Good vegetarian gumbo exists. My neighbor Kim makes it for us, but only once a year. Kim is one of those 25th generation gumbo makers from the south, who (years ago) told me about a vegetarian gumbo her mom used to make during Lent, or during times when meat wasn't readily available or affordable. The gumbo was served over rice, and just before serving eggs were poached in the simmering gravy. I eventually asked Kim if she would teach me to make this type of gumbo, and Friday night (after multiple lessons, and plenty of phone calls) I made a big pot of it to share with our friends and neighbors who swing by on Halloween.
A bit of context - Wayne and I live on a street that dead-ends into a park. On Halloween hundreds of kids (and adults) parade by our front door as they trick-or-treat or make their way toward the Castro Halloween festivities. Neighbors on our block sit on the steps in front of their houses and give out candy, chat with each other, and people-watch. This has been going on for years. And every year, on our stretch of street, Kim would have a pot of gumbo bubbling away upstairs in her apartment. She'd offer up a bowl to any friends who stopped by. Now people stop by just to enjoy Kim's gumbo. Kim usually does a sausage gumbo, but an increasing number people who come over are vegetarian (this being San Francisco and all ;) - and she wanted to share with them as well. To make a long story short, Kim started making a separate pot of vegetarian gumbo and I loved it. Over the past year she taught me to make it, and put me on vegetarian gumbo duty this year for Halloween.
The recipe that follows is the gumbo I served on Halloween. Over the past few months Kim and I have tried a few variations to see what really makes veg gumbo great - I'll note some of our findings in the head note of the recipe, in case you are wondering about substitutions.
If you're after a "quick and easy" gumbo recipe this isn't it. While seemingly simple - you make the roux, then you make the gumbo - it takes the better part of a morning or afternoon. More importantly, it takes patience, and focus, and attention to little details. I suspect gumbo-making is one of those things where you get better with each notch on your wooden gumbo spoon. More than any other food I've cooked, it's all about watching, and smelling, listening, and tasting.
Please be very, very careful when you're making the roux. It is hot oil, and you don't want to be burned by it. Keep a very close eye on it the entire time it cooks, making sure it sits at a temperature that allows the flour to brown over time, but not hot enough that the clarified butter (or oil) smokes or burns.
Kim has a special gumbo/roux spoon with a hole in it (you can see in the photo) - highly recommended. And for those of you curious about substitutions, Kim typically uses canola oil or some other high smoking point oil for her roux. We did a beautiful version at one point with olive oil, but it's really too difficult to keep the olive oil below its smoking point and still get a nice dark brown roux out of it. The smoke point on various olive oils varies greatly, so I can't recommend it. Clarified butter (or ghee) worked great! It is a rich-tasting cooking fat I love to use, so that is what I settled on for last night. For those of you not wanting to use a white flour, we had success with a 1/2 & 1/2 blend of whole wheat pastry flour and unbleached all-purpose white flour. The batch we did with ALL whole wheat pastry flour left the roux with lots of little freckles (the germ I suspect)...but it still tasted quite good.
The choice of broth in this recipe is important! You want one that isn't too celery-tasting, not too herby, not swampy colored. I did a blend of 2 parts Pacific Natural Foods Organic Vegetable Broth, to 1 part Rapunzel brand (from bouillon). Kim says she likes the Wolfgang Puck's Organic vegetable stock as well. Whatever broth/stock you use, taste it before adding it to your gumbo pot. Would you like to drink a warm bowl of it? If your answer is no, keep working with it - add salt, or dilute it, etc. It's hard to get that balance right once the stock is in the pot.
1 cup clarified butter (or ghee)
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
5 cups yellow onion, chopped into 1/3-inch dice
3/4 cup green bell pepper, chopped into 1/3-inch dice
scant 1/2 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
1/4 cup garlic, chopped
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 dried bay leaves
3-4 quarts of a great tasting vegetable broth (see head notes!)
1 bunch green onions, chopped green ends only
5- 6 cups cooked long grain white or brown basmati rice
To make the roux:
In a large cast-iron or enameled cast iron pot, heat the clarified butter. When it is melted stir in the flour. Continue stirring until smooth and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Stir EVERY 10-15 seconds with a bone dry wooden spoon, scraping the bottom of the pot clean each time for about an hour and a half, or until the roux is a deep, deep brown - roughly the shade of a Hershey's Chocolate Bar. The amount of time this takes can vary wildly. The roux will likely bubble quite a bit more at the beginning than it does at the end. Throughout the cooking process my roux temperature bounces around in the 300F - 330F range, but use your nose and eyes (particularly if you don't have a thermometer). The key is to keep the roux hot, but not so hot that it puts off smoke or other acrid smells. The consistency as it is cooking should be that of a thick, creamy hair conditioner. If after thirty minutes of cooking, your roux is too thin (or has visible pools of butter on top), add one or two more handfuls of flour, stirring until incorporated. When the roux is finished cooking, let it cool a bit before carefully transferring to a glass Mason jar or Pyrex container. This will make enough roux for two big pots of gumbo. Leftover roux can be kept in your refrigerator for a couple weeks.
To make the gumbo:
Scoop 1/2 cup of roux into a cold thick-bottomed pot. Alternately, you can just leave about 1/2 cup of the roux in the base of the pot you made your roux in originally, if it is large enough. Stir in the onion, green bell pepper, and salt. You want just enough roux to coat the onions/peppers (see photo) - too much roux and you end up with a muddy gumbo. Cook over medium high heat until onions aren't translucent, roughly 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic and crushed red pepper flakes and cook for another minute or so. Now stir in 6 cups of stock, and the bay leaves. Bring to bubbling boil. Boil, boil, boil (see photo) and when it thickens add more stock a cup at a time. Keep adding stock and boiling for two hours - the gumbo should be thicker than a heavy cream, but thinner than a heavy gravy. Imagine it ladled over rice. I taste along the way, but here is where I make final adjustments - does your gumbo need more salt? Don't under salt or the gumbo will taste flat. Maybe it needs a bit more acidity? You can stir in white vinegar (1/4 teaspoon at a time) to get the right balance on this front. A couple pinches of smoked paprika adds depth, but maybe you need a touch of sweetness, a pinch or two of sugar will do. If you aren't excited about how it tastes, keep at it, one tiny adjustment at a time - remembering that you can always add, but never take away. Cover towards the end, dial down the heat and simmer. Remove bay leaves.
Ten minutes before you are ready to serve the gumbo, poach the eggs. Gently crack one egg into a ramekin, lower the ramekin down into the barely simmering gumbo and let the egg slip out. Let it simmer there for a few minutes, past the point when the whites have become thoroughly opaque. If you like a loose yolk, cook for less time. Repeat with three more eggs (I poach the eggs in batches of 3 or 4).
To serve, place a scoop of rice in each bowl, top with one egg, and a ladle of gravy, the rice shouldn't be totally submerged in the gravy, it should peak up above it in places. Finish with a small pinch of file' and about a tablespoon of the chopped green onions. Repeat with the remaining 3-4 eggs.
Serves 6 - 8.