The greater challenge in creating veg versions of traditional meat-based dishes is most often not in replacing the meat itself, but rather layering flavor the meat imparts to a dish typically by way of a rich stock or broth. Often, a good homemade vegetable stock does the trick, but sometimes it's not quite enough, and this is where I've become unapologetically predictable with a trick that has saved many
Yes, beans are great, but I'm also after something else when I cook them: their cooking liquid. Depending on the bean type, that liquid stands convincingly in place of traditional meat stocks made from chicken, duck, or pork. Ladle it into risotto, simmer it as a base for greens and bean soups, use it as the sauce for pasta e fagioli. It's also just the thing in a vegan gumbo, where its sweet, earthy flavors give the gumbo richness and depth and pair up well with a nutty roux and bitter greens, or whatever the season calls for.
The choice of bean is up to you, but the key is the dark broth they produce as they cook, so stick to something in the brown/red/gray family. Crowder peas are my preference, but they can be a trick to find outside the South, so most often I fall to pigeon peas, which are pretty easy to find in bulk bins or international groceries; or little red nightfall beans, carried by Rancho Gordo; or the tiny Sea Island red pea, sold by Anson Mills. Other little pink and lavender heirloom beans and pinto-types work well, too.
A few things are crucial to making vegan gumbo besides the bean liquid: the roux—which thickens the gumbo and lays down a foundation of rich, nutty flavor— and the "holy trinity" of onion, celery, and green bell pepper, whose fragrance as it hits the finished roux is one of my favorite scents in all of cooking.
Outside of these essentials, different directions are yours to take—in the case of a vegan gumbo, this means vegetables. In cooler months, leafy greens are an obvious choice: the more varieties, the better. I'm pulling handfuls of radish greens, turnip greens, mustards, and collards from the straggling vegetable garden. It’s a combination I love for its mix of spicy, pungent, earthy, and bitter flavors, but if what you have is exactly one bunch of kale or a head of cabbage, you'll do fine. In spring, I'll add heaps of celery leaves toward the end of cooking to echo the diced stalks, or use broccoli raab or the sprouts of overwintered greens, cooked just until bright and tender.
In summer, I love a more delicate version made with sliced okra and squash blossoms, both added 5 to 10 minutes before serving, or a pepper-heavy version with sweet red bells added with the trinity and more chopped hot peppers added a few minutes before serving. Peeled chopped tomatoes add depth and acidity; shaved fresh corn and seared eggplant bring in sweetness and texture. Fresh field peas—crowders, particularly—should be obvious, if you're so lucky to have access to them.
I wouldn't recommend forgoing the thyme, garlic and bay, but layer on more herbs if you have 'em. Parsley is perfect, stems and all; basil can be lovely, as is bit of marjoram in moderation.
If your audience needs an extra meaty hit, crumble some sautéed seitan sausage over the top. This recipe, by the way, double or triples up easily. And whichever way you go, pass the rice.
- 1 cup dry pigeon peas, crowder peas, or small red or brown beans, such as red nightfall
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 stalks celery, finely chopped
- 1 medium green pepper, finely chopped
- 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
- 2 large cloves garlic, minced
- 2 teaspoons thyme leaves, chopped
- Freshly ground pepper
- 1/4 cup toasted peanut oil
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons salt (preferably smoked)
- 2 to 3 cups chopped leafy greens (mustards, collards, turnips, radish greens, or a combination)
- Steamed white rice, for serving