I'm sad to report that to this point, I've never had the opportunity to visit New Orleans. I'm very eager to do so. Aside from getting a chance to experience the spirit of what is considered one of the most vibrant and resilient cities in America, I've also heard that they have quite the vegan scene out there, too. And I love me some vegans!
Until this Canadian girl gets a chance to board a plane for the Big Easy, I'm exploring the culture via its most celebrated component - cuisine! Now, of course, I don't exactly share in the Louisianan enthusiasm for sausage and seafood. But thanks in part to our southern vegan friends, there are plenty of Cajun and Creole recipes made vegan out there. There are hundreds of vegan gumbo recipes alone!
While some dishes are more tricky to veganize than others, gumbo translates really well - with all those hearty veggies and beans thickened in a roux sticking to your ribs, who needs meat?!
What makes gumbo different from your typical dense veggie stew is the unmistakeable flavour and texture of okra. A vegetable that originated in Africa, it is believed that a version of the word "gumbo" was first used to refer not to a stew, but to the vegetable itself. It was later that the term was applied this traditional southern meal.
Often sketching people out, including yours truly (at first), okra is a slimy little bugger that makes a sticky mess out of your cutting board. But it's precisely this sticky/slimy quality that makes it perfect for soups and stews, easily thickening up broths and liquids.
Another important component of gumbo is the roux, which is a thickening base traditionally made from flour and fat. The fat is usually butter, but down south lard is not frowned upon either. We vegans don't care much for pig fat, so we opt for oils or vegan margarine (which is essentially oil) - although there does appear to be an oil-free movement currently in the works in the vegan community. If you're a part of it, you might not be too fond of this recipe, although I have in the past made roux using water in place of the fat. The resulting dishes have had a little less flavour and were a little more runny, but in the name of health, water is a perfectly fine alternative.
The okra does a pretty good job of thickening things up too!
A lot of vegan gumbos sub in veggie sausages and other faux meats and that would probably be pretty tasty, but I like the simplicity of this one. Always a fan of vegetables, I find that they often get overshadowed by the more intense flavour of veggie meats. In this gumbo, the veggies do the talking - with a little help from a bottle of beer and a few drops of liquid smoke.
One other thing - I'm told that tomatoes are the most controversial ingredient (or noningredient) in gumbo. Cajun gumbo doesn't traditionally have any and I've been warned that Cajun purists get super pissed when you try and put them in. Tomatoes are, however, found in Creole gumbo. And that is as far as my knowledge on the topic goes. Canadian.....remember?
So, I guess we'll call this a Creole gumbo. Not exactly super traditional, but a great way to celebrate the spirit of New Orleans - especially with Mardi Gras just around the corner.
This recipe is found on page 149 of Veganomicon. There is also a slightly modified version of it here.