Thursday, November 3, 2011

Cooking with Greens: Gumbo Z'herbes

We get a lot of greens from our gardens on Brangus Lane and in Houston, and in Houston we also belong to a community-supported agriculture, or CSA. Every week we pick up our share of vegetables, and this time of year, greens are an important part of the harvest.  You know that greens are very good for you. The magnesium in them helps your mitochondria to work. The iron is good for your blood. The calcium is good for your bones. But sometimes it seems impossible to use all these greens! If only you could somehow sort of reduce them to a flavorful, nutritious essence...

Enter gumbo z'herbes, a concentrated, flavorful essence of greens. I first heard of this in a macrobiotic cooking class in Boston, of all places, where a classmate from Louisiana talked about it. The macrobiotic version, truth be told, was not all that great:  it was just chopped greens simmered in some water, maybe with an onion. I suspected that there was more to the original version.

Years later I saw a recipe for gumbo z'herbes in Gourmet magazine. The recipe I'm using today is adapted from the Gourmet recipe.  This version seems more authentic, as it calls for  ham hocks cooked for an hour to make a flavorful stock to cook the greens in. I also found a recipe in New Orleans Gumbos and Soups, by Kit Wohl.  The recipe in that book comes from a restaurant called Dooky Chase's, which I'd love to visit. This recipe has you boil the greens for thirty minutes, strain them, make a meat broth with a LOT of meat, and then a roux-thickened broth, to which you add the chopped greens and meat.  This recipe is probably even more authentic than the Gourmet recipe, but I prefer to cook my greens for a shorter period of time to preserve their vitamins and bright green color.

(Speaking of bright, green color: one thing that I've noticed about cooking with greens is that if you parboil the leaves whole for about 3-5 minutes, cool them, chop them finely, and then store the chopped, lightly-cooked greens in a bowl in the refrigerator, you will use them more in your everyday cooking. They are already prepped, and they look so good and colorful! You can simply saute these lightly-cooked greens in olive oil or butter, maybe with a sauteed onion, or add them to soups and stews at the end of the cooking. They could be folded into an omelet, a souffle batter, or a sauce.)

The basic idea for gumbo z'herbes is that you make a kind of thin soul food/cracker version of sauce veloute for its base, to which you add the cooked greens and meat. A classic French sauce veloute is a white sauce made with a fish or chicken broth stirred into a roux made with butter and flour. But in the South, we make our roux with pork fat of some kind, from bacon or lard or sausage, and our broth is made from ham hocks. The pig ruled Southern cuisine for most of our history.

(There is also a classic French sauce called sauce bechamel, where milk is added to the butter and flour roux instead of broth. In the South, we call it sawmill gravy, and again, the roux is made of fat rendered from bacon or sausage.)

So here's my adapted, somewhat simplified, somewhat brighter-green gumbo z'herbes recipe.

2 lbs greens (I used mustard greens and sweet potato greens)
1/2 lb bacon or 1# ham hock
2 small habanero peppers
1 chopped onion
2 garlic cloves
1 bell pepper chopped
2 T butter or bacon fat
2 T flour

Bring 2 quarts of water to boil in a large pot. Put the greens in the pot, one bunch at a time. You may have to cook the greens in three batches to fit the bunches in the pot. Don't chop the greens before cooking: they have more flavor if they're boiled whole. Parboil each bunch of greens for about five minutes, then scoop the greens out and put them in a colander to cool. When they are cool, chop them.

When all the greens are cooked, put the bacon or ham hock and habaneros in the cooking water and simmer for one hour. Strain. Chop the bacon, and take the meat off the ham hock, and set aside.

Cook the onions, pepper, and garlic in the butter in a pot for about five minutes. Add the flour and cook, stirring, for 2-3 minutes. Add the broth in a slow stream, stirring constantly. It will begin to thicken. This is your cracker sauce veloute. Add the chopped greens and bacon. Simmer, uncovered, for about eight minutes. Season to taste with salt and vinegar.

You can puree the soup with an immersible blender after cooking if you want it to be really smooth and like essence de greens.

Garnish it with cream, sour cream, Tabasco sauce, and a side of sausage. You can serve it over rice or with cornbread.

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