Monday, September 8, 2014



Southern TraditionIt’s September; time to plant winter greens; and I’ve been thinking about this grand old Southern Tradition. In the South, Greens are “Comfort Food.”  The smell of a simmering kettle of collard greens means home and security to most of us.  As one of the older living members of my families, I wanted to preserve our traditions, and record what I know about “cookin’ greens.  Beyond that, I wanted to invite all my kin and my friends to contribute their “secrets,” to make this discussion more complete.  I am eagerly waiting to learn a few new tricks for an old favorite food.

Nutritional Value - Before the days of refrigeration, vitamin rich greens were staples in Southern winter meals.  We ate them because they were delicious and grew well in our soil and climate.  Fortunately for us, ounce for ounce, our favorite greens are among the healthiest foods in the world.  They prevented anemia and scurvy, which were common in other areas.   They are rich in iron, calcium, antioxidants, and vitamins C, B, and K, beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin, and possess anti-inflammatory properties.  Their presence in our diet helps prevent heart disease (by lowering cholesterol levels), cancer, glaucoma and arthritis, while promoting healthy eyes, hair, skin, and bones. 

Modern transportation and refrigeration make it possible for us to enjoy a greater variety of greens, and to have them year round, while improvements in cooking technology make it much easier to prepare our favorites.  I’ll begin with a discussion of the traditional preparation of Southern Greens, collards (kale), mustard, and turnip greens, and move on to wild greens, more exotic greens, and alternative methods of preparation

Mustard Greens
Turnip Greens


Collard Greens (Kale)
The traditional Southern Greens – collards, mustard and turnip greens -- have ancient origins.  Mustard greens, which originated in the Himalayan region of India, have been consumed for more than 5,000 years.  Turnips (the root vegetable) and the greens were domesticated in India over 3,500 years ago.  Collards (a form of Kale) are prehistoric plants, and have been eaten for at least 2,000 years.  All three were eaten in the ancient civilizations of the Greeks, Romans, Turks, and Ethiopians.  Julius Caesar is reported to have had Collard Greens prepared to eat after big banquets to prevent indigestion (they do have antacid properties).  Today the primary producers of Mustard greens are India, China, Nepal, and Japan.  Collards are cooked in Congo, Tanzania and Kenya as well as in Brazil and Portugal.  Our collards are a variety of kale.  Indeed, most varieties of kale are delicious when cooked by traditional Southern methods.   The kale family (including collards) derives from a wild headless cabbage, and is among the world’s most hardy plants.

            Choosing, Cleaning, and Dressing your Greens:  Each of these greens has its own distinctive flavor.  Collards are by far the strongest, while mustards are relatively mild.  Some people like to mix their greens, but I think this dilutes wonderful distinctions.  My grandmothers sometimes mixed their greens, but this was because they didn’t have enough of one kind to make a mess.  Sometimes I choose the greens that are freshest, and sometimes I choose the flavor I am craving.

            The only labor intensive part of cooking greens, is cleaning and dressing them.  They have to be washed until they are free of soil, sand, and bugs.  Once they are rinsed clean, you have to remove the tender leaves and discard the course stalks along with any old, dry or discolored leaves.  Use your hands and tear the leaves from the stems, and into appropriate size pieces.  We were always taught that cutting greens with scissors or a knife would make them bitter.  Plus, touch is the best way to know which stems are tough and which are tender and can be cooked.

            Cooking Methods:  Collard, mustard, or turnip greens can be boiled, or fried, or fried and then boiled.  Other greens, especially Polk Salad, Swiss Chard, and spinach are traditionally boiled and then fried.  My family always boiled their collards, mustard and turnip greens, so I’ll discuss that method first, and then talk about frying.


Cast Iron KettleAdd
Slow Cooker
The Secret of Slow Cooking --  The essential secret to cooking greens is to cook them slowly and completely.  Undercooked or rapidly cooked greens are bitter.  Traditional Southern greens are cooked in a cast iron kettle (note that this is not a spouted kettle, but a big iron pot with a tight lid).  Many of us grew up believing that the iron pot added to the flavor of the dish, and cooking in anything else produced an inferior product.  However, cooking greens slowly for hours in an iron pot really ties the cook to the house, and doesn’t fit well in modern life styles.  The invention of the “slow cooker” was a great boon for all green lovers.  The busy cook can leave the greens cooking slowly all day with no worries.  More recently, the invention of the precision induction cooktop has encouraged a return to the cast iron kettle.  With the precision settings on the cooktop, you can use your cast iron pot for slow cooking.  All three methods can to produce, tender, sweet greens.
Precision Induction Cooktop

            Choosing your Meat:  Southern greens are flavored with pork.  Traditionally, the “waste” or less desirable cuts of pork were cooked with greens.  Some of these cuts had unappealing, names like fat back, pigs’ ears or feet or snout.  Without doubt, when available, ham is the finest choice to accompany greens.  However, salt pork, or thick cut bacon will do the job.   For those who are cutting down on cholesterol, ham or pork broth or broth base (dried broth) can be used for flavor.   I still use salt pork, but I use less, and add flavor with pork or ham broth base.

            Cooking the Meat for your Greens – You heat your iron pot on high, and quickly sear and brown the meat.  When using ham, you will need to add some cooking oil, or bacon grease.  With salt pork, or bacon, you release the grease as you brown the meat.  After browning the meat, remove it from the iron pot, leaving the hot grease. 

Choosing your Seasonings: Sautéing your seasonings in the hot grease will release their flavors.  In addition to salt and fresh-ground black pepper, you can choose your own favorite seasonings.  I’m from Louisiana, so chopped garlic, chopped green onions, and chopped sweet green peppers go into my pot.  I often use red and yellow peppers to give color to my greens but I don’t add these until about an hour before the greens are cooked.  If the sweet peppers are added too early, they cook to pieces, and the beauty of their color is lost.  Some like to add a bay leaf to the boiling greens.  As Asian seasonings have become more popular, I’ve had greens seasoned with ginger and wasabi.  For a spicy change of pace, we sometimes add a can of Rotel (copped tomatoes and green 
chili peppers) to the cooking greens.
Jalapeno Pepper
Hot Peppers – I have experimented with a number of hot peppers and pepper sauces.  I used to use ground cayenne pepper, but on the advice of my friend Pearl (a world champion greens cook) I’ve switched over to Jalapeno.  I slice the Jalapeno pepper, remove all the seeds, and sauté the pepper pieces with the onion and garlic. I use large pieces of Jalapeño peppers so I can remove them before serving.  Biting into one can be a bit shocking.   Some people use Chilli peppers, but these are my last choice.  Some prefer to omit hot peppers from their cooking greens, and to serve the cooked greens with pepper sauce so that each person can season to their own taste.  I add the Jalapeno pepper, and Charles still adds pepper sauce. 

After sautéing the seasonings, quickly add a cup or two of cold water to cool the grease.  Then replace the meat in the pot, and bring the liquid to a boil.  At this point, you add broth, or broth base.

Turnips or Not – I like turnips, so I always add white turnips to my turnip greens.  Sometimes I even add turnips to my collards or mustards.  I always use white turnips (not rutabagas) with the cooking greens.  Sometimes I prepare rutabagas and serve as a separate dish with collards.  I clean, peel, and cut the turnips into quarters, and boil the pieces until slightly tender before adding greens.

Adding the Greens – You now add the clean, dressed greens to the iron pot to simmer slowly for two to three hours. Alternatively you can put the clean, dressed greens in your slow cooker, and pour the hot liquid with meat, turnips and seasonings over the greens. Then set your slow cooker according to your schedule and preference (on high for 3-4 hours, or on low for 4-6 hours).

            Flavoring --  An acid liquid and a sweetener are used to perfect the flavor of the greens.  A Tablespoon or two of vinegar or lemon juice adds a tang to greens.  My preference is apple cider vinegar, but red or white will do.  Similarly, a touch of sweetener covers any residual bitterness.  My grandmothers sweetened greens with ribbon cane syrup, and this flavor is really authentic.  I usually use sugar, but Splenda works, and cuts calories.  A Tablespoon in a pot works well.

            Serving – The tender, sweet greens will be served in potlikker (not pot liquor), which is produced as they cook.  Much of the food value is in the potlikker, and greens are best served with some form of corn bread so the potlikker can be absorbed into the bread.  The indispensible condiment for greens is pepper sauce. 

Potlikker with corn muffin
Huey Pierce Long
POTLIKKER – As a true Southerner, I cannot go further without pausing to consider the miraculous, health preserving properties of potlikker, and the historical and cultural significance of this humble liquid.   In the South, potlikker was prescribed as a bed-time drink for improving digestion and preventing heart burn.   It may have worked, because greens are a natural anti-acid.  Potlikker was also prescribed for croup, colic, rabies, and fatigue. The rest of the nation learned about potlikker through the Potlikker and Cornpone Debate of 1931.   U.S. Senator-Elect from Louisiana, Huey P. Long, held that cornpone should be dunked in potlkker.  Julian Harris, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, argued that proper form demanded that cornpone be crumbled into the potlikker.  From March through February of 1931, the newspapers of the nation devoted extensive space to pro and con arguments on crumbling vs. dunking.  In our family, we cut open the cornpone and ladle greens and potlikker over it.


            Fried then BoiledWhen there was no time for slow-cooking, greens could be speeded up by frying the dressed greens in hot grease until tender, then boiling for 30 to 45 minutes.

            Boiled then Fried – This was the traditional approach to preparing and serving the Wild Greens called Polk Salad.  However, in recent years, this approach has been applied to a wider range of greens.  I’ll discuss the preparation of Polk Salad Greens, and then discuss the application of this cooking method to other greens.

            Sautéed or Stir Fried Greens  Since I began this Blog, I've had friends telling me about stir-fried or sautéed greens, and they sound really good.  Unfortunately, I don't have any first hand experiences, so I'll just hope someone will share.

Polk Salad Plants

Polk Salad or Polk Sallet is a perennial plant found in the American South.  It is also known as American nightshade, inkberry, pigeon berry, pokeroot, pokeberry, pokeweed, redweed, red ink pant, and chul xu shang lu (in Chinese medicine).  A member of the deadly nightshade family, it has the potential for poisoning animals and humans.  The tender young leaves, as the plant emerges in the early spring, are eatable, when carefully prepared.  Polk Salad was considered a delicacy in my husband’s family, and we gorged on polk salad for as long as it lasted every spring (and the season was never long enough).  Polk Salad has traditionally been considered the fare of really poor Southerners, and as such is celebrated in folklore.  The 1960’s song Polk Salad Annie, is probably the best known reference to this wild green.
Polk Salad Greens

            Preparing Polk Salad – In order to remove the poisons, tender, young leaves must be carefully boiled and rinsed.  After washing, the leaves are boiled for 20 minutes.  The water is drained, and you must literally “wring” out the greens, forcing all of the water out.  Then you rewash the greens.  After the second washing, you boil the greens a second time in fresh water, then drain, wring, and rinse.  This process is repeated a third time before the greens are considered safe.

Polk Salad with Eggs
            In an iron skillet, fry 1 to 2 pounds of bacon, depending on the quantity of Polk Salad.  When the bacon is crisp, drain, set aside, and crumble when cool.  Then you sauté chopped green onions (scallions) along with chopped fresh garlic in the bacon grease.  If you like color, you can also sauté a few red, green, and yellow peppers. Wring out the drained Poke Salad, and add it to the frying pan with the sautéed onion, garlic, and peppers.  Add a small amount of water or pork broth, and steam fry for about 15 minutes, until all ingredients are soft.  Have two to four scrambled eggs ready, and add the scrambled eggs to the hot greens just before removing them from the hear.  Season with salt and pepper; stir, remove from the iron skillet; sprinkle with crumbled bacon; and serve while hot.  As an alternative, boiled eggs can be substituted for scrambled eggs, and added at the end along with the crumbled bacon.

Swiss Chard
Alternatives to Polk Salad: Spinach or Swiss chard – As you can see, there are many drawbacks to Polk Salad, especially the limited season and poison.  Over the years my brother-in-law Billy and his wife Margaret found a delicious alternative in spinach.  They prepare the same Polk Salad dish, but substitute spinach.  You can use fresh, canned or frozen spinach.  I discovered a second alternative while living in New York.  The first time I ate Swiss chard, I thought I was eating Polk Salad.  When it is available, I prepare Swiss chard exactly as I would Polk Salad (omitting the repeated boiling).

As I began thinking, writing, reading, and talking with others about greens, I've been exposed to a lot of new ideas.  Some I plan to try right away.  These new inspirations fall into two categories:  1) New accompaniments for greens and 2) New greens.  I plan to try Greens with Grits right away.  I've never eaten this dish before, but this combination works in my imagination, and my taste buds are already believers.  Similarly, I am eager to try Italian polenta with greens, garlic, and cheese.  Other interesting combinations include a variety of pastas prepared with greens.  

And of course, there is a whole world of greens that I have never tried.  I am resolved to try Kohlrabi (#1); Bok Choy (#2); Broccoli Rabb (#4); Beet greens (#8); and maybe Sorrel (#10).  Do you recognize the others: (#3); (#5); (#6); (#7) and (#9)?  

I've typed the answers backwards:
#9 -- elak; # 7 -- dratsum; #6 -- sdralloc; #5 -- drahc; and # 3 -- hcanips.

THE GREAT MYSTERY:  How Many Greens Make a "MESS"?  For much of my life, I have puzzled over how many greens make a Mess?  I found one written reference that says a "mess" is all the greens you can cram into your cooking pot before boiling.  I don't find that definition particularly satisfying.  I am hoping one of my readers will know how many greens constitute a MESS?

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