Basics: Greens

A bowl of cooked collard greens

Cooked greens are a staple I don’t eat as much as I used to. People just don’t eat nearly as many non-cabbage greens here in the UK, and the selection is somewhat limited compared to what I’m used to seeing in Southwest Virginia. You can easily get spinach in various forms, along with fresh collards, kale, and rape–but not turnip, mustard, or beet greens. (A seller at the local market gave me several bunches of free beet greens along with the beet roots I was buying, since they were just ripping them off and throwing them away! But, I’m usually too shy to ask about that kind of thing.) The only readily available non-spinach canned option is callaloo from Jamaica, and I’ve yet to see any frozen greens besides spinach. I should probably plant me some more mustard and chard!

For this small mess of greens, I bought a 250g bag of  already sliced what appeared to be collards.  It’s more expensive that way, but very convenient–and still pretty cheap. 🙂

A plastic bag of sliced greens

First thing, I gave them a good wash in several changes of water in a pot (or you can use the sink, like for whole leaves). These were not gritty with sandy soil; if yours are, first let them soak in lukewarm water for about 5 minutes to let it loosen and fall off. If you’re starting out with whole leaves, you’ll want to wash them before cutting them up.

A pot of water with sliced greens in there to wash

Remove any unfortunate-looking pieces. This was a nice bag of greens, even though it had been in the fridge for a week!

Discarded pieces, lying on the edge of the sink

Looks like I need to remove yucky-looking limescale from the draining board again

Now, we have to decide how to season them. Growing up, I mostly got fairly plain cooked greens, with a slice of dry sugar-cured “streak meat”/”side meat”, salt, and a little sugar to tone down the greenness. Some fried and crumbled bacon (streaky bacon in the UK) works well too.

A package of thick-sliced dry-cured bacon

Pre-sliced Old Waynesboro brand side meat, from MillRiverStore.com. I think I've actually bought some of that Western North Carolina brand before, not sliced.


Photo source.

That’s not a bad way to eat greens, but I got started adding more flavor when I was vegetarian.

A box of Knorr ham cubes and half a chopped onion
I didn’t have any bacon, so I used a Knorr ham cube. It’s not the same, but it’s not bad.

For this mess of greens, I decided to use half an onion browned in about a tablespoon of sunflower oil, some black and crushed red pepper, some dried garlic for convenience, a Knorr “ham cube”, and a little extra salt. (Since the “ham cube” has a little sweetness, I didn’t use any extra sugar for flavor balancing.) If you’re using bacon, fry a few slices crisp and set it aside, and use the grease to brown the onions. For a vegetarian version, you can substitute insta-veggie broth, or just use more salt. The extra savory note is good, though. If you’re in the US, Wiley’s Greens Seasoning is an easy, pretty tasty (non-vegetarian) option.

The cooking is much less of a hassle than cleaning the greens. Just put them into a pot big enough to hold at least 75% of the raw greens (they will wilt down, a lot), add seasonings and enough water to come about halfway up the raw greens, and bring it to a boil. If you’re using bacon, now’s the time to break it up and add it.

A pot of slightly wilted sliced greens, just after the water went in

I used hot water from the kettle, being impatient and all. 😉

Poke them down into the water with a spoon, to make sure everything gets covered by the boiling water. Turn it down to a simmer, and put the lid on.

They wilt down pretty quickly. This is only a few minutes later.

Stir occasionally while they’re cooking. Add more water if they’re not just barely covered. I don’t like to cook them until they’re starting to fall apart, so I gave these about half an hour instead of, say, the more traditional hour and a half. Taste for seasoning, and enjoy!

Finished!

To jazz up frozen or canned greens, just steam-fry them with the same seasonings used here, and a little more water than usual. It’s not as good as fresh, but awfully convenient sometimes. 🙂

A lot of people like to garnish their greens with chopped raw onion or sliced green onion and a splash of vinegar (usually cider). But, with the extra seasoning added to the pot, I like it as is. Plus, I find the vinegar sharpness unpleasant when I put cornbread in to sop up the pot liquor, or just drink it out of the bowl. Not only is the pot liquor tasty, it’s chock full of water-soluble vitamins.

The long cooking is not really a problem. As Mark F. Sohn put it in Appalachian Home Cooking: History, Culture, and Recipes:

In restaurants all across North America today, many chefs serve undercooked, almost raw vegetables. Yes, the vegetables are bright in color; however, they are also tough to chew, hard to digest, and lacking in flavor. For traditional hill folk, the process is different. They simmer fall greens with country ham, salt pork, or smoked ham hocks for one, two, or three hours. Slow cooking develops the flavor and tenderizes both the meat and greens. The result is a muddy-green, drab olive, almost brown color, and it is full of taste and easy to chew and digest. Slow-cooked greens are an example of simple mountain cooking that requires patience.

Tender-crisp vegetables have their place, but not involving collards or other thick-leafed, full-flavored greens IMO. I really don’t like to cook them until they turn colors that remarkably, but when they’re fully tender it’s easier (and more appealing) to eat larger quantities of the greens. Especially if you don’t throw out the cooking liquid, that more than makes up for any extra heat destruction of vitamins from the longer cooking.

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