Gumbo Z’Herbes!

by Nola

I got the idea about a month ago to cook Gumbo Z’Herbes, green gumbo, following Leah Chase’s recipe. But about as quickly as that thought popped into my head, I thought it even better to have Chef Chase make it for me herself.  I made such a comment on Facebook, and Native Palate immediately jumped on the wagon. The next day, I reserved a table for six.  Rene of Blackened Out, his lovely wife, and Pontchartrain joined in.

Leah Chase has single-handedly put Holy Thursday on the New Orleans’ culinary calendar. Each year she makes umpteen gallons of her famous gumbo to serve one day a year.

As stated on Dooky’s menu:

This dish was prepared by the Creoles on Holy Thursday as the last big “meat” meal before Easter Sunday. This gumbo, like all others, was prepared with much labor and love.

Dishes such as Gumbo Z”Herbes were prepared not only to satisfy one’s taste and hunger, but also because there were superstitions attached to them. It is said, that if Gumbo Z’Herbes is eaten on this particular day it will assure the person of as many new friends as there are greens used in the gumbo. The number of greens used must be uneven: 5-7-9 or 11.

Here at Dooky’s, we use nine (9): mustards, collards, red swiss chard, beet tops, cabbage, carrot tops, spinach, kale, and watercress.

In times gone by, women could be seen with their knives and bags all along the neutral grounds digging up pepper grass, which had a lemony tart taste, to add to their gumbo. Now, in place of pepper grass, we use watercress or daikon tops.

I’ve seen Chef Chase on the news on Holy Thursday for years discussing this very gumbo. My expectations going in were great. So great, in fact, I worried they’d not be met. I need not have been concerned; my expectations were blown away. I suppose I expected something more familiar to smothered greens than a gumbo — some sort of a thin broth with lots of long leaves with a full-bodied taste of the greens. This is NOT that dish.

Chef Chase’s green gumbo is, first and foremost, a gumbo. It is rich. The greens are finely chopped, not long and leafy.  The dish pulls out from the greens their natural peppery-ness; you won’t been adding Tabasco. It is also full of meat: tender chicken and various sausages. I don’t know what magical things happen in that kitchen to bring all these green leafys together to in fact taste like a gumbo, and an amazing one at that, and, frankly, part of what makes it so special is not knowing. You taste the many deep flavor profiles. Each spoonful carries with it to your taste-buds the knowledge that it’s been cooked slowly and for a very long time. And all that love the menu says goes into preparing this dish, it is strongly felt for a long time after the bowl is empty.

This is a meal I will never forget. It has a place in the top three of my life. Thank you, Chef Chase, for that.

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