Wednesday, March 16, 2011
No Mumbo Jumbo, Just Gumbo
Like contributor Jim Dixon of RealGoodFood, I like to do a little research online when confronted with a new topic. So when I got his essay on Cajun gumbo z'herbes, it was mere moments before I was happily clicking through links on the Goog. It's there I read one recipe that called for no fewer than five greens in a proper z'herbes (Jim uses one). Another said that many Cajun Catholics, who developed gumbo z'herbes for days when meat-eating was discouraged, will often add a ham hock or other meat for "seasoning" purposes only, pulling it out before the meal is eaten and keeping the meatless letter of the law.
I’m continuing my exploration of gumbo, and it seems the more I learn, the less I know. The best primer I’ve found is on Wikipedia. The bottom line seems to be that a whole lot of stuff has been called gumbo. Some has okra, some has file, some has neither. But my gumbo is most like the Cajun versions, which always start here: “first, make a roux.”
first roux followed the advice of New Orleans chefs Donald Link and John Besh, which meant an hour of stirring the fat and flour until it looked like dark chocolate (top photo). The process is straightforward, but does require some care and attention. Then I saw a discussion on eGullet about making roux in the oven. I tried it, it worked, and it fits right into my general approach to cooking, which is making things when I have the time, then using them for a meal one, or even several, days later (beans, for example).
Gumbo with Greens
In a cast iron skillet I stirred together a half cup each of extra virgin olive oil and white whole wheat flour (made from soft white wheat; I use whole grains whenever I can, and this worked fine for the roux). The skillet went in to a 350° oven, and two hours later I had a beautifully dark roux. I scraped it into a small bowl and put it in the refrigerator.
I’d been wanting to make a simple version of gumbo z’herbes, a sometimes vegetarian gumbo often served only at Lent (which was last week). Traditional recipes call for a variety of greens, often a number significant to Catholic theology (seven for example, akin to the Sicilian feast of seven fishes served Christmas Eve), and usually the vegetables are cooked and sieved to a puree. It’s a lot of work, and after reading what Salon’s Francis Lam wrote about it, I knew I needed to tweak the recipe.
My version only uses one green, my favorite, cavolo nero (aka “lacinato” kale). Collard greens or even regular kale would work, or you could use a variety of greens. I heated my oven-made roux gently in a Dutch oven (you don’t want it to burn), then added a chopped onion and cooked it for several minutes. Roughly equal amounts of chopped celery and green bell pepper went in next, followed by half a jalapeno (also chopped) and several cloves of garlic. Season with chile powder, cayenne, salt, black pepper and paprika, or use a Cajun spice blend.(If you want to tart this up with some andouille, tasso ham, or other smoky pork product, cut whatever you choose in smallish chunks and toss it in.)
While these vegetables cook for about 10 minutes, chiffonade a bunch of cavolo nero (take about half the leaves, stack them together, roll into a tight bundle, and cut across the stem into roughly half inch ribbons). Add the greens to pot and pour in 3 to 4 cups of water. Stir and simmer, uncovered, for at least an hour; 2 or even 3 hours even better. You may need to add a little more water depending on how thick you want your gumbo (dark roux makes a thinner gumbo). Serve with Kokuho Rose brown rice.