Collard Greens- Southern Food Challenge 2

 

Driving through the Southern country side in the winter:  black trees, bare and sharp against a pearly sky like Japanese ink paintings, maybe the lucky surprise flash of a scarlet cardinal; tawny fields with folds and furrows like the creased hide of a sleeping lion. It’s beautiful and restful in its monotony of winter-softened color, nothing to jar the eye but the occasional murder of black crows, or the pounce of a rusty hawk on some unwary rodent-until late Winter when the forsythia and quince suddenly explode like firecrackers and take your breath away for a second.

Even the winter gardens sitting lonely beside older homes have a subtlety, an unkempt bed-head look to them; mostly left to their own devices while their gardeners stay in the warm indoors, they are patches of root vegetables and earthy greens that burnish and sweeten with a little frost. Collards, with their dusty chalkboard-green leaves like well-worn old leather are the beauties of the bunch. They are Brassica like cabbages and broccoli; the leaves are braised, traditionally with smoked meat seasoning, until they are meltingly tender. Scott likes them with apple cider vinegar mixed into the pot liquor in his bowl; I like them with sriracha sauce (yes, green top, rooster- that one).

 

 

Since most of the work of cooking collard greens is in the preparation, I always make a big potful and freeze the leftovers for a busy day. I fill the kitchen sink with enough water to float all of the leaves so that any dirt or grit can sink to the bottom and then swish and wash the leaves really well, checking for ugly leaves and little creatures that may have tucked themselves into the bunches (this is probably more critical if you are growing them yourself- we found plenty of little caterpillars on the greens we brought in from our garden last year). I usually slice out the fibrous stems, cut the leaves in half long ways and stack them up like bundle of  dollar bills to cut them across into wide ribbons.

Meanwhile, in a big stock pot, I bring about a quart of water to a simmer. I don’t always use the same meat, but something with a little fat and some deep smoky flavor – diced bacon, smoked ham hock, a ham bone, or smoked turkey legs. While I’m cleaning and cutting up the leaves, I let the meat simmer in the water, covered with a lid, to start infusing the broth. Because I love their smoky heat, I usually throw in a dried chipotle or two. I add the greens and a little salt, clap the lid on again and let them collapse in the heat, with an occasional stir, checking they don’t steam out of liquid, slowly braising them to tenderness.

 

 

I usually like my vegetables on the crisp side- not the stereotypical “boiled to death” green beans and carrots and peas and spinach that give vegetables a bad name. But collards are an exception: like a tough, lean veal shank reaches its apotheosis as osso bucco after a long gentle braise, so the relatively fibrous collard leaves become rich and tender and flavorful. I don’t mean boiled though, a low simmer really, and I use a minimal amount of water so the flavor of the greens isn’t diluted too much. If I’m using anything but bacon, I’ll get tongs and pluck the bone out of the pot toward the end and shred the meat off to add back into the greens.

We’re still sort of in that “mud season” between winter and spring up north;  the Union Square Greenmarket stalls carry parsnips and turnips and cold storage apples (and I got sleet burn on my face last time I was there). I’m beginning to crave something sharp and fresh and green but for now I’m taking advantage of the last of the gifts of the winter and making a pot of collard greens. It’s especially good with beans and cornbread.

Collard Greens

what I put in the pot

2 bunches of collard greens (or more, if they are stingy bunches)

about a quart of water

3 slices of bacon, diced, or

2 small smoked ham hocks, or

1 meaty ham bone, or

1 nice big smoked turkey leg

salt, to taste (start with 1 1/2 teaspoons of flaky Kosher or sea salt)

1 or 2 dried chipotles

 

Braise over gentle heat for at least 45 minutes for a big pot, until the leaves are tender, but are not so cooked as to disintegrate when stirred.

 

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Grits and greens

I find myself torn between being less motivated to cook when I am home alone and refusing to eat cold cereal for supper. What I want is something that is simultaneously delicious, easier than going out again to get take out, doesn’t leave the kitchen a shambles, and can be eaten with one hand while I check email or read. The less measuring required of me, the better, so while I was inspired by this recipe on Ezra Pound Cake, I’m winging the proportions and streamlining the ingredients list. We go way back, grits and I. No need to stand on ceremony there.

I cooked these grits with half milk and half water, a not-too-stingy bit of butter, salt and smoked paprika. While the grits simmer away, I bring another small pot of water to a fierce boil and drop in my chopped broccoli rabe and a scoop of salt. Blanching the vegetables this way will help them to cook more evenly and keep the color brighter. After about 90 seconds, I drain the water, turn the heat down and return the pot of greens to the stove. I crush a couple of small cloves of garlic and stir them into the greens with a good glug of olive oil. These will stay over low heat, being stirred occasionally, while I grab a bowl and finish the grits. Bits of the greens should start to brown a little and the caramelization will bring out some of their natural sweetness. I grate some smoked gouda into the grits and stir it in. Into a bowl it goes, topped with a tangle of the greens. Smoky, gooey, melty,easy – that’s todays recipe.

Mustard Greens

After the interminable rain we’ve had this winter, I finally made it into the garden last week. All of my recent attempts had been foiled by either bucketing rain or hip- deep mud on all of the paths. It turns out that we have a lush crop of grass covering most of our plot, with one corner thick with mustard greens, collard greens, and kale. My basket was pressed down and running over, let me tell you. Fortunately, we love greens in many guises and have been busily eating them up this week. One of my favorite iterations was last Saturday and inspired by a very inspiring friend’s suggestion. I wilted a bunch of the mustard greens and then lightly sautéed them with garlic and olive oil. This went on top of a bowl of Parmesan polenta with some chunks of pork belly I had braised with sherry vinegar, smoked paprika, and Worcestershire sauce and finally, a lightly poached egg. Lovely! The sharp pungency of the greens was the perfect foil to the rich pork belly. The greens also allowed me to feel smugly virtuous while eating what really boils down to bacon, cheese grits, and eggs.