New Orleans Favorite Translates Well Up North
By Don Lesser | Photographs by Dominic Perri
Gumbo z’herbes, or green gumbo, was originally a meat-free dish served on the Thursday before Good Friday. Gumbo z’herbes combines as many greens as are available (but always an odd number) with New Orleans seasonings. These days it is as likely to have meat and sausage as it is to be served when the mood strikes. Best of all, you can make a version of it in the dead of a New England winter from farmers’ market produce or supermarket greens.
To those who say it isn’t authentic, I ask, “Just what is authentic gumbo z’herbes anyway?”
The variables are myriad: Ingredients that are readily available in New Orleans—pickled pork, Tasso ham, peppergrass—are not easy to come by in Western Mass. Roux or no roux? Meatless or meaty (and just what kinds of meat)? Grind, chop, or blend the cooked greens? Water or stock? Older recipes call for mace and allspice, which newer ones omit. New Orleans legend Leah Chase uses multiple meats including chicken.
No, the question is not whether it’s authentic. It’s whether you can interpret the essence of the dish in your neck of the woods using the ingredients that are available to you.
The master recipe lets you create your green gumbo: meaty or vegetarian, roux-based or gluten-free. One of these versions should suit your audience’s needs. The only non-negotiable requirement is that you use an odd number of greens. Even numbers are unlucky and tradition says that the number of greens in your z’herbes is the number of new friends you’ll make this year. In a pinch, parsley can count as either a seasoning or a green.
For greens, you can use collards, kale, chard, cabbage, spinach, beet greens, mustard greens, amaranth, romaine lettuce, parsley, celery tops, etc. The key is variety. Remove the stems from the greens by sliding a knife along the stem to separate the leaves. 15 cups of rough-chopped greens will cook down to four to five cups of cooked greens. In my kitchen this works out to five small bunches of greens and half a small green cabbage.
If you can get genuine tasso ham or andouille sausage, use them by all means. Tasso is hard to come by in New England and most andouille in New England doesn’t taste the same. So I prefer to use kielbasa for its garlicky taste and pork short ribs or thick-cut pork chops for the meat. You could also use a smoked pork hock, but too much smoked meat will overpower the dish.
If you omit the roux, brown your onions and meat well. If you omit the meat, you might use vegetable stock instead of water. I’ve seen one recipe that uses dried mushrooms for that umami flavor.
By definition, gumbo contains okra or filé powder. Filé becomes black and stringy if you reheat it. If you’re not planning on serving all the gumbo in one go, add the filé to the individual bowls just before serving. Laissez bon temps rouler!
Born in Queens, New York, Don Lesser came to the Pioneer Valley for an MFA in fiction in 1977. He has spent the last 30+ years living, cooking, and writing here. He currently lives in Amherst. He can be contacted via RusselNod.com.