Southern Gothic

My friends in the south and casual readers who stumble upon this post alike will forgive me if I seem a bit know-it-allish about southern cooking. I have, after all, long claimed to make the best gumbo anywhere. And my fried chicken, barbecue and mint juleps don’t suck either.

Gumbo z'herbes with Spanish rice

Gumbo z’herbes with Spanish rice

The other night, just home from a road trip and exhausted, I turned on PBS to discover a wonderful documentary called “Pride & Joy,” all about southern cooking. It was beautifully shot, with no narration, simply introducing you to the people making the food throughout the south — the toothless paddlefish caviar fishermen, the gentlemanly Kentucky bourbon distiller, the buttermilk maker who likens his product to Viagra and admits that he loves it so much it “sometimes embarrasses me,” the Georgia cattleman who likes to drink his 750 ml. “glass” of wine in his pasture at the end of each day, the Czech guys in Texas making kolache sour cream pastries, the squirrel hunters and the purveyors of pig ear sandwiches, the North Carolina pit master and the New Orleans oyster shucker — all in their own words.

One of my favorite of all the delightful characters was a 90-year-old African American woman in Louisiana named Leah Chase who was stirring a big vat of gumbo z’herbes — green gumbo — a tradition of Holy Thursday in the south. Rich in symbolism, Ms. Chase explained, green gumbo always incorporated an odd number of greens — 3, 5, 7, 9 or even 11 — for reasons she couldn’t recall, and the number of greens included would predict the number of new friends the cook/diner would make in the coming year.

Leah Chase serving up bowls of gumbo z'herbes in her New Orleans restaurant, Dooky Chase

Leah Chase serving up bowls of gumbo z’herbes in her New Orleans restaurant, Dooky Chase

Here was something I’d never heard of before — green gumbo! It seemed fit in perfectly with my new dietary world order of flooding my body with greens whilst attempting to retain the lavish decadence to which I’d grown accustomed.

I counted the number of greens in my fridge — five: kale, arugula, turnip greens, onion greens and Italian parsley. Fewer than I usually have, and the garden has gone fallow… so it would have to do. I’ve got plenty of friends, anyway.

I trolled around online for recipes and found many — including those from such recognizable names as Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray. I read approaches from obscure food blogs in the south, and from respected magazines and publications. And based on what I had at hand (always a good traditional starting point for any gumbo) devised my own version.

Starting with an andouillle sausage I had in the freezer, I built up the flavors over the course of several hours. I then cooled the soup and left it in the fridge for a couple days — a neat trick for soups or stews of this kind that make the result even better when you finally put spoon to bowl. The result, dashed liberally with Tabasco, was rich and smoky, layered and satisfying. The perfect soup for a cold autumn day, or — if your a traditionalist — a Holy Thursday.

Ms. Chase’s version, which I also found online, includes two kinds of sausage, ham, brisket and stew meat. Here’s my version, lighter on the meat. Add more greens for more friends in the coming year.

*    *    *

Gumbo z’herbes
serves 4 – 8

4 tbsp. grapeseed or canola oil
1 andouille sausage
4 tsp. flour
1 carrot, diced
1 rib celery, diced
1 small onion, diced
2 quarts chicken stock
about 1 lb. mixed greens, chopped (kale, spinach, mustard greens, etc.)
1 bay leaf
1 large sprig thyme
1 tbsp. filé powder
salt & pepper to taste

Heat oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Cook andouille sausage for 5 minutes on each side, until crisp and browned. Remove from pot and set aside to cool.

Stir in flour until smooth, making a roux. Continue cooking and stirring the roux until it is the color of peanut butter — 10 to 15 minutes. Add diced vegetables and cook, continuing to stir, about 5 minutes. Cut andouille sausage to your tastes and add to pot. Add chicken stock.

Bring soup to a rolling boil and add in greens, bay leaf and thyme. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and cook for one hour. Remove lid, pluck out bay leaf and thyme sprig. Stir in filé powder and season to taste with salt and pepper. Let sit for 5 to 10 minutes, covered.

Serve over rice with Tabasco sauce to each diner’s taste.

14 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. thefatcook
    Dec 06, 2013 @ 15:40:09

    Not gumbo, but quintessentially Southern, I’m doing my first true blue country ham tomorrow night for a dinner party. It’s “reverse brining” in a bucket on my porch as we speak. Ever attempted this unique ham before? I don’t like to serve things for the first time at dinner parties but couldn’t justify the standard trial run with a 15 lb hunk of pork.


    • scolgin
      Dec 06, 2013 @ 23:04:06

      Aren’t country hams something like proscuitto — i.e. dry cured?


      • thefatcook
        Dec 07, 2013 @ 00:48:11

        More like speck because it’s smoked, but essentially, yes. That’s why it has to be soaked for a couple days first-to extract a portion of the salt. It was as hard as a rock when it arrived.

        To be honest, I’ve never made gumbo let alone a healthier version with greens. I’ll have to try it some time.

      • scolgin
        Dec 07, 2013 @ 00:56:30

        Wow, cool. Can’t wait to hear how it turns out. Ship me some if it’s good. 😉

        Gumbo is one of those great dishes that is flexible to your tastes and cupboard — just so long as you’ve got the roux right, thyme and usually okra.

  2. linnetmoss
    Dec 06, 2013 @ 21:32:50

    This sounds fantastic. I always think of gumbo as including okra, but I’m not that fond of it, so this makes an interesting alternative. Now, how’s your red beans and rice?


  3. Jessamine in PDX
    Dec 07, 2013 @ 09:04:08

    This goes down as the first time I’ve seen you go “lighter on the meat!” At any rate it looks fantastic. Perfect for a cold blustery winter day like today — we (tragically) had our first snowfall here in PDX. Also I can totally get down with a 750 ml glass of wine. Sounds like my type of guy.


    • scolgin
      Dec 07, 2013 @ 15:08:58

      Listen, I’ve got PDX snow envy! I’d love a little more “season” than we get down here. Yeah, you WOULD like the 750 ml glass of wine guy — especially considering I’m guessing he comes with a pretty good rib steak.


      • Jessamine in PDX
        Dec 07, 2013 @ 18:37:15

        Ugh! I am a winter/snow hater. I think growing up in Alaska just burned me out on cold weather. When I moved to Portland I didn’t think it would ever snow here. And I was so so wrong. Feel free to trade me places!

      • scolgin
        Dec 07, 2013 @ 18:53:11

        Oh, yeah… you’d probably love our Mediterranean climate down here.

  4. Michelle
    Dec 07, 2013 @ 14:47:22

    I’ll have to look for that show. Isn’t Leah Chase a treasure? But, wait. What happened to the andouillle you found in the freezer? I think you left it out of the recipe. (Though it still sounds good.)


  5. rachelocal
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 23:03:09

    Can’t beat the flavor of slow-cooked greens and pork products. You’ve reinvented a classic here – but I don’t think I could have left it to sit in the fridge for a couple of days. You must have epic will power.


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