Love Me or Leaf Me 

Rediscovering greens, over- and undercooked

Rediscovering greens, over- and undercooked

I don’t know exactly when I became enchanted by greens. I grew up in a household where turnip greens were an integral part of the scene—almost a member of the family, if you will. Admittedly, they were a stinky, crummy, repulsive member of the family. They were slightly embarrassing, and, as far as I was concerned, they came around way too often.

I loathed entering the house on days when the scent of turnip greens and hamhock hung heavy in the air and soaked into my mother’s apron. Worse yet was the knowledge that, within a few hours, I would be required to ingest a serving of those odoriferous leaves. It was just like kissing an unpleasant relation, somebody I knew well but with whom I had absolutely nothing in common.

I had to leave home to “discover” greens. First I found them in an Italian restaurant in Virginia, comfy in a mix of rigatoni, garlic, and canelloni beans and topped off with a dusting of fresh-grated Romano. In such company, they were hard not to notice. And then there they were again, in a Korean restaurant in Washington, D.C., served with poached eggs and fragrant chives. Poetic and serene. Then, the very next spring, I encountered the spiciest of fresh-cooked greens in an Indian restaurant that occupied a tiny corner in the East Village of Manhattan. Hmm, I said to my oh-so-worldly self, perhaps I’m onto something.

I didn’t have to do much investigating to learn that green leafy vegetables are the unequivocal ruling powers when it comes to nutrition. Turnip greens, kale, collards, and mustard are all high in beta carotene, iron, and calcium, not to mention Vitamin C. Greens, at least the bitter, leafy ones, are part of almost every known cuisine. Oddly enough, they did not figure in many “Southern” cookbooks of my childhood. I’m afraid that, for a while, we Southerners had become too sophisticated to claim our greens heritage. When I was little, I had no idea how lucky I was to be born and raised in a family of greens eaters.

With the passage of time, I returned home, the prodigal daughter, brimming over with my worldly ways and sophisticated knowledge. Eschewing red meat and overcooked vegetables, I deigned to share my worldliness with my family, preparing Mediterranean and Asian recipes that involved greens. My parents chewed and smiled a lot.

And then I rediscovered Southern American greens, just as I began to rediscover the rest of our region’s culinary heritage. I began to seek out fried catfish and lima beans, stewed tomatoes and mashed potatoes. Again, there were those greens. Stinky with sulphur, bitter and beautiful, soul-satisfying. I craved greens like a tonic. I told my parents of my newfound love. I started taking interest in Daddy and Uncle Bob’s turnip green patch. I listened as Daddy explained that the best harvests are on chilly October mornings, after the first frost, when the greens had just been kissed. And then, finally deeming me worthy, I suppose, Daddy finally served me some of his own turnip greens. That night, he served as tasty a batch of greens as has ever been experienced by humans in any part of the world. Thrown together “by feel,” as he says, they were a mess of sublime perfection.

I had made my own journey, just like Dorothy, home from Oz. And I, too, found my heart’s desire: a lovely patch of greens, right in my own backyard.

Daddy’s Turnip Greens

2 lbs. turnip greens

1 country-ham hock

2 or 3 dried cayenne peppers

Start by cleaning the greens really well. Lots of people leave most of the stem, but Daddy leaves almost nothing but the tender leaf. Fill your sink with cold water and plunge your greens in. Swish them around really well. If there’s a lot of sand or dirt, empty the sink and fill again, repeating the process. Meanwhile, fill a soup pot with about a gallon of water. Add the ham hock and peppers and bring to a boil. Add the greens and stir. Bring back to a boil and turn the heat down to low. Although the ham hock is quite salty, you’ll need to add a little more salt. Start with about a teaspoonful; you can add more later, if need be.

Daddy likes his greens to cook for a long time—I mean a long, long time: two hours, minimum, on very low heat. When I note that other “traditional” recipes call for only an hour of cooking time, my mother rushes to his defense. In her childhood, she says, the greens went on the stove right after breakfast and were served at sundown. Who am I to quibble with one of the few points upon which I know my parents agree?

When the greens are done, Daddy uses a slotted spoon to drain the greens really well, and he serves them right on the dinner plate, usually alongside fried pork chops. He saves the pot liquor for cooking beans, or he just slurps it down all by itself. (It’s a shame not to use the pot liquor, especially if you cook the greens for a very long time. The liquor is where all of the nutrients wind up, since they’re mostly cooked right out of the greens.) About 6 to 8 servings.

Corn Sticks

Mama and Daddy also agree on another point: Turnip greens should be served with corn sticks. My grandmother was of the opinion that this recipe is superior to all others because it requires you to separate the egg, leading to a lighter corn stick. And a lighter corn stick is better at sopping up the juice.

A word of advice: If you’re going to make corn sticks, you really need black-iron corn stick pans. Nothing else gets the same results.

For 16 corn sticks:

1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 cups stone-ground cornmeal

4 teaspoons baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 eggs, separated

1 1/2 cups milk

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Dribble about 1/4 teaspoon of oil in each mold. Place the pan in the hot oven.

Stir together the cornmeal, salt, and baking powder. Mix the egg yolk with the milk and quickly stir into the dry mixture, being careful not to over-mix. Beat the egg whites stiff in a separate bowl and fold into the cornmeal batter.

Remove the pans from the oven, setting them on towels or on a scorch-proof surface. Fill each mold with about a tablespoonful of batter. Bake for 20 minutes, until puffed and golden brown. Remove the sticks quickly from the mold, using a fork. Serve with butter.

Sallie’s Greens

My sister Sal has a variation on Daddy’s greens. Sallie peels and cuts up a few turnips and adds them to the greens for about the last 20 minutes of cooking. When you’re shopping for greens, however, avoid the plants that still have the the turnips attached. The greens would be overgrown and unbearably bitter. Buy the turnips separately. Their potato-like texture is really nice with the greens, and the starch thickens up the liquor a little bit. Sallie serves her greens in soup bowls, like stew, with lots of juice, a good pepper vinegar sauce on the side, and, yes, corn sticks.

Chipotle Spiced Kale With Tomatoes

While a pot of Daddy’s greens is like the Holy Grail around my family’s household, I still love some less-cooked, ethnic variations on the turnip green theme. This recipe emerged last fall during the last trimester of my pregnancy, when I had a manic craving for nutrients and lots of spices. That’s another reason having a baby was the smartest thing I ever did.

2 lbs. kale

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 red onion, sliced

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1 large can whole tomatoes, with juice

2 to 3 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, chopped fine

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

3 cups water

1 to 2 teaspoons salt

Strip the tough stems from the kale and clean the leaves in a sink full of fresh cold water. Drain. Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven until it is very hot. Add the onion and cook about three minutes. Add the garlic and cook one minute more. Add the greens and let wilt, stirring. Add the tomatoes, breaking them up, along with their juice. Bring to a boil. Stir in the peppers and vinegar; then pour in the water. Taste the liquid and add salt to taste. Remember that the flavor will intensify as the liquid cooks down. Turn the heat down to low and cook for about 20 minutes. Serve in bowls. About 8 servings

Sesame-Flavored Collards

This dish is amazing served either hot or at room temperature. Great for fall picnics.

2 lbs. collard greens

2 tablespoons peanut oil

1 onion, sliced thin

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 in. piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced

1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced

1 yellow bell pepper, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

2 tablespoons water

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 teaspoon soy sauce

2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds

Rinse the collards well and remove the toughest parts of the stems. Slice in one-inch-thick strips and drain.

Heat the peanut oil in a wok or in a high-sided skillet until quite hot. Add the onion and cook for three minutes. Add the ginger, garlic, and peppers and cook one more minute. Toss in the collards and stir, cooking for five minutes. Pour in the vinegar and water. Stir and cook until most of the liquid is gone—about five minutes more. Remove from the heat and pour in the sesame oil and soy, stirring to mix. Place in a serving bowl and sprinkle with sesame seeds before serving. About 8 servings

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