Here, in a large swath of the Northeast, we are still shaking our heads in disbelief over the blizzard that befell us on Saturday, October 29th 2011 . Winter is still officially six weeks away, but this storm left the appearance of mid-January across the landscape, dumping seven inches of heavy white snow. Far from their peak of Fall color, the leaves of many trees are still green and still on their branches, which allowed the snow to pile up on them quickly. The result is widespread damage, with many broken limbs and downed power lines. Few of us were prepared for such a dramatic change in the weather. We barely had time to bring in our tender potted plants, and I have yet to bring the, pomegranate or fig tree inside. I can only hope these haven’t sustained any permanent damage. In the potager, parsnips, carrots, (aptly named) snow peas, beets and collard greens are nestled in beneath this premature precipitation.
One positive outcome of the sudden drop in temperature is the conversion of the starch in these vegetables into sugar, (glucose), effectively sweetening them up. Growing up in urban Trenton, New Jersey, the appearance of Collards in the market was always a clear indication of the change to a colder season. A welcomed sight, their arrival was accompanied by vigorous discussions about their preparation. For an African-American family with roots in the South, greens - Collards, Mustard or Turnip – are an essential part of any menu, anticipated with great relish. Yet, from family to family, there exist subtle variations on the “proper” method of cooking greens.
One step that is universally agreed on is that one must begin by washing one’s greens, repeatedly! My good friend, the dancer and actor Vanoy Aikens, who learned to cook greens from his friend, the late, great Eartha Kitt, swears that Collards must be thoroughly washed, no fewer than “THREE TIMES!!!” That entails soaking them in a sink of cold water, carefully rinsing each leaf; emptying, rinsing and filling the sink and washing off each leaf again, then doing this step one more time, perhaps using running water this third time. The reason for this, being that there is nothing so unpleasant as chomping into fine grit or any soil residue that a less thorough washing might miss. A cooks’ reputation can hang or fall on so crucial a step!
Beyond this, is the question of whether to chop or tear the leaves? There are some cooks who swear by folding, then chopping one’s greens into manageable “ribbons.” Others are committed to tearing the tender leaf from the stalk, peeling it away from the ribs by grasping at the top of the leaf and pulling down toward the base of the stalk. Some cooks seek to eliminate the ribs and stalks, while others enjoy their somewhat meatier texture when cooked. A Brazilian friend, Carlos, has even been known to use a grater to create a “chiffonade” of his greens, sautéing them in olive oil, but in my experience, this is a radical departure from Southern tradition.
While all of this washing and dividing of leaves is going on, one should prepare in a separate pot, a stock with which to cook the greens. It has always been my understanding that greens, especially Collards, contain a lot of water, and therefore only need enough additional moisture to keep them from sticking to the pot. That stock, a prime component of any “pot likker,” is crucial, though not difficult, to prepare. Ms. Edna Lewis, the doyenne of Southern cooking, recommended simmering two pounds of pork shoulder in a gallon of water for two hours. One then strains and discards the shoulder, using the remaining stock as a base for cooking greens, root vegetables, beans, etc. For cooking smaller portions, a similar stock can be made by simmering a ham hock and reducing the amount of water proportionately. Those who object to pork may achieve a tasty variation by substituting smoked turkey wings or legs for the pork, and simmering them down. Remove the bones and leave in the bits of meat to flavor the stock and greens.
Bear in mind that greens wilt down, so that while it may appear that one has an excess of greens to begin with, once they have softened and wilted, there will only be a fraction of their original volume.
Thus, for cooking Collard Greens:
Prepare a stock, using Pork Shoulder, Ham Hock or Smoked Turkey. Start with two pounds of meat in a gallon of water and boil for two hours. Strain. For smaller quantities, adjust meat and water proportionately.
Wash thoroughly and prepare greens.
Into a covered pot, place greens with just enough stock to cover them. (Avoid “watery” greens.) Bring to a simmer. Cook until tender, with a silky, glistening texture, 40 minutes to one hour. Add additional stock to pot as needed to prevent greens sticking to pot. For additional flavor, add one or two cloves minced garlic, chopped onion or green pepper and a sprinkling of red pepper flakes. Add salt and pepper as needed. Serve with scallions, or the Peppers of ones choice on the side, or with a sprinkling of pepper vinegar.
Corn bread is an ideal compliment for greens.