Editor’s Note: There’s been much ado about the future of foraging in city parks since the New York Times published a story last week announcing city plans for a crackdown. See here for the latest, and for Leda’s response. Never fear – Leda’s back this week with a gumbo recipe based on some of Brooklyn’s most easily-forageable finds.
by Leda Meredith
Two essential ingredients for traditional Creole-style gumbo are okra and something called filé powder. I’ve come up with a recipe that replaces the okra with wild purslane, and I make my own filé powder from foraged sassafras leaves.
Both purslane and sassafras are abundant in Brooklyn (well, okay, purslane is abundant almost everywhere). Let’s start with the purslane.
I recently saw purslane for sale at the Park Slope Food Coop for over $7 a bunch. Maybe I should go into the purslane business. I collect ample amounts of this ubiquitous “weed” all summer long for free!
Purslane, a.k.a. Portulaca oleracea, is a low-growing plant with thick, reddish, succulent stems and leaves that resemble a miniature jade plant. It has small yellow flowers that turn into tiny capsules filled with many seeds. The seeds are edible, but a hassle to collect. It’s the leaves and stems that are the main harvest.
You can eat purslane leaves and stems raw or cooked — the fat stems make good pickles. The plant has a lightly tangy, sour taste. But what interests me for gumbo purposes is that it is also slightly mucilaginous. That’s what makes it perfect for replacing the okra in traditional gumbo.
An added perk of purslane is that it contains healthy omega-3 fatty acids just like fish does.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a native North American tree. It is abundant in Prospect Park. The roots and bark have a distinct scent of root beer, and indeed in the past it was used to make real root beer. But for gumbo, it’s the leaves that we want.
Sassafras leaves come in three different shapes all on the same tree: a simple oval, a 3-lobed variation, and a 2-lobed mitten shape. Mulberry leaves can also have all three leaf shapes on one tree, but mulberry leaves have toothed margins and sassafras leaf margins are smooth.
Filé powder is the dried, finely ground leaves of the sassafras tree. It is added at the very end of gumbo making, after the heat is turned off. Along with the okra (or in my version, purslane) and the classic roux, the filé powder helps to thicken the gumbo. It also adds a subtle and unique seasoning. The homemade version is much more aromatic and flavorful than any of the commercial versions.
Make a big pot of rice or freekah to serve with this wild gumbo. (You can get freekah, which is locally grown spelt grain picked green and smoked, from Cayuga Pure Organics at the Saturday Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket).
Brooklyn Brewery‘s East India Pale Ale goes well with gumbo.
SPICY GUMBO WITH PURSLANE & SASSAFRAS LEAF
Makes 4 – 6 servings: recipe can be multiplied
- ¼ cup vegetable oil
- ¼ cup all-purpose flour
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 red bell pepper, chopped
- ¼ cup bishop’s elder (Aegopodium podagraria) stems and leaves, chopped OR celery
- 1 – 3 fresh or dried hot chilé peppers
- 4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
- 1 cup chopped tomatoes (canned is fine)
- 2 cups chopped purslane leaves and stems
- 2 links andouille, chorizo, or other smoked sausage cut into ½-inch chunks
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 Tbsp. filé powder
- Salt to taste
(Plus cooked rice to serve the gumbo over)
- In a Dutch oven or other heavy pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Whisk in the flour. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon until the roux is a rich brown color. Remove from the heat and let cool for 1 minute.
- Add the onion, bell pepper, bishop’s elder and hot peppers. Return to the heat. Whisk in the stock and tomatoes. Bring to a boil over medium high heat, whisking constantly.
- Reduce the heat to medium. Add the purslane, sausage and garlic. Simmer until the sausage is cooked and the vegetables are tender, 10 – 15 minutes.
- Turn off the heat. Stir in the filé powder and salt to taste. Serve over cooked rice.
Vegan Variation: leave out the sausage, add 1 cup cooked beans, substitute 1 – 2 chipotle peppers in adobo for the hot chilé peppers.
Leda Meredith is the author of The Locavore’s Handbook: The Busy Person’s Guide to Eating Local on a Budget. She is the Gardening Program Coordinator for Adult Education at the New York Botanical Garden and an instructor specializing in edible and medicinal plants at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Info on her many upcoming classes and events can be found on her blog at www.ledameredith.com