I grew up with frozen spinach and iceberg lettuce coated with oily Kraft dressing. I didn’t much think about other leafy vegetables until I saw a kid with red cabbage at the lunch table one day. I thought it was grape flavored and traded an Oreo for it.
I didn’t eat much more until I went with a college girlfriend to meet her parents and they served Caesar salad, complete with anchovies and coddled eggs. I picked the anchovies off and felt my pressed corduroys sigh. The light was too bright in their urban sprawl dining room with hues of Minnesota nice hanging from the chandelier. I was an uncouth latchkey kid asked in to dinner with their beautiful daughter, and they didn’t have any mustard to pass.
I traveled around the world for a spell and learned to love cabbage in Prague. I ate it every day.
I learned more about greens when I was living by myself, trying to stand on my own in a studio apartment on the wrong side of town. I had a temp job filing medical records that paid the next paycheck and my groceries consisted of rice and beans with the occasional sale chicken. I packed my leftovers every day to my file job and ate it quietly in the lunchroom. A new girl, Michelle started in the file business as a medical coder. She was twenty and had just moved with her mother up from Jackson, Mississippi. She was a few inches short of five feet, and her whole body rolled through the cubicles, she barely fit in her chair. Her cubie was just outside the file room and I dropped off files to her a few times a day. We became fast friends.
Michelle had a boyfriend who called her collect from prison every day. They had met in her last wayside stop, Omaha, Nebraska and he was doing eighteen months for violating parole. Her monthly phone bill was more than my weekly check. I adored her and her kind soul. She started eating with me in my somber loneliness and we sat across from one another over a fold out faux wood table. We talked about our lives and our stories and she saw all the sorrow I had swallowed. She was my friend as they come from the strangest of memories.
She brought me a margarine container one day and some cornbread in Saran wrap.
“Here you go Bob.” She said , smiling a grin that hit her ears.
“Whassthat?” I asked, looking into the whites of her eyes.
“Greens Bob. Greens.”
Michelle had seen the beginnings of my culinary growing pains. Rice, beans and chicken every day, supplemented by preserved lunchmeat and fruit had made her curious of me. When you spend eight hours a day in close proximity working with someone, you get to know the essential grits of their soul. She wondered what I was doing in this place, waning and waiting away. She had brought me a bottle of Frank’s hot sauce to put on my lunch a few weeks earlier and today, she had brought me greens and cornbread.
She explained to me that down south, folks ate greens because they were abundant, cheap and delicious. You can cook them in one pot and leave them simmering all day as they grow tender. The juice of the greens is called “pot likker”. Which is the perfect condiment for cornbread. I tasted a salty bite and devoured the whole margarine container of green leaves and juice.
She brought me all sorts of soul food after that. I would bring her my experiments with cooking in return. By the time I had perfected my greens I had left the job and moved on, but I'll forever be grateful for our friendship in greens.
There are many different types of greens used for pot cooking, typically, mustard, collard, turnip and kale greens are used but dandelion, spinach and beet greens provide viable alternatives. These are bitter greens when raw, fibrous and tough, they need to be cooked a long time to become tender.
Greens come in bunches. I know it seems like a lot, but one bunch equals one serving. Remember that greens wilt when cooked and the majority of the bulk is stems that you will discard. Now, you need to decide what kind of greens you want to cook. Each has a distinctive flavor and texture, collards are flat leafed and have a chewy texture, mustard has an astringent ting, all the greens are chocked full of iron and nutrients and the real taste is the meat you cook them with.
Generally, ham hocks or salt pork provide a good base, but smoked turkey legs and chicken base work well too. For vegetarians, I suggest a healthy dose of soy sauce and dried chilies.
What you need: (serves four)
- 3-4 bunches of greens. Mix and match for taste and freshness.
- one large yellow onion, chopped
- ten cloves garlic diced in large pieces (burnt garlic makes everything bitter).
- one to two tablespoons of sugar. Granulated, but less if brown or raw.
- 1/4 cup white vinegar, cider or rice is best.
- vinegar hot sauce, Frank’s, Louisiana, Crystal or similar brand
- Dried chili flakes or one whole fresh jalapeno or Serrano to taste.
- One large ham hock or turkey leg or a fatty one pound portion of salt pork.
- Two tablespoons oil and equal amount of butter. (unsalted butter, because so much salt is in the pot and extra virgin olive oil are preferred).
- Salt and black pepper
Place a large stew pot over medium heat, add oil and butter. When the butter has almost melted, add the meat and chopped onion and garlic, stir. When the onions begin to get opaque and the meat begins to brown, add sugar and stir. Add three cups of water to deglaze the pan. Set heat to low and cover.
Separate the bunch of leaves discarding any black or decaying sections. Thoroughly wash under cold water, removing all dirt and insects. Tear the large portions of stem away from the leaves and discard. Your pile of torn leaves should be overflowing out of your colander with plenty left to clean.
After your meat has been simmering for a while (half hour), start adding the leaves as you clean. Fill the pot and salt generously and then cover. The leaves in the pot will wilt down significantly as the salt absorbs the moisture, but be careful not to over salt the pot, less is more. When you have added all the greens and the pot is bubbling, add an additional cup of water, the vinegar and the pepper.
Simmer for an hour, up to six, stirring and adding water as necessary, the more water, the more pot likker for your cornbread. Remove bones.
Serve in a bowl and add hot sauce to taste.
For a vegetarian alternative, sauté onion and garlic and add greens accordingly, douse with hot sauce and toasted sesame seeds before serving.