Time: 1 hour || Active time: 25 minutes
At the farmer’s market this weekend there was some beautiful organic okra and these sweet-hot red creole peppers, and I knew what I had to do. Gumbo!
A thick and tangy stew filled to the brim with veggies straight from the garden and two kinds of beans. This is a great weeknight meal that is perfectly suited to my taste, because as I learned, that’s what gumbo is all about. A toasty roux, fresh tomatoes, plenty of onion and garlic, fresh thyme, and of course, okra. If you’re an okra newbie, or maybe just afraid to cook with it, this is a great recipe to start with. I use lots of veggie broth to thin the roux and cook the okra, and then reduce it with a long simmer, making for a thick velvety sauce that is not at all slimy.
But let’s start from the beginning, because Southern cooking doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s not something I grew up with, besides maybe fried chicken, and I was probably in my twenties before I even ever had a po boy. There is a gumbo recipe in Veganomicon, and it’s delish, but that was all Terry.
When I set out to make a recipe I’m not familiar with, I bury my face in my hundreds of cookbooks and just research, research, research. Sure, I’m not inventing a cure for any deadly diseases or creating a blueprint for world peace, but I do like to know a little bit about whatever I’m cooking. I bet there’s someone in New Orleans right now doing the same thing with matzoh ball soup!
I started out thinking it kind of funny that a Brooklyn girl in Nebraska was making vegan gumbo, but I came to realize that it wasn’t really that weird. Gumbo is many things to many people, a mish mash of so many cultures, from African to French to Native American. In fact, with the exception of salt I couldn’t even find one ingredient that was absolutely integral to the dozens of gumbo recipes I pored over. I figured there would be something, like, say, celery, but not every recipe even had that. Same for thyme, or meat, or okra. All were common, but not common enough to say that gumbo has to contain them.
So if I were an alien dropped from the sky onto earth for just one day and with just one mission — bring back gumbo intelligence — I would come away from it with a few understandings. Gumbo is a thickened stew with creole herbs and spices and lots of chunky stuff in it. It can be thickened with a roux, or with okra, or with file powder, and sometimes it’s a mix of all three. Most often, it’s served with rice. And of course I would have to report that it’s the official dish of the state of Louisiana!
I used the creole peppers I picked up at the market, which are a nice sweet hot, similar to Italian red peppers. But use whatever not-spicy red pepper you can get. I also think that vegan sausages would be a great addition! Add them towards the end if you like.
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup flour
1 medium sized onion, diced large
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 heaping cup sweet red peppers, diced large (or one red bell pepper)
2 cups cherry tomatoes (or chopped tomatoes)
1 teaspoon salt
Fresh black pepper
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
8 springs fresh thyme (plus extra for garnish)
2 1/2 to 3 cups vegetable broth at room temperature
2 cups okra (about 10 oz) sliced 1/4 inch thick or so
1 1/2 cups cooked kidney beans (a 15 oz can, rinsed and drained)
1 1/2 cup cooked garbanzo beans (a 15 oz can, rinsed and drained)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Rice for serving (I used a pretty pink rice)
First we’re going to make a roux, but it has a little less fat than a traditional roux, which means it doesn’t get as goopy. If you’d like a more traditional roux, just add 3 more tablespoons of vegetable oil. Okay, so, let’s proceed.
Preheat a large, heavy bottom pot over medium-low heat. The wider the pot the better, so that you have lots of surface area to make your roux.
Add the oil and sprinkle in the flour. Use a wooden spatula to toss the flour in the oil, and stir pretty consistently for 3 to 4 minutes, until the flour is clumpy and toasty.
Add the onion and salt, and toss to coat the onions completely in the flour mixture. As the onions release moisture, they will coat more and more. Cook this way for 5 minutes, stirring often. Add garlic and stir for 30 seconds or so.
Add the peppers and tomatoes and cook down for about 10 more minutes. If using cherry tomatoes, place a cover on the pot to get them to cook faster and release moisture. As the tomatoes break down, the mixture should become thick and pasty.
Season with fresh black pepper, add bay leaves, smoked paprika and thyme and mix well.
Stream in the 2 1/2 cups vegetable broth, stirring constantly to prevent clumping. Add the okra and beans, then turn the heat up and cover to bring to a boil. Stir occasionally.
Once boiling, reduce the heat to a simmer and let cook uncovered for 30 to 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the stew is nicely thickened and the okra is tender. If it’s too thick, thin with up to 1/2 cup vegetable broth. If it’s not as thick as you like, just cook it a bit longer.
Add the lemon juice, and adjust salt and pepper to your liking. Let it sit for 10 minutes. Remove bay leaves and thyme stems (if you can see them) then serve in a big, wide bowl, topped with a scoop of rice and garnished with fresh thyme.