The first weekend after my husband and I moved from Rhode Island to North Carolina, we were invited by neighbors to a potluck dinner. We were thrilled — we desperately wanted to try some real home-cooked Southern food.
When we arrived we scanned the offerings on the table. Much to our delight, we identified bowls of colorful succotash and saucy black-eyed peas and trays of freshly baked biscuits and crispy fried green tomatoes. To the side were tall pitchers of sweet and "unsweet" tea to wash it all down.
There were a few dishes, however, that we couldn't identify. Crispy, golden nuggets that looked to New Englanders like clam cakes: hush puppies. Lumpy, pink dip that we thought was a strange type of ambrosia, that famous Southern coconut and fruit concoction, was actually savory pimento cheese spread. There was also a big bowl of mushy, brownish-green stuff that we believed was a vegetable, but weren't sure. I asked the woman next to me, "What's in the bowl, there?"
"Why, they're greens, of course," she said, smiling widely.
"Greens?" I repeated.
"Yes, honey. Collards. Greens," she said, this time repeating "greens" slowly and clearly, as if I were hard of hearing.
Greens? I thought. More like browns. I was so disappointed. How could these be the iconic Southern greens I had heard so much about? Intrepidly, we tried them and discovered a meaty, earthy, salty flavor that these Yankees had never experienced before.
The next weekend I went to the Raleigh farmers market. Everywhere I looked were bunches of attractive deep green collards, with leaves the size of elephant ears. It was January, the first month of peak season for collards and their leafy brethren, including kale, mustard greens and turnip greens that would last through April.
I selected two rich, green, prehistorically huge bunches of collards, then asked every woman I heard with a deep Southern accent how I should cook them. Here's what they said: Collards had to be cooked slowly in water or chicken broth with a smoked meat such as ham hock or pork shoulder. Some advocated adding bacon as well. Butter and onions were optional. Vinegar was requisite as were several dashes of hot sauce and generous shakes of salt and pepper.
As for cooking time, they all concurred: "A looong time," which translated to anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours. Assuming the brown bowl from the potluck was a product of two hours of cooking, I opted for 45 minutes. The result was a tender, earthy, still-green vegetable infused with salty, meaty smokiness.
Over time I came to appreciate all of the popular Southern greens, including kale, mustard greens and turnip greens. I sauteed them with olive oil and lemon, chopped them up and added them to bean soups and even tossed them into pastas and frittatas, a place they weren't accustomed to be in the South. Before long, I found myself saying things like, "Mmmm, I'm gonna make a 'mess o' greens' this Sunday."
Classic slow-cooked Southern-style greens originated in the South during slavery. African slaves brought to America had to feed their families from precious few foods. Because greens such as collards grew abundantly, they often used them as the basis for one-pot meals. To make the greens more flavorful and nourishing, they added meats such as pig's feet or ham hocks — discarded animal parts their owners wouldn't eat.
After a couple of hours of cooking, the greens would simmer in a meat-infused savory broth at the bottom of the pot known as pot "likker," as in "liquor." This precious juice was spooned atop the greens and sopped up with hunks of corn cakes made from ground corn. Today this beloved tradition is carried on with cornbread and hoe cakes.
Although greens now are enjoyed across the United States, their culinary home still resides in the South, where you can find them everywhere from upscale hotels to mom-and-pop diners. No holiday or Sunday supper is complete without them.
When selecting greens, look for firm, unblemished, richly colored, dark green leaves with intact stalks. Avoid dry, shriveled or yellowed greens. To store greens, wrap unwashed in a paper towel and place inside a plastic bag, where they should keep for five to six days.
Wash greens thoroughly in a large bowl of warm water a couple of times ensuring that all dirt is loosened and washed away. Pat dry. Trim off the stems. For tougher collards and kale, it's a good idea to remove the thick center stem that runs through each leaf. Simply fold the leaf in half lengthwise and cut off the stem. Then stack all the leaves, roll them up and slice crosswise into 1-inch-thick strips.
Since collards, kale, mustard greens and turnip greens are all descendants of the wild cabbage, they share an unmistakable sulfurous smell. Whereas boiling and steaming produce the strongest odors, sauteeing and braising produce the least.
If you're going to saute greens, you may want to parboil and "shock" them first. Boil the greens for two minutes. Drain and plunge into a bowl of ice water for three to five minutes, then drain and squeeze to release excess water. This helps maintain the greens' vivid color, reduce bitterness and make them more tender.
When it comes to flavor, all these greens are deliciously different. Collards have the earthiest, grassiest flavor, while kale, especially red kale, is sweet like spinach. Turnip and mustard greens in contrast have a distinctively bitter flavor. To balance the bitterness of these greens, do not add sugar, which can create an unpleasant flavor. Rather, pair them with salty, sweet or acidic ingredients such as bacon, honey or lemon that naturally reduce bitterness and enhance flavor.
Although they're known for being a stellar side dish, greens can be added to soups and stews, chopped into salads and omelets and added to rice and pasta dishes. They make healthy pizza, sandwich, crostini and polenta toppings as well. For a healthy snack, you can make trendy baked kale chips with sea salt.
Although I no longer live in North Carolina, greens and I have a close relationship, especially at this time of year. I still love them sauteed with bacon and served alongside slabs of homemade buttered corn bread, but since I live in California, I've tested our relationship a bit: I drink shocking green smoothies of pureed raw greens, bananas and fruit juice for breakfast, eat healthy chopped bold green salads for lunch and crispy kale chips with hummus for snacks. As for pimento cheese, well, I'm still working on that.
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