fig. a: AEB Portuguese kale
It's never been all that difficult to get us to eat our greens, but ever since about March, we've been completely ga-ga for the green stuff. Part of it had to do with the long, snowy winter we had. Our poor bodies were crying out for additional nutrients and the Swiss chard and Belgian endives at our local supermarché started looking better and better (even if they were getting trucked in from California). But mostly it was because that's when we started making gombo zhèbes, that mysterious dish known in some circles as "the queen of gumbos."
Why "mysterious"? Well, gombo zhèbes (a.k.a. gombo aux herbes, gombo z'hairbes, and green gombo) may be "the queen of gumbos," but she's not your typical gumbo. In fact, she breaks with the two most hallowed tenets of gumbo- or gombo-making: she contains no okra and/or okra-like consistency (courtesy of gumbo filé) and she contains no roux.
If you had to boil it down (and some recipes require you to), Gombo zhèbes is a Creole version of that Southern staple "greens and pot likker," the principal difference being the addition of significant amount of herbs to the already heaping quantities of fresh greens, and a degree of complexity. In the Creole kitchen, gombo zhèbes was a dish associated with early spring--it was essentially a restorative dish, one that took advantage of the arrival of the newest greens, and it also was easily adapted to the Lenten diet (although sometimes it sure was hard to tell, because many traditional recipes included such extravagances as veal brisket in addition to the traditional ham).
Anyway, from the time we tasted gombo zhèbes' combination of greens, herbs, ham, garlic, green onions, and hot red pepper we were hooked and we immediately started planning our garden with gombo zhèbes in mind. That was the only problem with our earliest versions--we were living in Quebec and not Louisiana, we were still under a blanket of snow. But we knew that would soon change, and when it did we wanted to be ready. So we made plans and mapped things out, and in early May we broke with tradition (mostly tomatoes and peppers) and planted mostly herbs and leafy greens--savory, basil, thyme, and parsley on the one hand, oak leaf lettuce, mustard greens, cavolo nero, and Portuguese kale on the other. And now, we're happy to report, we're swimming in greens, and though this isn't the only way we've been enjoying our bounty, we've been eating a lot (a lot) of gombo zhèbes and gombo zhèbes-like creations.
fig. b: AEB cavolo nero
Greens: choose a sizable bunch per person from the following list: mustard greens, cavolo nero, Portuguese kale, spinach, endives, watercress, arugula, chicory, kale, collard greens, rapini, etc. The more elaborate the mix, the better. Just remember to make (at least) the equivalent to one bunch per person.
Herbs: a bay leaf, a healthy handful of parsley, and then whatever you like from the following list: basil, savory, thyme, oregano, marjoram, sage, tarragon, etc. Again, the more the merrier.
Aromatics: 2-3 cloves garlic, 1 medium sweet bell pepper (preferably red, yellow, or orange), 4-6 green onions (and/or chives, shallots, onions), 1 small hot red pepper (fresh or dried), Tabasco sauce, etc.
fig. c: "le vrai bacon"
Finishing touches: 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1-2 teaspoons wine vinegar, 1/4-lb smoked ham (or bacon), and 1 cup uncooked white rice.
Equipment: one large skillet, one large pot.
Method: Cook the rice. When it's done, keep it in a warm spot on the stove. Clean, stem, and mince the herbs, leaving the bay leaf whole. Mince the garlic. Dice the sweet pepper (having already seeded and cored it, of course). Trim and finely chop the scallions. If using ham, cut it into slivers. If using bacon, cook the bacon in a large skillet until it has rendered its fat and become crispy. Remove the bacon and set it aside, and proceed using the bacon fat instead of olive oil. If not using bacon, heat the olive oil in a large skillet. When hot, add the ham, scallions, and sweet pepper. Cook these for a few minutes and then add the minced herbs, the bay leaf, and the crumbled hot pepper. Stirring regularly, cook over medium-low heat for another few minutes, until the herbs have all wilted. Now mix in the garlic and remove from the heat.
Pick over the greens, discarding the stems and any damaged portions. Tear the larger leaves into pieces. Wash carefully, using several changes of water if necessary. Put a cup of unsalted water in a large pot and bring to a boil. Add the greens, cover, and, when the water begins to simmer again, lower the heat to low. Cook until wilted and tender, about six to ten minutes, forking them over from time to time. Do not let the pot boil dry, of course, but at low heat there should be no risk of that.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the greens into the skillet, spooning some of the pot likker overtop as desired. (The resultant mixture should be "wet" but not "swimming.") Cook everything together briefly until everything is hot and well blended. Taste for seasoning, adding the wine vinegar or lemon juice, along with salt and freshly ground pepper. Discard the bay leaf. Serve in bowls over the rice.
[recipe adapted from John Thorne and Matt Lewis Thorne's Serious Pig, with a little help from The Picayune's Creole Cook Book]
This makes a fine, healthy, and light meal on its own, but it's also a great accompaniment for a whole range of dishes, especially seafood (New Orleans "BBQ" Shrimp comes to mind). Obviously, this recipe can also be easily adapted into a 100% vegetarian version--the method is a keeper. We've found that as our greens have gotten better and fresher we've been adding fewer and fewer extras, so if you're making gombo zhèbes for the first time, and you're using top-notch greens straight from the farmers' market or, better yet, straight out of your garden, you might want to tone down the amount of vinegar/lemon juice and ham/bacon so that you can get the full greens experience. Then again, if you're making gombo zhèbes for the first time, you might very well want to stay close to the script--it's hard to argue with that combination of flavors.