Warning: if you’re looking for a rich, roux-thickened, sausage-studded gumbo this recipe is not for you. If you’re looking for a thin, herbal, summery gumbo with a hint of spice and fresh chunks of its namesake vegetable, okra, step right in. I’ve got a treat for you.
There may be many variations of gumbo, the Louisiana stew and specialty of n’Orleans fare. But I haven’t seen one quite like this. This dish was inspired by the version known as green gumbo, or gumbo z’herbes, a tradition born of Lent hence its lack of (land-based) meat. The green gumbo gets its thickness from heaps of cheap greens like collards and carrot greens, stewed for hours with seafood stock and spice. I’ve made it before, and it’s okay as long as you like collards stewed for hours, I guess. But the farmers’ market here on my sojourn in San Francisco had much more to offer than that.
Like okra. Some theories argue that the term “gumbo” derived from West African words for “okra,” and the vegetable is used immensely in African cuisines. However, okra is so often forgotten in today’s gumbo recipes. I’d never seen fresh okra until encountering it at farmers’ markets in New York, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Cooked lightly, it has a delicate skin and mild, vegetal flavor that’s unobtrusive in any way. Sliced up, it has a delightful visual appeal, resembling green blossoms. I’ve had purple and green okra, and they’re both great roasted with salt and olive oil, too. But the It factor about okra — which people either love or hate — is the sticky, slimy texture of its seed pockets.
I love it, but encourage those who might hate the stuff to try it out when it’s fresh and in season in mid-to-late summer. Even while slicing up the pods raw, the clear, gummy seed-pocket slime stuck to my knife and cutting board. This is a good thing, for flavor, at least. To help bring this out, and complement the juicy little bursts of texture from the tiny seeds themselves, I added some fresh kernels of sweet corn to the gumbo, too. It’s nearly impossible not to add this to just about everything in late summer.
I also picked up lots of peppers, carrots and spring onions. Chopped up, these aromatics comprise the “holy trinity,” or the Cajun response to mirepoix (carrots, onion & celery). But I had some celery anyhow, and I’m no purist so I made it a holy quartet, as it were.
I had originally planned to make a fresh tomato-based broth for this gumbo, more in keeping with Creole tradition, but managed to use up most of my tomatoes save for a sad, squishy one. Thankfully, the bunch of carrots I’d gotten had a full clutch of feathery leaves. Carrot greens have a light, grassy flavor if a little tough in texture, so I tore off the best ones (discarding any discolored or dried up pieces), and gave it a quick blanch in hot water first. A minute later, it was transferred to ice water, to preserve the green color, then squeezed out and chopped up. This, along with heaps of finely chopped cilantro and parsley stirred in at the last minute, made for a mild, fresher-tasting “green” than heaps of dense leaves. If you don’t find yourself with heaps of carrot greens, you can swap in or add other mild-tasting greens like Swiss chard. But it’s a great way to use up an oft-unused part of the plant.
This is an easy, and relatively quick dish to make, unlike most traditional gumbo recipes. The simplicity stems from buying whole shrimp with the heads on, and using the shells and heads to simmer a shrimp stock with as you cook down the holy trinity. It’s mostly hands-off work, and the smells from both pots are wonderful.
Green Gumbo With Fresh Corn & Okra
(makes about 4 servings)
1 lb whole shrimp with heads and shells
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 celery rib, chopped
about 1 cup chopped sweet peppers
1 jalapeno, seeds remove and finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
greens from 1 bunch carrots
1 lb whole okra pods
1 ear sweet corn
1/2 bunch cilantro, finely chopped
1/2 bunch parsley, finely chopped (or 1 bunch of either herb)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Peel the shells from shrimp and remove heads. Meanwhile, de-vein shrimp and season with a pinch of salt and pepper; set aside. Place the peels and heads in a pot and cover with 6 cups water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and let simmer uncovered for about 30 minutes.
Heat a medium-large, heavy-bottomed pot with the oil and add the onions, carrots, celery and sweet peppers. Season with salt and peppers and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, for 15-20 minutes. Add the minced garlic and jalapeno halfway into cooking time.
Meanwhile, remove any bruised or discolored carrot greens and most parts of the stems. Bring a small pot of water to a boil and prepare a bowl with ice water. Blanch carrot greens for about 1 minute; strain and transfer immediately to the ice bath until cool. Strain, and squeeze out water by hand. Chop greens finely.
Strain the shrimp shells from the stock and discard. Transfer the shrimp stock to the vegetables and add the carrot greens. Bring to a boil, stirring. Add the okra and corn and bring to a boil again, about 1 minute later. Add the shrimp and let boil another minute. Remove from heat. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper as desired. Add the lemon juice and all the chopped herbs. Serve warm over rice, or with bread.
(for 4 servings)
1 lb head-on shrimp: $4.50
1 ear corn (at 3/$1): $0.33
1 lb okra: $3.00
1 onion: $0.30
1 carrot: $0.20
1 rib celery: $0.20
handful sweet peppers (from a big $1 bargain bag at the farmers’ market): $0.25
2 cloves garlic: $0.10
1 jalapeno: $0.20
1/2 bunch cilantro: $1.00
1/2 bunch parsley: $1.00
salt, pepper, 3 Tb olive oil, 1 Tb lemon juice: $0.60
Three brownie points: Another reason to try okra again: they’re incredibly good for you. Low in calories, these pods are bursting with fiber and antioxidants, a ton of Vitamin K, and even has protein — that’s a pretty well-rounded vegetable. I was tempted to add some sliced summer squash and more veggies to this recipe, but instead just went heavy on the okra, and it seems like you can’t go too wrong with that. The shrimp, like all seafood, will provide you with some omega-3 fatty acids to help balance your “bad” fats, but there’s nary a sight of them in this dish.
Six maple leaves: Full of vegetables in equal or greater ratio than meat (or seafood), this dish is nice on the environment as well as on a platter to serve guests. Bonus points for using up carrot greens — and you can get inventive with other vegetables’ greens, tops, or scraps from the garden in this, too. Points off for the imported shrimp. I was surprised to find that the seafood vendor at the farmers’ market in SF was selling it, but when I asked about its origin, found that it wasn’t local but like most shrimp that makes it to the US, imported from Southeast Asia.