Monday, December 28, 2009

Cooking to Save the Planet: Good-Luck Greens and Gumbo Z'Herbes

The Christmas feast is over—unless you happen to celebrate Old Christmas, or Epiphany. In which case, you have another Christmas celebration to look forward to. Old Christmas used to be celebrated in the mountain parts of the South as the “real” Christmas, and in the lowland, plantation parts of the South, it was often the culmination of a season of balls and parties that began on Christmas day and ran to Epiphany, in which families and friends gathered at first one house or another to sing, dance, court, and eat, in order to assure that Christmas was well and properly celebrated.

It was those parties and the fact that Christmas is never mentioned as a holy obligation in the scriptures that led the Puritans of the New England states to ban Christmas. Which made their cousins in Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas all the more intent to celebrate, given the animosity between the northern and southern parts of Anglo America from the beginnings of the colonies. And isn’t it one of the strange ironic twists of history that the South, founded by relatively louche Anglicans more interested in making money than building God’s city on a hill, have become the bible beaters, while their Puritan cousins in New England are the most enlightened and least theocratic people in the U.S. now?

If you’re a south Louisianan, the feast of Epiphany has yet another religious-cum-party meaning: it launches the Carnival season, which ends with Mardi Gras, fat Tuesday, on the day before Ash Wednesday. In New Orleans, Creoles used to begin Carnival by baking kings’ cakes for Epiphany parties, in which an object (often a bean) was hidden. These have now become a feature of the entire Carnival season, and the object has evolved into a tiny doll. Getting the piece with the “baby” in it indicates that you’re obliged to throw the next Mardi Gras party—which assures that an endless round of parties takes place during the Carnival season, since someone at every party is always certain to get the baby . . . .

All of this is leading up to another cooking-to-save-the-planet posting. In this period following the rich Christmas table, my palate (and stomach) turn to thoughts of the acerbic. Of the meager. Of the healthy alternative to ham and sweet potatoes slathered with butter, of chicken and dressing and cakes, pies, and cookies.

To be specific, I’m thinking of greens right now—slightly bitter, smoky-tasting turnip greens, meaty collards, sharp mustard greens. In many cuisines, greens have long played a role of complementing (and correcting) dishes that are overly rich. There’s a belief—and I think it may well have a sound medical basis—that eating greens helps to tone and purge the system, when it’s become taxed by consumption of too many rich foods.

This may have something to do with the custom in most parts of the South to cook and eat greens on New Year’s day, for luck and health in the coming year. In my area, though greens always appear on the New Year’s table, the focus is actually on what goes along with the greens: it’s on black-eyed peas cooked with a slice of hog’s jowl. That’s the magic good-luck dish for us, and it’s obligatory to eat a tiny bit of the greasy, repulsive white seasoning fat along with the peas, to be certain that luck will come your way in the new year.

Still, greens are always on the table with the black-eyed peas, hog’s jowl, and cornbread (and any number of other items leftover from Christmas, and piquant relishes like chow-chow to help you swallow that odious hog’s jowl.) I’m told that in some parts of the South—and I can attest that this is true for New Orleans, based on the years I lived there—the greens are the good-luck dish. They may be served with black-eyed peas and rice (hoppin’ John) in places like the South Carolina lowcountry. But it’s the greens that have to be eaten for luck, and not the peas.

In New Orleans, cabbage is common for New Year’s day, and the custom is to eat as many leaves of it as one can, to bring financial luck in the new year. Green leaves, green dollars . . . .

And it’s at this point that my idea for a dish to make use of healthy local ingredients at this time of year enters the picture. I almost always cook beets for Christmas. I like them baked slowly, until they are almost the essence of beet, then cooled, peeled, and sliced over a green salad dressed with a mustardy, garlicky vinaigrette for Christmas dinner.

Some members of my family object, claiming to be horrified at the color and texture of beets. I tell them they can always pick the beets out of the salad if they wish—makes me no difference. And I secretly doubt that it’s possible really to dislike a vegetable so earthy, so gloriously hued and delicious. If they’d only try the beets, these younger family members, who also turn up their noses at my wonderful borscht . . . .

Beets come with greens. As I’ve mentioned in a previous posting about beets, I can’t bring myself to throw away something so nutritious in its own right, even when I buy beets primarily for the beet roots. This year, I chopped the washed beet greens and then simmered them slowly with a bit of garlic and some turkey broth I’d frozen weeks before, and we ate them as a delicious pre-Christmas meal along with beans and cornbread.

For those who want to try a different dish, one that would fit well with the new year’s custom of eating greens (and with the need for post-Christmas dishes that tone the system up after too much rich food), I recommend a traditional New Orleans dish called gumbo z’herbes. This is a Creole rendition of the more proper French “gumbo aux herbes.” If you can still find anyone in New Orleans who knows and cooks the dish regularly—and you’re more likely to do so among families with traditional Creole roots, both black and white—you’ll probably hear it called something that sounds like gumbo zaab.

Gumbo z’herbes is a meatless gumbo made entirely of greens. It used to be customary during Lent, when meat was banned, particularly on Good Friday, when some folks had the belief that it was important to eat a dish of gumbo z’herbes made with at least seven different greens for luck.

Most people who still cook gumbo z’herbes (and I’ve known some, in my years living in New Orleans) emphasize the need to include as many greens as possible, for flavor, texture, and overall health. When I make gumbo z’herbes, I invariably include the trinity most easily available in my area—turnip greens, collards, and mustard. If I have beet greens, I add them to the pot. In New Orleans, the green blades of green onion (called shallots in south Louisiana) count as greens. Cabbage is an obvious green to include, and I believe parsley also counts as a green in its own right when it’s included in gumbo z’herbes. I could also see adding rapini/broccoli rabe and dandelion greens, both of which are increasingly available in our area much of the year. I’ve known cooks who sought out bunches of watercress to add, too. Spinach would work, too, as well as swiss chard.

Gumbos always begin with a roux. In south Louisiana, almost all sauces start with a roux, with flour browned in cooking oil until it is rich brown, the color of a paper sack, to which hot liquid is then added to form a sauce. A traditional Creole-Cajun roux requires careful, constant stirring of the flour as it cooks in the fat over medium heat, until it begins to reach a brown color. It’s very easy to burn a roux, and one of the tricks of making a good roux is to remove it from the heat before it’s fully cooked, since it will continue cooking after the heat is turned off.

But a pallid roux is frowned on, so you have to stir and watch and hope that you’re going to end up with the much-desired paper-sack color and not a burnt mess. It helps to have some of your hot stock on hand to stop the cooking immediately after you’ve gotten the roux to the right color—splash some of it in, stir carefully to start the sauce and get lumps out of the liquid, and begin your gumbo.

I’m giving these very precise instructions for a Creole-Cajun roux knowing full well that when I make my own gumbo z’herbes, I intend to ignore them. I don’t like south Louisiana roux, frankly. I prefer the classical French blond roux, which is made by adding flour to melted butter. In fact, I often make a beurre manié for a sauce, by cutting or rubbing butter into flour and then stirring this into the sauce as it cooks.

Instead of making a roux as I begin my gumbo z’herbes, I usually heat some olive oil with a bit of butter in it in the bottom of a heavy soup pot (you need a large one for the many greens you include, though they’ll cook down), and then I sauté chopped bell pepper, onion, celery, and garlic in the fat before adding the greens. The greens should all be very carefully washed (I cover them with water in the sink, and then wash each leaf under running water as I remove them from the sink full of water).

They should also be “looked” for spots that need to be removed (and possibly even insects, depending on whether you've gotten your greens fresh from a farm), and then shredded finely. For greens that have a pronounced rib in the leaf—e.g., collards—it’s also important to remove the rib and discard it.

Once I add my greens to the sautéed seasonings, I let them cook a bit in the same fat in which the seasonings have cooked, turning them carefully so that all the greens begin to wilt in the fat. I then add stock—whatever I have—or water sufficient to cover the greens, and any other seasonings I want to include. Salt and pepper, of course; thyme and bay leaf and perhaps a pinch of allspice are traditional in New Orleans. As the greens begin to meld with the stock and simmer over low heat for a while, I then add the butter cut into flour and let it thicken the gumbo.

In New Orleans, gumbo z’herbes is traditionally eaten over rice. For my Anglo-Creole fusion table, cornbread is the accompaniment of choice. There has to be sufficient liquid in the sauce to soak into the cornbread, but not so much that the gumbo is watery and thin. And it’s usually necessary to taste and correct the final product before you serve it, to be sure the seasonings are right. A bit more chopped garlic and parsley are almost always recommended at the end, perhaps a sprinkle of cayenne if you like some heat to a dish, maybe more thyme, another grind or two of pepper. The final product should be rich-tasting and so savory that you don’t even know you are eating a meatless dish.

Enjoy—and may each green bring you days of luck in the new year, if you decide to cook gumbo z’herbes as a new year’s dish.