Leah Chase's Gumbo Z'Herbes (Green Gumbo) Recipe (2024)

Dr. Jessica B. Harris is an award-winning culinary historian, cookbook author and journalist who specializes in the food and foodways of the African diaspora. With this column, My Culinary Compass, she is taking people all over the world — via their taste buds — with recipes inspired by her extensive travels.

Compass points: 29.57 degrees north, 90.4 degrees west. New Orleans, Louisiana.

Mardi Gras has long passed. The Indians have paraded for Super Sunday, St. Patrick’s Day cabbages have been thrown and cooked and the Saint Joseph’s Day altars are a thing of memory. As the Crescent City at the bend in the river slowly makes its way through the festivals that lead up to Jazz Fest at the end of April, thoughts turn to a restaurant on Orleans Avenue and its annual celebration of Holy Thursday. For anyone who knows New Orleans, Holy Thursday at Dooky Chase's Restaurant is a must-do on the culinary calendar.

On Holy Thursday, the last day on which meat can be eaten before Easter Sunday, family matriarch, Leah Chase, used to prepare and serve a gumbo z’herbes that became a city legend. It began as a small neighborhood thing with folks in the know dropping in for lunch to celebrate with a bowl of the green Lenten gumbo that she prepared from 11 green ingredients — veal roast, sausage and more. (Legend has it that there must be an uneven number of green additions and that you will made a friend for each one of them.)

I knew about it in the early days because I was taken one Holy Thursday by New Orleans writer and food maven, Lolis Eric Elie, to savor a cup of gumbo and the fried chicken that was prepared to go with it. At the restaurant, we met up with artist Ron Bechet and his studio partner, the late John Scott, as well as other artists and other Tremé neighborhood denizens.

The next year, I returned with a group of friends, and the year following that, I made another appearance with even more friends asking Mr. Chase if he’d give me a corkage rate on the case of wine I brought. A few years later, I was giving a full-out party complete with cases of wine, place cards, table favors and more for 60 people. Commenting on my entertaining, Mrs. Chase once jokingly said to me, “Folks used to come have their cup of gumbo and their piece of chicken and go home. Jessica came and had a bouzin (a Creole word for a knock-down, drag-out party)!” Indeed, I did! I savored it and so did my friends.

Hurricane Katrina came to town Aug. 29, 2005, and flooded the restaurant, so Holy Thursday 2006 was a quiet time. A fundraiser for the restaurant was held on Holy Thursday the following year, and when the restaurant was fully back, the green gumbo had become such a thing of memory and nostalgia that there were three separate seatings for lunch. My knock-down, drag-out days of a long leisurely luncheon were over. The popularity of the television show Tremé, in which the Holy Thursday was a featured scene one season, cemented the celebration’s popularity and reservations filled up months in advance with prime tables being almost an inherited thing. My life changed and my friends found places at other tables. I understood what the Greek philosopher Heracl*tus meant when he said, “You can’t step twice in the same river,” and so I knew to move on. So, move on I did, with more than a hint of nostalgia.

The death of Edgar “Dooky” Chase II in 2016, followed by the passing of the woman I called “Aunt Leah” in 2019, changed the restaurant’s landscape forever. However, the Chase family is one that maintains traditions and understands their value. On Holy Thursday 2020, in the middle of an uncertain COVID-19 world, the family was out there masked and gloved and delivering takeout orders for those for whom Holy Thursday would not be the same without their green gumbo. I rooted around in my freezer in New York City and found a container of gumbo that I had stored for the hard times that those days indeed were and had my gumbo. The same protocols ensued the following year. This year, there will be a full out re-dedication of the celebration; I have friends who had already reserved their tables in December.

Unfortunately, I will not be in attendance, and the bunny centerpieces and the place card holders that graced my tables in years passed will remain in their plastic storage bins because I will not be able to be in the city that has become a part of my soul. Instead, I will pack my Dooky Chase cookbook, turn to the page that has the recipe for what Mrs. Chase has recorded as Gumbo des Herbes,” find the ingredients and get to cooking. I won’t have the conviviality that comes with being in the art-filled dining room surrounded by friends or the fried chicken that is very much a part of the tradition as well. What I will have is a large glass of pinot noir, a bowl of gumbo and a hearty heaping of nostalgia as I celebrate all of the memories I have of good times and green gumbo.

Technique tip: Add water to the skillet to render all of the fat from the sausage.

Swap option: You can substitute hot Italian sausage for the chaurice. You can add 1/2 cup halved okra when you add the chaurice to thicken the gumbo if you can't find filé powder.

Preparation

1.

Clean all the greens, making sure to pick out any bad leaves and rinsing away all grit, then roughly chop.

2.

In a large pot, combine the greens, onions and garlic, cover with water (at least 14 cups worth) and boil for 30 minutes.

3.

Strain the vegetables, reserving all of the cooking liquid.

4.

Using a food processor, puree the drained vegetables; set aside.

5.

In a 12-quart stockpot, combine the smoked sausage (not the chaurice), smoked ham, veal brisket, beef brisket and 2 cups of the reserved liquid; bring to a boil, cover and cook for 15 minutes.

6.

Meanwhile, place the chaurice in a skillet and add enough water to come halfway up the sausage pieces; bring to a boil over medium-high heat and cook until the water evaporates and the fat is rendered.

7.

Using a slotted spoon, remove the chaurice, leaving behind the rendered fat. If there is less than a 1/4 cup, add some olive oil to the skillet.

8.

Add the flour and cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes.

9.

Add 2 cups of the reserved cooking liquid, a little at a time, until fully incorporated.

10.

Pour the mixture into the stockpot with the meat and stir to combine.

11.

Add an additional 8 cups of the reserved cooking liquid and the pureed vegetables, bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes.

12.

Add the chaurice, thyme, salt and cayenne and stir to combine; simmer, stirring periodically, until the brisket is tender and the sauce has thickened, for 1½ to 2 hours.

13.

Add the filé powder and stir to combine. Season with salt, to taste. Remove from the heat and serve over steamed rice.

Adapted from "The Dooky Chase Cookbook."

Leah Chase's Gumbo Z'Herbes (Green Gumbo) Recipe (2024)
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