith with the assurance that pilot light will turn on, the water will boil and the greens will release their magic into the broth. Give this recipe a try, and if you do, let me know how it turns out.

Greens and alliums for Gumbo Z'herbes by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Gumbo Z’herbes (Green Gumbo)
 (adapted from Spoon Fed and and the Dooky Chase Cookbook)

2 small ham hocks

At least 7 varieties of the following greens:

1 bunch greens such as mustard, collard or turnip, or all three

1 bag fresh spinach or 2 boxes frozen, chopped spinach

1 small head cabbage

1 bunch carrot tops

1 bunch beet tops

1 bunch arugula

1 bunch parsley

1 bunch green onions

1 bunch watercress

1 head romaine or other lettuce

1 head curly endive

1 bunch kale

1 bunch radish tops

( I used romaine, arugula, curly endive, curly kale, green onions, parsley, 2 (10 oz.) boxes of frozen spinach and a head of cabbage)

3 medium yellow onions, roughly chopped

1/2 head garlic, peeled, cloves smashed

And now for the meat:

2 pounds fresh hot sausage (chaurice is authentic NOLA, look for hot Italian without fennel otherwise)

1 pound andouille sausage

1 pound smoked pork sausage

½ pound ham

1 pound beef stew meat

(I used 12 oz. andouille because that’s the way it’s packaged in my store; 1 lb. kielbasa; 1 lb. boneless beef chuck, fat removed, cut into 1-inch pieces; and 2 pounds hot breakfast bulk pork sausage. Next time, I’m skipping the stew beef and using pork roast or chops or maybe chicken.).

1 (12 oz.) package frozen cut okra, or a pound of fresh okra, trimmed and cut into ½ inch pieces

1 cup flour

Vegetable oil as needed

3 teaspoons dried thyme

2 teaspoons cayenne pepper

3 bay leaves

1 vegetable bouillon cube, optional

Salt to taste

Cooked white rice to serve

½ teaspoon file powder (optional)

Have at the ready two large stockpots or Dutch ovens, the bigger the better, and a good-size skillet.

1. Before preparing the greens and meats, fill up a large stockpot with water and add ham hocks. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer while you work on the greens.

Curly Kale by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

2. Thoroughly wash all the fresh greens, removing yellow leaves, those with spots, and the tough stems. (to remove the stems of sturdy greens such as collards: fold inwardly lengthwise and pull off the stem, it should zip off like the string of a green bean).

3. In a second stockpot, place half the greens, half the onions, and half the garlic. Cover with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce to a simmer and cook for up to 30 minutes, until greens are very tender. Transfer greens to a bowl, using a slotted spoon, to cool. Repeat with remaining greens, onions and garlic. When through with the greens, be sure to reserve the cooking liquid (the pot likker if you speak fluent Southern).

Meat for Gumbo Z'herbes by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
 4. Shape the breakfast sausage into mini-meatballs. Heat a skillet over medium heat and sizzle up the fresh sausage mini-meatballs. Cook through, until no pink remains. Using your ever-reliable slotted spoon, remove the sausage from the skillet and drain on paper towels. Resist the urge to clean this pan - you will make your roux in this in Step 11. Reserve the fat from the pan.

5. While the sausage is cooking, prepare the other meats: andouille and smoked sausage should be sliced into ½ inch rounds; the beef and ham cut into ½ inch pieces. Set aside.

6. Back to the greens: using a food processor, or an old-fashioned meat grinder, process the greens, garlic and onions into a puree. Work in batches, adding cooking liquid to loosen the mixture. Set aside.

7. Remove the ham hocks from the ham broth. If there’s meat on the bones, pick it off and set aside. Discard the bones and fat.

Just about now is the cook's Maundy Thursday, the Garden of Gethsemane experience. You look around the kitchen and see dirty pots and pans and you've been cooking for a couple of hours and no finished food to feed your family and guests. How can anything good come out of this? This is where you run with endurance the race set out for you.Take heart, say a prayer,keep your eyes on the prize, hang in there, know that cooking is trust and the God that brought you thus far will carry you through to the end.

And you may want to have the number for Papa John's handy, just in case. (I can't imagine God having a problem with a Plan B.)

8. At this point you will need either one very large pot or two good-size stockpots, so arrange the greens, pot likker and the ham broth so that you will have either the one giant pot or the two medium-sized pots that will hold the finished gumbo.
9. In the two clean pots or one large pot, over medium heat, divide the pureed greens, the sausages, beef and chopped ham. Fill the pots with equal parts ham stock and pot likker, holding back a cup or two of each liquid. Put in the fresh or frozen okra and bring the gumbo to a simmer.

10. Remember the pan with the sausage drippings? Put it over medium heat and using a wooden spoon, scrape up the browned bits of goodness from the pan. Add the flour until combined. Use some vegetable oil to loosen it up and keep cooking until you have a paste, the base of a roux.

11. Keep stirring until the roux is nice and dark. If you’ve cooked Louisiana style before you know to summon up the courage to get that roux good and dark, building flavor and texture in the final dish.

12. When the roux is dark enough, the color of quality dark chocolate, put it in the stockpot or pots with the greens and meats. Add the seasonings – salt, pepper, cayenne, thyme and bay leaves. Taste. Add the vegetable bouillon if you think the dish needs just a little extra oomph.

13. Let simmer for at least an hour, until the meats are tender and the dish is a murky, swampy green. Adjust the liquid level if it’s too thick, using the reserved ham stock or water. While the gumbo’s bubbling away, cook up some white rice, if you're serving right away. (It's a good idea to make the gumbo ahead and reheat - this is one of those dishes that tastes better the next day.)

14. Remember to remove the bay leaves and serve the gumbo over white rice. A baguette is required with this. Be sure to put some hot sauce on the table, too.

15. Bless the meal and tell your company the house rules: the guests can indeed help with the dishes.

Green Gumbo with rice by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Text & images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.

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