A twist on a Southern classic leaves the leaves sweet, savory and with concentrated flavor
Today in Foods for and With Which I Give Thanks, let’s talk about greens.
In many precincts of the South, people show their deep, pot-licking love of hearty greens by cooking the bejeezus out of them in ham hock-y stock, forever and ever, until they nearly melt into the smoky broth. Greens and pot-likker, as the broth is called, are the kind of thing that you will never make as well as someone’s momma, but if you’re close enough, you might get yourself an engagement ring. (True story.)
As only an honorary Southerner, I have yet to truly master greens, but when I moved down to Biloxi, Miss., I had to get with the program right quick if I ever wanted any vegetable matter to enter my body. I’d walk home from the market with a mess of collard or turnip greens so massive I looked like Bill Murray behind plant camouflage in “Caddyshack.” I stewed them with pig, and, cooking for non-pig-eating folks, with dried shrimp and shiitake mushrooms, Chinese ingredients I recognized at the local Vietnamese market. The reasons, at first, were practical — without pork at my disposal, I turned to these ingredients for deep flavor and lingering finish.
But then, as I started making more friends in my neighborhood — black, white and Vietnamese — I started thinking more and more that those greens were symbolic of my adopted Gulf Coast town, particularly after Katrina, when these communities worked together with a sense of commonality in the rebuilding. I started making mac and cheese with Vietnamese rice paper rolls as the noodles and baking corn bread to sop up those Asian-inflected greens.
One day, without the time to properly cook up a batch of collard greens, I took another Asian cue and thought to stir-fry them with onions and fish sauce, the secret weapon of the Southeast Asian pantry. Of course, the greens themselves are too dense, too tough to cook over high heat, so I started them sizzling, turned the heat way down to let them cook through — and what happened was pure magic. By the time the greens were tender, they still had a satisfying chewiness and their flavor both intensified and mellowed — deeply green and earthy — combining beautifully with the sweet, now-caramelized onions and the briny depth of the fish sauce.
This method works beautifully no matter if your regional cooking greens are collards and turnips or, if in the north, kale. (Chards or even spinach also work nicely, but they cook much more quickly and don’t have quite the same firm texture.) With their peak season in December, the more tender young greens are plentiful in November, which makes them a perfect replacement for the heavy, off-season green-bean casseroles no one really loves anyway. (Sorry, Aunt Maude.) They’re also great to toss with pasta, with a finishing splash of good olive oil and maybe a shaving of parmesan cheese for a quick dinner.
For myself, every time I make these, I think of the people I met in Biloxi, the fishermen, bakers, cooks and everyone else who, while trying to rebuild their city, took the time to welcome me into their lives. And I’m thankful for them.
Serves 6-8 as a side
- 2 pounds cooking greens (collards, kale or turnip, etc.)
- 1 large onion, sliced
- fish sauce, to taste
- black pepper, to taste
- Strip off the leaves and wash them under running water to get off any grit. (Either save the stems for stewing or keep them for a vegetable stock.) Dry the leaves in a salad spinner or pat dry with a towel. Stack the leaves on top of each other, and roll up as if for a cigar. Slice the rolled greens, giving yourself ½-inch-wide strips. Chop them further, if you’d like, which will speed up the cooking.
- Pour enough oil to generously coat the bottom of a large, wide pan with deep sides, and set it over medium heat. Add the onions, stirring to coat them in oil, and let them cook. Aim for a moderate sizzle, and when they look glassy, turn up the heat to high. When the onions start to sizzle more intensely, give them a couple dashes of fish sauce and add as many handfuls of greens as can comfortably fit in the pan. Stir them until they wilt, and add more greens, a handful or two at a time, until they’re all in or until you start to really wonder if you used a big enough pan. (If that’s the case, don’t worry; get another pan hot, divide the greens in half, and keep cooking.)
- Once the greens have all turned bright green and started to wilt down, turn the heat to medium-low or low, and now begins the long dark journey into night. OK, not really, more like 20 minutes. Season them with black pepper and a few more dashes of fish sauce, to taste, and stir the greens every few minutes. What you’re looking for is a slow sizzle, throwing off some steam as the greens’ moisture evaporates. Stirring keeps the onion sugars from burning, which is really the only danger in this dish, but if you have to walk away, go ahead and pour a little water in the pan, say, a ¼ cup, and cover it. This helps prevent scorching, and you can always uncover and cook off the water when you come back.
- Continue cooking until the greens are tender, but still have a little bit of pleasant chew. Either serve right away or let them cool and reheat with a quick sauté.
Note: depending on the kinds of greens you use, and how mature or tender they are, the cooking time can vary widely. The more tender, the quicker they’ll cook.
For more unconventional Thanksgiving traditions:
Tomorrow: A super-quick, super-delicious Plan B dessert
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