As the chill of January sets in, large stockpots simmer slowly in kitchens across America. Steam rises and savory smells fill the house, promising a hearty meal to warm the body and soul. In the Deep South, however, that large pot is just as likely to be bubbling with leafy greens as it is with soups or stews. Cooking a big pot of collards, turnips, mustard greens and more — fresh from a local farm field or even the backyard — is a part of Southern culture going back hundreds of years. This culinary tradition is still enjoyed today in kitchens large and small, by both Black and white, young and old.
Mary Smith, of Mary’s Southern Cooking on Springhill Avenue in Mobile, remembers cooking greens when she was a girl, helping her mother take care of 12 children. “I still cook my greens the way my Mama taught me,” she says with pride, “and that’s what we serve in the restaurant.”
Growing up in rural Baldwin County, a bunch of greens was no farther than out the family’s back door. Today the restaurateur relies on the farmers to come to her, and they do. So do the customers — in droves — looking for a taste of Southern cooking that hasn’t changed over the decades. “I had an 80-year-old man tell me once that my greens tasted just like his Mama’s did. Well, that made me swell with pride.”
While she says she likes to braise turnip greens the best, collards will do. “And when they go out of season, you can switch to frozen greens without hardly noticing at all.”
Fortunately, greens are in season now and ripe for the picking. For those who aren’t used to cooking this Southern staple, they are typically sold fresh by the bunch and can look a bit intimidating. The unwieldy armful of leaves, once washed and chopped, can overflow your biggest pots. They quickly cook down, however, and are happy to simmer in broth or water for several hours. It’s “put on a pot and go do something else” kind of cooking.
Greens are a prehistoric food, and records of modern man cooking them date back to ancient Greece. A member of the Brassica oleracea family, they are first cousins to cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and more. They have often been referred to as “headless” throughout history because they never produce a tight head like cabbage and are grown purely for their leaves. Collards, in particular, are a mainstay in culinary cultures in such distant locales as India, Brazil, Tanzania and northern Spain. And while folklore tells us that collards came over to the Americas with the African slave trade, it is now thought that collards have been here for thousands of years. The Africans instead recognized the greens as something familiar to the cuisine of their homeland and adopted them as their own. Greens have been a mainstay on African-American tables — and a symbol of African-American culture — throughout America ever since, but especially in the Deep South.
While cooking collards, turnips and mustard greens couldn’t be closer to our culinary roots here along the Gulf Coast, they also have benefits that far outweigh most other Southern comfort food. Greens are a nutrition powerhouse. Just one serving of most varieties of greens contains a full day’s recommended intake of many vitamins and nutrients. The liquid in the bottom of the pot, called potlikker, is full not only of flavor but also vitamins that have leached from the greens into the broth during cooking. Old-timers recall receiving a mug of potlikker alone, saying it “fortified the constitution!” Keep in mind, however, that adding heaps of smoked pork and salt will undo some of the good and will also mask the natural flavors that are worth experiencing and enjoying.
Each kind of delicate leaf has its own flavor and texture, and every cook might have their favorite. “I grew up eating turnip greens,” says Chef Duane Nutter, Atlanta-born co-owner of Mobile’s Southern National restaurant. “But I eat all the greens now that I’m older. My favorite is to mix turnips and mustards, with some turnip roots cut up in there.” While the recipe at Nutter’s house will have what he calls the usual suspects — onions, lots of garlic and a splash of apple cider vinegar — at the restaurant he loves to experiment. Especially with collards. “They have such strong, sturdy leaves that you can do all types of stuff with them.” Benton’s bacon, ginger and coriander often make an appearance. The leaves can be stuffed and rolled like a burrito, shredded like coleslaw or sauteed like fresh spinach. The methods and preparations are only limited by your creativity.
Cooking with Southern greens runs deep in the veins of Nutter and Smith, and probably yours, too. On the following pages are recipes and tips to inspire you to pick up leafy bunches at local farmstands, roll up your sleeves, reach down in your bones and get a pot simmering.
Know Your Greens
These frilly leaves are the same plant that produces mustard seeds, so it’s no wonder they are peppery and pungent! Add a splash of acid, like pepper vinegar, to tame the bitterness.
Perhaps the most versatile of the greens, their thick leaves can even be filled and rolled like cabbage. In other uses, however, their thick leaves mean you might need to increase the cooking time.
A trendy food for a reason, kale’s tender leaves can be eaten raw in salads, blended in smoothies or stirred into soups. Unlike some other members of the family, this leafy green grows well
These tend to be more tender and a bit sweeter than other green varieties. They have an edible root, much like a rutabaga or beet, which can be chopped and added to the pot or cooked and mashed on its own.
The soluble fiber in greens can help absorb cholesterol, while the insoluble fiber feeds the good bacteria in the gut, helping you digest foods more efficiently.
Crucial for healthy bones, consuming enough vitamin K helps the body absorb calcium and strengthens the fundamental structure of bones, reducing the risk of osteoporosis. One serving of mustard greens pack an entire day’s worth of vitamin K!
Greens are full of these plant-based antioxidants that neutralize free radicals and may help reduce the risk of developing certain cancers.
Essential for proper growth of the body, this vitamin is particularly important for children and pregnant women.
This vitamin helps regulate your heartbeat, balances the effect of salt on your body and helps your muscles contract.
The eyes, heart, lungs and kidneys depend on this vitamin. A 1-cup serving of fresh kale contains over 200 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A.
LUTEIN AND ZEAXANTHIN
Research shows that these two antioxidants are essential for healthy eyes and may prevent age-related vision loss.
4 Recipes for Winter Greens
Spicy Sauteed Greens
1 tablespoon olive oil
3/4 cup unsliced bacon, in 1/2 inch cubes
4 cups chopped greens (we used collards)
1/4 teaspoon red chili flakes, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon dried parsley
salt and pepper, to taste
1. Heat olive oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Add bacon and stir until beginning to brown.
2. Add greens and continue to stir occasionally, until greens are wilted and begin to char on the edges. Add seasonings and stir for 2 minutes until the flavors combine. Serve warm. Serves 4
Beans and Greens Soup
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 yellow onion, diced
1/2 pound smoked sausage, sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried thyme
4 cups chicken broth
1 can diced tomatoes
2 cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
3 cups finely diced greens (we used kale)
salt and pepper, to taste
Heat oil in large stockpot over medium heat. Saute onion and sausage until onion is soft, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. Add garlic and thyme and stir until garlic is soft and translucent. Add remaining ingredients and stir until well combined. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Cover and cook for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Check seasonings and serve with crusty French bread or cornbread. Serves 6
Mary’s Potlikker Collard Greens
2 teaspoons bacon fat
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 pound smoked meat (Mary recommends pork tail)
2 pounds collard greens
1. Combine bacon fat, seasonings and smoked meat with 8 to 10 cups of water in a large stock pot over high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes.
2. Wash greens well and slice thinly. Add greens to the pot and continue to simmer for another hour and a half, stirring occasionally. Check seasonings and add more salt, if needed. Let cool and refrigerate overnight. Reheat the following day and serve warm. Serves 8 – 10
Greens and Rice Casserole
3 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup whole milk ricotta
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked pepper
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
5 cups finely chopped greens (we used a mixture)
4 cups cooked rice (we used long grain, like basmati)
1 1/2 cups shredded Italian blend cheese, divided
1 1/2 tablespoons panko breadcrumbs
1/2 cup shaved Parmesan cheese
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, stir eggs, milk and ricotta with a whisk until well combined. Stir in seasonings. Add greens, rice and 1 cup shredded cheese.
2. Grease a 9-by-12-inch baking pan, or equivalent measure, and pour rice and greens mixture into pan. Smooth the top. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs, Parmesan and remaining 1/2 cup shredded cheese. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the edges are bubbly and top is well browned. Serves 8
Tips for Perfect Greens
Mary Smith of Mary’s Southern Cooking shares her tips for mastering the perfect pot of greens.
• Choose bunches that look crisp and fresh with no yellowing of leaves.
• Do not wash greens until you are ready to use them. Wrap in a kitchen towel and store in the fridge until use.
• Separate the leaves from the stalk and remove the spine. Mary tears hers with her hands.
• Fill a sink basin with water and submerge leaves. Agitate so any dirt and debris falls to the bottom of the sink. Drain and repeat until water runs clear and you don’t feel any grit. Tip: If your kitchen sink is small, fill a cooler with water and clean greens outside.
• Shake leaves dry and roll them up one small bunch at a time. Slice crosswise into thin julienned strips.
• If using meat, simmer meat for about 30 minutes before adding greens. Then cook greens an hour and a half.
• Serve greens the day after cooking for optimum flavor. Just cool and store in fridge overnight.