Omar Tate’s Vegetarian Gumbo, Led by His Ancestors, Keeps Its Soul, Heart, and Bones

published Apr 22, 2022
Vegetarian Gumbo Recipe

A delicious vegetarian version of the Southern classic, made with homemade mushroom stock, beans, okra and tofu

Serves8-10

MakesMakes 4 quarts

Prep30 minutes to 35 minutes

Cook3 hours to 3 hours 30 minutes

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Credit: Amelia Rampe

I have to admit that creating this recipe felt particularly sinful, maybe even blasphemous. Gumbo is a dish that you don’t wanna fuck with. It feels like a psalm or its own story in a holy text. It belongs to a city of saints, kings, and Zulu. Its foundation is a Negro Vatican in its trinity of vegetables — celery, onion, and green bell pepper with okra as its West African pope. This dish tested my faith. My wife, Cybille, who is Haitian, prayed for me and called spirits for my protection in Kreyol. Thankfully, I survived.

I wanted to keep the dish’s bones intact. When I thought of what makes a gumbo, keeping its integrity was simple. Beyond the holy trinity, there is protein and usually more than one. For this version, I went with three. One is tofu. This is the ingredient that really brought me to my knees for forgiveness. I needed to be vindicated and asked to be guided through this jettison of tradition. It became a body to me. How do I keep the bones, make up its skin, what of its heart, how does it smile?

For bones (the other two proteins), I went with peas and lima beans. The black-eyed peas and limas, in tandem with tofu, made up for any spiritual transgressions to be had.

It was like inviting a friend from college to my house for Sunday dinner.

For its soul, I used palm oil in place of vegetable oil to create the roux. This was a challenge. Typically, one needs to be able to see the color of the flour deepen from off-white to dark brown slowly over time, as it is heated, toasted, and caramelized by the fat. The organically processed bright red-orange palm oil that I used did not allow for sight to be my measure this time. It forced me to use my sense of smell and intuition to know when the time was right. I likened it to my imaginative experience of being in the shoes of our ancestors.

Credit: Amelia Rampe

In the dark of an evening stirring a meal, a pot of gumbo for several people after a long day of cultivating American prosperity in the fields of would-be “masters” was guided by smell and intuition. One of the most important things about Black food history is that it is delicious. Even under the weight of oppression, beneath the blindness of night, and the weariness of bones, we found it necessary to enjoy the taste of our food. That is a triumph of immeasurable desire and fortitude, in my opinion. I blinded myself, but I could see. I smelled the flour transform from white dust to a consumed marriage of perfect doneness, caressed in African palm.

It needed spirit to give reverence in faith of our universe of culture. Behind the chatter of life is substance; we are of the earth, moon, and stars. To satisfy this piece, I created a subtly rich and earthy mushroom stock to live within the body of the gumbo. Finally, in the end is the heart — okra, gombo. It is the fruit of West Africa and the survivor of Black America’s diet born of its mother. It is still here, and it is everywhere. It is essential and often discarded but still here. It finds itself cradled in the hands of grandmothers like her favorite leather-bound Bible on a Sunday morning. Placed into the soup to become stew and transformed into a nourishment for our souls eternally.

Vegetarian Gumbo Recipe

A delicious vegetarian version of the Southern classic, made with homemade mushroom stock, beans, okra and tofu

Prep time 30 minutes to 35 minutes

Cook time 3 hours to 3 hours 30 minutes

Makes Makes 4 quarts

Serves 8-10

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

For the mushroom stock:

  • 8 ounces

    cremini mushrooms

  • 2

    cloves garlic

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons

    dried thyme

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons

    dried parsley

  • 1/2

    small yellow onion

  • 1

    small leek

  • 2

    large stalks celery

  • 8 cups

    (2 quarts) water

For the gumbo:

  • 2 cups

    dried black-eyed peas

  • 1 cup

    dried baby lima beans

  • 2 medium

    3 yellow onions

  • 3

    large stalks celery

  • 1 1/2

    medium green bell peppers

  • 1 1/2 cups

    sustainable red palm oil

  • 1 cup

    all-purpose flour

  • 3 teaspoons

    kosher salt, divided, plus more as needed

  • 1

    Scotch bonnet pepper

  • 1 tablespoon

    tomato paste

  • 1 pound

    okra

  • 1

    (about 14-ounce) package extra-firm tofu

  • 1 tablespoon

    filé powder

  • Freshly ground black pepper

  • Creole seasoning, such as Wanda’s Creole All

  • Distilled white vinegar

  • Hot sauce

  • Cooked white rice, for serving

Instructions

  1. Place 2 dried cups black-eyed peas and 1 cup dried baby lima beans in separate medium bowls. Add enough cool water to cover the peas and beans by an inch or two. Set aside at cool room temperature to soak overnight.

Make the stock:

  1. Place 8 ounces cremini mushrooms, 2 garlic cloves, 1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme, and 1 1/2 teaspoons dried parsley in a medium pot.

  2. Halve 1/2 small yellow onion (no need to peel). Trim the stem end and dark green parts from 1 small leek. Trim 2 large celery stalks.

  3. Option 1: Broiler: Arrange a rack about 4 inches from the broiling element. Place the onion cut-side up, leek, and celery stalks on a baking sheet. Broil until blackened in spots on the outside, fragrant, and slightly tender, about 15 minutes. Transfer to the pot.

  4. Option 2: Gas Stove: Char the onion pieces, leek, and celery stalks one at a time: Using tongs, hold each piece (cut-side down for the onion) directly on a high flame (or place directly on the stove grates). Cook, turning occasionally, until blackened spots and slightly tender. As each piece is ready, add to the pot.

  5. Add 8 cups water to the pot and bring to a simmer over low heat, about 1 hour. Continue to simmer for 1 hour more. (This is a good time to chop the vegetables for the gumbo.)

  6. Fit a fine-mesh strainer over a large heatproof bowl. Pour the stock through the strainer and discard the contents of the strainer. If not using immediately, let cool and refrigerate for up to 1 week or freeze for up to 2 months.

Make the gumbo:

  1. Drain the peas and beans and return to one of the medium bowls, combining them.

  2. Prepare the following, adding each to the other bowl the beans were soaked in as it is ready: Finely dice 2 medium yellow onions and 3 celery stalks. Trim and dice 1 1/2 medium green bell peppers.

  3. Make the roux: Heat 1 1/2 cups red palm oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over low heat until shimmering. Add 1 cup all-purpose flour and cook, stirring often, until the flour is toasted and caramelized and the mixture starts to smoke slightly, about 15 minutes.

  4. Add the onion mixture and 1/2 teaspoon of the kosher salt. Cook, stirring often, until the vegetables are softened and completely saturated with the oil, about 12 minutes. Meanwhile, pierce 1 Scotch bonnet pepper with the tip of a knife and crush 3 garlic cloves.

  5. Add the Scotch bonnet, garlic, and 1 tablespoon tomato paste to the pot and stir to combine. Add the beans and peas (reserve the bowl) and stir to combine. While stirring, slowly pour in the mushroom stock and add 2 teaspoons of the kosher salt. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil.

  6. Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer and cook for 20 to 25 minutes. Meanwhile, trim the stem ends from 1 pound okra and cut crosswise into 1/2 to 1/3-inch pieces. Drain 1 package extra-firm tofu and cut into large dice. Place the okra and tofu in the reserved bowl.

  7. Add the okra and tofu and remaining 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt to the pot and stir to combine. Simmer until the beans and peas are tender and the gumbo is thickened, about 20 minutes more.

  8. Add 1 tablespoon filé powder and stir to combine. Taste and season with more kosher salt, black pepper, Creole seasoning, distilled white vinegar, and hot sauce as needed. Serve with white rice.

Recipe Notes

OIl substitute: Sunflower oil can be substituted for the red palm oil.

Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days.

“Reprinted with permission from BLACK FOOD: Stories, Art, and Recipes from Across the African Diaspora edited by Bryant Terry, copyright © 2021. Published by 4 Color Books, an imprint of Ten Speed Press and Penguin Random House.”

Photographs copyright © 2021 Oriana Koren