Southerners love their greens. A time honored tradition, greens have held an important role for well over a century and there is no other vegetable that is so unique to the region. Greens do not form a compact head, and therefore I am referring to mostly kale, collards, turnips, spinach or mustard. I was never introduced to, nor did I have to transition into eating greens of any kind. They were incorporated into my life from the beginning.
My grandparents owned a peanut farm outside of Statesboro, Georgia, and they also farmed the land for their own needs. My parents would drive my sister and I over in our station wagon from Charleston to spend weekends and summers, always arriving to pots of fresh greens, beans, and boiled peanuts on the stove top. While we were busy fetching eggs from the henhouse, playing with the piglets, or trying to catch catfish in the pond, our elders were hard at work snapping peas, telling stories, and enjoying libations on the front porch. It was real and iconic.
I was taught at a young age how to clean greens in the bathtub by my father and mother. Later as an adult, I grew to realize how much I missed greens. I had not been cooking them for myself, I just relied on my parents, nut I needed them. I relied on my instinct, and after a few phone calls to my parents to get the family recipe right, I knew I had mastered the task of cooking a mess of greens, especially when my children ran into the house yelling “Ew, what’s that smell?”, just as I had done at their age.
I am sharing a recipe for a different kind of gumbo I learned to make while living in New Orleans, Gumbo Z’ Herbs. It combines all the goodness that a variety of greens can give, yet explodes with flavor after having time to simmer. Gumbo Z’ Herbs is a soul nourishing dish that makes a body feel good.
This Gumbo Z’ Herbs recipe is an adaptation from three of my favorite New Orleans chefs, John Folse, Leah Chase, and Leon Soniat, Jr. There are so many versions, and like SEC football, individuals can be quite passionate about their recipe being the best. I have tried many, some with beans, others meatless, but after much hard work, I think I have the perfect recipe.
In New Orleans this dish is served during Lenten week, usually on Holy Thursday before Good Friday. On Good Friday of course, it is served without the meat. My version makes a family feast, but can easily be cut in half, and it also freezes well.
Gumbo Z’ Herbs
- 1 bunch mustard greens
- 1 bunch collard greens
- 1 bunch turnips
- 1 bunch watercress
- 1 bunch beet tops
- 1 bunch carrot tops
- 1/2 head lettuce
- 1/2 head cabbage
- 1 bunch spinach
- 3 cups onions, diced
- 1/2 cup garlic, chopped
- 1 1/2 gallons water or chicken broth
- 5 tbsps flour
- 1 pound smoked sausage
- 1 ham hock, about 2 pounds, with several 1/2-inch slits cut into it
- 1 pound andouille sausage
- 1 pound brisket, cubed
- 1 pound stew meat
- 3 tbsp rendered bacon fat or olive oil
- 2 bay leaves
- parsley for garnish
- green onion for garnish
- 1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
- 1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
- ground sea salt to taste
- 1 tbsp filé powder
- Clean all greens under cold running water, making sure to pick out bad leaves. Rinse away any soil or grit. I find the bathtub or a deep sink the best place to clean a “mess” of greens. The greens should be washed and rinsed 2 to 3 times. Cut away the hard rib in the center of the leaf, then fold over and chop greens coarsely.
- In a 12 -quart stockpot, heat the bacon fat. Add the ham hock and onions and cook for 10 minutes, until onions are softened and slits in ham hock have begun to open up. Add garlic, bay leaves, thyme, and cayenne pepper and cook for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Add chopped greens and tops, add chicken broth or water, and bring mixture to a rolling boil, reduce to simmer, cover and cook for 30 minutes. I use homemade no sodium chicken broth when possible.
- Strain greens and reserve the liquid. Place greens in the bowl of a food processor on pulse, or chop in a meat grinder. Pour greens into a mixing bowl, sprinkle in 5 tablespoons flour, blend and set aside.
- Dice all meats into 1-inch pieces and place into the 12-quart pot. Return the reserve liquid to the pot and bring to a low boil, cover and cook 30 minutes. Add greens, thyme and season with salt and pepper. Cover and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally until meat is tender, approximately 1 hour. Add water if necessary to retain volume.
- Add filé powder, stir well and adjust salt and pepper if necessary. Serve over steamed white rice. Garnish with parsley and chopped green onion.
Note: Do not continue cooking, or boil after adding filé powder. May choose to serve on the side.