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. It's 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.
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.
3 to 4
dry pigeon peas, crowder peas, or small red or brown beans, such as red nightfall
stalks celery, finely chopped
medium green pepper, finely chopped
medium yellow onion, finely chopped
large cloves garlic, minced
thyme leaves, chopped
Freshly ground pepper
toasted peanut oil
salt (preferably smoked)
2 to 3 cups
chopped leafy greens (mustards, collards, turnips, radish greens, or a combination)
Soak the peas or beans overnight in a bowl of water to cover by several inches. The next day (or evening, if you started the soak in the morning), drain the beans, add them to a medium-sized, heavy pot, and cover them with 4 to 5 cups water. Add the bay leaf, a pinch of salt, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce the heat to about medium-low—you want the water to remain at a very low bubble with the pot partly covered. Simmer for 45 minutes or so, until the beans are just tender. If your beans are particularly fresh, this might only take 35 minutes; older, an hour or more. Remove from the heat, cover with a lid, and allow the beans to rest for at least 30 minutes. Leave them in their liquid; you'll need to use it later.
While the beans are resting, start the roux. Heat the oil in a 3- or 4-quart Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Sprinkle the flour over the oil, and whisk until smooth—a flat whisk works well here. Whisk the oil-flour mixture for a few minutes, then switch to a wooden spoon, and stir, constantly, as the roux begins to darken to a dark caramel color. The time it takes to reach this shade depends on the heat you're using, but count on around 20 to 30 minutes at medium-low.
Once the roux has reached a deep caramel color, add the onions, green pepper, and celery (the roux will coat the vegetables in a way that may make you think you're doing something wrong, but don't worry). Stir for a couple of minutes, add the garlic, thyme, and a good several grinds of black pepper, and saute for another 7 to 8 minutes, until the vegetables are light golden around the edges and begin to wilt.
Now pour off about 2 cups of the bean-cooking liquid, and pour it into the pot with the vegetables. Add the salt. Whisk well, bring to a simmer, and cook for about 5 minutes, until the broth thickens. Add the beans and any remaining liquid (you should have another 3/4 cup or so), and cook for a few minutes more. After about 10 minutes, add the greens, and simmer gently until their texture turns silken, anywhere from 2 to 3 minutes to 10. Season to taste with additional black pepper, and serve with white rice. Serve leftovers with more rice, or cornbread.