Like all good gumbos and much of Louisiana food, both Creole and Cajun, Gumbo Z'Herbes of Gumbo Aux Herbes, has many stories, and myths surrounding it. Eating it on New Year's day means the assurance of a steady flow of money throughout the coming year, according to one tradition.
And, along the bayous, they say that for each different green you put into the gumbo you make a new friend.
Since Gumbo Z'Herbes is nothing if not full of greens it is a favorite dish of anyone who appreciates the leafy tops of beets and carrots, the thinnings of most vegetables in spring gardens and any green vegetables grown just for their leaves.
In a new cookbook on Louisiana cuisine, "La Bouche Creole" (Pelican Pub., Gretna, La. $8.95) by Leon E. Soniat Jr., he calls Gumbo Z'Herbes, the green gumbo of country Louisiana, the king of gumbos.
Few recent cookbooks give recipes for green gumbo, however, the fewer restaurants feature it on their menus even in this part of the country where it originated.
I have been able to find it only in the New Orleans environs, at Roussel's on the Airline Highway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and they serve Gumbo Z'Herbes only in the week between New Year's Day and Easter Sunday.
Like all good gumbos, and almost anything else you fix in Louisiana, Gumbo Z'Herbes starts with a roux, and to make a good roux you need a good black iron pot. If you're lucky, it's been well-seasoned by being handed down from one generation to another.
The roux basically calls for cooking equal amounts of flour and fat such as oil, margarine, butter, lard or bacon grease in a black iron pot over a fast fire.
When the fat reaches the point of smoking, the flour is sprinkled on and, using a whisk, stirred very quickly until the flour begin to change color, from golden to light brown then to dark brown.
The seasonings and vegetables are then added. This is the modern way of making roux for gumbo. The old-fashioned method requires longer cooking over a low fire.
Frances Dorsey of Madewood Plantation makes it by starting with a slow fire, stirring the flour and fat together for at least half-an- hour before throwing in the seasonings, which many Cajun cooks call "Cajun Napalm" for obvious reasons.
Louisiana gumbo is a cross between a soup and a stew: eaten with a spoon from a bowl, like soup, but thick enough to be a stew. It's basically a pungent mixture inherited from Africa and the West Indies and perfected by Cajun cooks.
There are some people who maintain that when the early French cooks wanted to make boullabaise, unable to find the ingredients or seasonings of their native Marseilles they ended up with gumbo. We won't belabor the stories of the origins.
But there are also other interesting controversies surrounding this dish. One of the biggest is whether gumbo is better or more authentic made with file (sassasfrass powder) or with okra. This question has never been decided and I must admit I like it made with either.
Whichever is used, file or okra, is always accompanied by plenty of greens. In his cookbook, Mr. Soniat tells of going early in the morning with this Creole mother and grandmother, to the French quarter open-air vegetable market.
"The vegetable men or hawkers would be shouting, 'Get your greens lady, get your 12 greens, get your 15 greens, get your 7 greens.' Numbers changed as we passed the different stands."
But Gumbo Z'Herbes, which can be made without any meat at all or with just enough for seasoning, is one of the best and most nourishing dishes. Although termed King of Gumbos by Mr. Soniat, its inexpensive ingredients should make it grace the table of the peasant at least once a week.
On a recent visit to Madewood Plantation, I watched Gumbo Z'Herbes being prepared by two brilliant black cook-guides, Frances Dorsey and Thalma Parker. They daily lead tours through the beautifully furnished rooms of this old plantation home on Bayou Lafourche in Napoleonville, but can also set to and prepare a repast for hundreds, with everything on the menu from jambalaya to praline mousse.
It took Frances 3 hours to fix the gumbo and the taste justified every second. Watching her stir the roux, I got a tip I had never heard before. If you add a pinch of sugar to the flour and fat mixture, the roux will get browner a little faster and a little sweeter.
Frances also muttered that that's the way her mama used to fix it when she ran the boarding house on the Georgia sugar cane plantation and "folks today don't know what good eating is."
Following are two versions of Gumbo Z'Herbes.The first is prepared by Frances Dorsey and Thelma Parker, under the supervision of the mistress of Madewood Plantation, Mrs. Harold Marshall. The second is found in the newly published book "La Bouche Creole." Plantation Gumbo 1 bunch each of 5 greens from the following: spinach, mustard, turnip, watercress, pepper grass, carrot tops or radish tops. 1 bunch parsley, chopped 1/2 bunch shallots, chopped 1 small cabbage, chopped 1 gallon water 1 pound boiled ham, cubed 4 tablespoons flour 2 bay leaves 1/4 teaspoon allspice Cayenne pepper 1 large white onion, diced 4 tablespoons shortening 2 springs thyme Salt and pepper to taste 1 pint oysters with water, optional
Wash greens thoroughly, remove stems and hard centers. Boil 2 hours in 1 gallon water. Strain, reserve water and chop finely. Make a brown roux of the flour and shortening in large cast iron pot. Add ham and onions and saute about 5 minutes or until soft.
Add 5 greens and simmer 15 minutes. Add reserved cooking water, remaining ingredients except oysters.Simmer 1 hour. Add oysters a few minutes before serving just to heat through. Adjust seasonings. Serve over rice. Yield 6 to 8 servings. Gumbo ZHerbes 2 quarts water 1 package frozen spinach 1 package frozen mustard greens 1 package frozen turnip greens 1 package frozen collard grens 1/2 cabbage, shredded 4 bay leaves 1 teaspoon basil 1 teaspoon powdered thyme 1/8 teaspoon allspice 1/2 teaspoon cloves 1 stick butter (4 ounces) 2 onions, chopped 1 cup chopped celery 1 cup chopped bell pepper 2 tablespoons oil 1 pound stew meat, cut into small pieces 3/4 pound ham, cut into small pieces 4 cloves garlic, chopped 1 bunch shallots, chopped * 1/2 cup chopped parsley 1/4 teaspoon Tabasco 5 tablespoon flour Salt and pepper to taste 1 dozen oysters, (optional) 1 teaspoon file if desired
*When the Creoles refer to "shallots," they mean green onions or scallions.
Into the water place the first 10 ingredietns listed. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and let simmer, covered.
In a frying pan melt 1/2 stick butter, saute onions, bell pepper, and celery and add to greens. In same pan, brown stew meat and ham in oil and add to the pot. Simmer 1 hour then add shallots, parsley, garlic, Tabasco, salt, and pepper. Mix well.
Puree about a quart of gumbo in blender, if you like; return to pot, simmer 2 hours more.
Half an hour before gumbo is finished, add 1/4 stick and butter, at room temperature, to the flour, and work it into a paste. Add to gumbo and blend well. Add oysters a few minutes before serving, just to heat through. Serve over rice.
Another recipe, slightly different, is from "The Art of Creole Cookery" by William Kaufman and Sister Mary Ursula Cooper. Creole Gumbo 1 bunch each turnip greens, mustard greens, beet tops, spinach, radish tops 1 small cabbage 2 cups water 1 1/2 pounds pickled pork or slab bacon 2 tablespoons flour 1 cup green onions, chopped 4 cloves garlic, minced 1/2 cup chopped green pepper Salt and pepper to taste 1 teaspoon file powder
Wash all greens and combine in large kettle with water. Cover and steam until greens are wilted but not cooked. Drain, saving water; chop greens very fine. Use blender if possible -- this is the secret of this gumbo.
Cut meat into 1-inch cubes and fry until slightly brown. Add flour to fat and blend and brown slightly. Add greens, green pepper, garlic, salt and pepper. Add greens water plus water to equal about 1 quarts. Simmer until it is a thick puree. Remove from heat. Add file. Serve with rice. Serves 8.