NEW YORK -- Every year, millions of people around the world celebrate Mardi Gras (March 5 this year) and Carnival. It’s a worldwide festival of parades, music and, of course, richer, fattier foods leading up to the 40-day season of Lent, during which millions of Christians observe this religious tradition by fasting or foregoing treats and meats. In fact, the term “carnival” is from carnelevare, or “to remove meat.”
One popular Mardi Gras dish is gumbo. An important Creole stew from South Louisiana, gumbo usually features strong-flavored stock, meat, or shellfish. According to history author Dr. Carl A. Brasseaux, of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, the first documented references to gumbo, which originated in West Africa, appeared around the turn of the 19th Century. Since that time, gumbo has evolved into countless variations. A version that’s soaring in popularity today due to the interest in plant-based foods is green gumbo (or gumbo des herbes).
Richard McCarthy,Member of the Executive Committee, Slow Food International and a Meatless Monday ambassador shares, “Green gumbo is perfect for people exploring vegetarian options for Mardi Gras, Meatless Monday, and the six weeks of Lent that follow.”
During this time, cooks can dive into creative ways to turn Lent into a culinary adventure. Instead of ploughing through a complicated recipe, McCarthy wants to provide some helpful hints for green gumbo and other flavorful, plant-based recipes. Once the basics are learned, curious cooks can make countless variations on the gumbo theme.
The essentials of cooking green gumbo:
- Cook with what you have: collard greens, kale, mustard greens, turnip greens, spinach, and herbs like parsley, dill, etc. Green gumbo appears throughout the Lenten culinary calendar as meatless and on Holy Thursday in famous restaurants (like Dooky Chase) with meat stock.
- Regardless of which ingredients you use, begin by making a roux. Heat the pan with vegetable or olive oil, add flour, and mix with a wooden spoon until dark brown. The color of the gumbo will be determined by how dark you make the roux. Add celery, onion, and bell pepper. The roux gives butter beans and lima beans a great base of flavor. Or, consider any medley of vegetables.
- Umami is the savory flavor that many eaters say is missing in vegetarian recipes. One way to add umami to green gumbo is to make “shiitake bacon,” which provides the missing depth of flavor. Roast sliced shiitake mushrooms in the oven at 375 degrees F for 30-45 minutes in a concoction of olive oil, liquid smoke and/or smoked salt, smoked honey, or smoked paprika. If you can’t find shiitake mushrooms, you can swap them out for button mushrooms.
- Rice is a traditional accompaniment to gumbo. While a saucepan is perfectly good for preparing rice, the busy cook can also rely on a rice cooker to prepare perfect rice every time. Any grain or variety of rice can work, but long-grain rice is best since it provides the gumbo with more surface areas to cover with flavor.
McCarthy recommends a simplified version of the recipe crafted by Richard Stewart, the former chef of Gumbo Shop.
¼ cup of vegetable or olive oil
¼ cup of flour
1 large onion, minced
4 stalks of celery, minced
1 bell pepper, minced
2 bunches of available greens (collard, mustard, kale, turnip, and/or spinach), chopped
¼ cup of chopped parsley
2-4 cups of water (or enough to make a soup)
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper, to taste
Cayenne pepper or hot sauce, to taste
1 cup of dried field peas (or Sea Island red peas, on the Slow Food Ark of Taste)
Vegetable stock, to taste (optional)
1 dozen fresh shiitake or button mushrooms
1 TBS of liquid smoke, smoked salt and/or smoked paprika
¼ cup of vegetable or olive oil
1 TBS of salt or soy sauce (to taste)
1 cup of long-grained rice
2 cups of water
Field peas: Rinse, then boil field peas in salt water until soft. Drain peas of excess water and either store or immerse immediately into the gumbo. This step can be done in advance in order to cut down on preparation time on the day of serving. You can even prepare and freeze the peas days before, drop them into the hot soupy pot mid-way through the process.
Make the gumbo: Heat up a soup pot at a medium setting, and begin by making the roux (the soup base). Add oil. Once sizzling, add flour and mix with a wooden spoon. Not only will the flour start to smell delicious, it will begin to turn a brownish color. Stir fairly vigorously so as to not burn. Once it’s a dark brown (5-10 minutes), add minced onions, celery and bell pepper. Again, stir in the ingredients with some force so as to fully blend the flavors. Add salt, pepper, and more oil and/or water (or wine) to deglaze the pan. The roux will become bubbly and smell almost sweet. At this point, feel free to start adding water and maybe turn down the heat a little. Add bay leaves, other seasonings, and of course the chopped greens and herbs. They will soon turn from bright green to dark green. Add field peas and any additional vegetables, like chopped carrots or turnips, or whatever you have in the kitchen. Let simmer for at least 60 minutes.
Mushroom bacon: Slice fresh mushrooms vertically in thirds, depending upon the size of the mushrooms. (Button mushrooms are fine and usually easily available; however, feel free to select shiitake or other exceptionally tasty varieties.) In a mixing bowl, add ¼ cup of oil, 1 TBS of liquid smoke, salt or soy sauce. Mix the ingredients, and then add the fresh mushrooms until they are coated with the concoction. Pour sliced mushrooms onto a baking sheet and bake for 20-30 minutes at 375 degrees F. Check on them after 15 minutes and turn over ones that appear to be browned and crisp. Once crispy, turn off the oven and let cool slowly in oven.
Preparing the rice is the subject of arguments in many households. If you’ve got a rice cooker, use it; and prepare as usual. If not, wash 1 cup of rice under running cold water to remove any excess dust, etc. Boil in 2 cups of water until soft (usually 25-30 min).
Place ¼ cup of rice in the middle of a shallow soup bowl. Once the gumbo is hot, tasty and ingredients cooked down into dark greens, and soft field peas, it is ready to serve. Tasting it at the end is important: Is it salty or spicy enough? If not, add more cayenne or hot sauce, black pepper, salt, etc. Pour gumbo around the rice, making sure that there is an equal amount of greens and liquid. Take the dried, crispy mushroom bacon from out of the cooled oven and add a handful on top of the rice, and serve.
Meatless Monday is a nonprofit public health initiative founded by Sid Lerner, chairman of The Monday Campaigns. The initiative is in association with the Lerner Centers for Public Health Promotion at Johns Hopkins, Columbia and Syracuse universities. Meatless Monday encourages the public to cut back on meat consumption one day a week to reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer, and lessen the environmental impact of meat production on climate change, water, and land use. The campaign is founded on research that demonstrates Monday is the day we are most primed to start and sustain a healthy new behavior. Since its launch in 2003, Meatless Monday has become an international movement in more than 40 countries with support from governments, schools, celebrities, restaurants, and local and global organizations around the world. Learn more at www.meatlessmonday.com