No meat in this Big Easy classic

It's Mardi Gras season again and every year it stirs up fond memories of the time I lived in New Orleans. The colorful people, beautiful architecture and, of course, delicious food made a huge impression on me and changed my life forever. One whiff of a well-made roux cooking on a stovetop sends me back in time.

When one thinks of New Orleans food, images of seafood, boiled crawfish, Andouille sausage, mile-high muffalettas and oyster Po' Boys come to mind, but it's possible to experience the flavors of the Big Easy as a vegetarian or vegan. In fact, early on in my cooking career, I worked at one of the few vegetarian restaurants in New Orleans, which was located in the French Quarter. I learned so much there about incorporating the essence of Creole and Cajun cuisine using little or no animal products.

Gumbo originated in Louisiana in the 18th century and has cultural influences from Spain, France, Africa and the Native-Americans as well. The Creoles introduced tomatoes to the dish, the Africans gave it okra, and the Cajuns insist that it's not real gumbo if it's not laden with shrimp, crab and oysters. There is an original veggie version called "Gumbo z'Herbs" that was introduced by either the French or German Catholics during the season of Lent when consumption of meat is not allowed. This version combines turnip greens, mustard greens and spinach that are cooked to a mushy consistency and strained to produce a thick green liquid. Needless to say, it's very time-consuming to make and is rarely served in New Orleans' restaurants these days.

My vegetarian version of gumbo combines the best of all the influences and it's a heckuva lot easier to make than Gumbo z'Herbs. Using lentils in place of rice gives the dish a natural smokiness in the absence of sausage. So fear not, my vegetarian friends. You can "laissez les bon temps rouler" right next to your carnivorous counterparts when enjoying the cuisine of New Orleans.

Vegan Lentil Gumbo

serves 4


2 cups vegetable oil

1 cup flour (plus a little extra if needed)

1 cup diced onions

1 cup diced celery

1 cup diced green pepper

2 tablespoons minced garlic

6 cups water or vegetable stock

1/4 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup tomato paste

2 tablespoons fresh thyme or 2 teaspoons dried

1 cup sliced okra

2 tablespoons file powder (pronounced "FEE-lay")

3-4 dashes hot sauce, to taste (preferably Louisiana or Crystal brand)

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 cup cooked green lentils


1. For the roux: In a heavy-bottomed sauce pot over medium, heat whisk together vegetable oil and flour until mixture looks like a thick paste (use a little extra flour if needed). Continue cooking, whisking often, until roux becomes a dark brown chocolate color, about 30 minutes. Immediately remove from heat and set aside.

2. In a large pot over medium heat, add roux, onions, celery, green pepper and garlic. Cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes.

3. Add water or stock, soy sauce and tomato paste and whisk well until soup starts to thicken. Add remaining ingredients (except lentils), whisk well and let gumbo simmer over low heat for 20 minutes. Adjust seasoning and serve over cooked lentils.

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