When a friend refused to believe there could actually be 300 recipes for gumbo, he mimicked the Bubba Gump routine “fried shrimp, boiled shrimp, baked shrimp, shrimp with rice, shrimp etoufee.” His remarks made me pause to wonder if my quest for finding 300 different recipes to celebrate New Orleans 300th birthday was improbable.
I’d never stopped to think about it before. When I boldly began the quest, I not once questioned my chance at success. Long before I read the article in Bon Appetit I knew there are as many variations of gumbo as there are pots in Louisiana. For me, gumbo is as diverse as the city that made it famous.
We journalists aren’t known for our math skills, but any good mathematician or computer programmer could figure my odds of success based on provided variables. The varying instructions and ingredients could implode a calculator. The steps for making a gumbo can rival the text of a dissertation, while the ingredients usually mean a trip to the grocery store. Here’s what makes recipes different:
Brew the Roux
Either you start with a roux — or you don’t. If the recipe calls for a roux, it will usually specify a color, often that of a copper penny, while others use a more artistic palette. Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen includes photos of the four key colors of roux along with a great explanation of each.
Top Row: Light brown is used more often in sauces and gravies for heavier dark meat such as beef, venison and game like wild duck and goose. Medium brown roux is used instead of light brown roux when a somewhat stronger, deeper and nuttier flavor is desired. Bottom Row: Dark red-brown roux is for light, sweet meats as domesticated fowl and rabbit, pork, veal and seafood. It is also used for gumbos. Black roux is used for a stronger flavor than dark red-brown. It takes practice to make a black roux, but it’s really the right color for a gumbo. From Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen.
A major component of most gumbos is the Holy Trinity — celery, onions and bell pepper. Onions matter – red, white or yellow, Vidalia or Noonday or Bermuda or Peru, and some cooks, like John Besh, don’t use bell pepper in gumbo (his mama didn’t like it).
Spices of Life
Bay leaves, basil, thyme, salt, pepper, and cayenne are typical but occasionally a recipe calls for Kitchen Bouquet, Tony Chachere or Old Bay. Bay leaves are the spice most used, but it’s that other sacred ground leaf that some gumbo cooks swear by, but never add until the last minute. Filé is ground from sassafras leaves.
Kick it Up a Notch
As Emeril says, what will you kick it up with? Red pepper pods, Tabasco or Worchester or Louisiana Hot Sauce? That varies, too.
It’s Not Gumbo Without
The most debated ingredient is okra. Some people say gumbo isn’t gumbo without okra. For many cooks, okra is the thickener for their gumbo, but the absence or presence of okra adds to the variable list along with tomatoes, tomato sauce and tomato paste. After all, the word “gumbo” is derived from the West African “ngombo” for okra.
The Kitchen Sink
Add meat, poultry or seafood – oysters, shrimp, dried shrimp, crabmeat, crab bodies, crab legs, frog legs, fish, crawfish, beef, chicken, smoked sausage, andouille sausage, ham, duck, goose, turkey, guinea, boiled eggs, venison, quail or any combination that suits you. Or make it vegetarian.
Cook it Your Way
I like to add fresh garlic after the liquid like Leah “Dooky” Chase, a ninety-five-year-old New Orleans chef. The garlic doesn’t’ burn that way. Some cooks make their own seafood or chicken stock, while others use stock straight from the box or water out of the faucet.
Serve it Your Way
Usually over rice, but will it be with potato salad, chopped green onions or parsley?
To celebrate a milestone in my adventure (100 of 300 gumbo recipes), I’m posting a dozen variations of Gumbo Z’Herbes and its cooking cousins Gumbo Vert and Green Gumbo. It’s the most difficult gumbo I’ve ever made, but also one of the most delicious. The ingredients alone are mind-boggling but the superstition that goes with it is even more fascinating.
The original Gumbo Z’Herbes (pronounced gumbo zav or zab) was a dish prepared on Holy Thursday for good luck. It was made of seven greens ranging from spinach to beet tops to dandelion leaves. The original version was meatless, and Cajuns believed if you ate seven greens on Holy Thursday and met seven people on Good Friday, you would have good luck all year. Others say Gumbo Z’Herbes is to be eaten on Good Friday. It is, for sure, a Lenten dish delicious anytime of the year when fresh greens are available. Tradition holds you can make it with more than five or seven greens, but the number must always be odd. I used eleven in my first attempt! As tradition evolved, cooks have added meat, but I prefer the original vegetarian version.
You might notice this post features only nine recipe cards when I promised a dozen Gumbo Z’Herbes recipes. On closer inspection, you’ll see the last two recipes have enough variations to add three more recipes, for a total of twelve recipes for Gumbo Z’Herbes. The hardest thing making this dish, for me, is saying it correctly. Here’s a great John Besh Food Netowrk video. He’s cooking Green Gumbo with Dooky Chase, famous New Orleans Gumbo Z’Herbes chef. He says “gumbo zav” enough times I can almost pronounce it just like John Besh, with that soft New Orleans lilt.