Nothing rekindles my spirits, gives comfort to my heart and mind, more than a visit to Mississippi… and to be regaled as I often have been, with a platter of fried chicken, field peas, collard greens, fresh corn on the cob, sliced tomatoes with French dressing… .
Novelists, rappers, bluesmen, cooks, any sentient being with any connection to the South will eventually land on greens as a symbol of humble, home, comfort.
And now, yummy mummys, hipsters, and clean eaters may be scarfing up kale, but those in the know, know that a bowl of greens, cooked with a bit of meat and served with cornbread is the best thing for body and soul.
In this latest book in the Savor the South series, Thomas Head glorifies this simple and sensible food. He recalls that, “For my father, turnips and turnip greens were an essential part of the ‘vegetable dinner’ that was his favorite meal.” He’s recalling a kind of cooking that stayed close to home–harvested from a kitchen garden and cooked in a familiar pot, following instinct and tradition rather than a recipe. It was the way we used to stay healthy without the extremes of paleo diets or super foods.
In the U.S., greens have a strong Southern tradition, but around the world, they are soul food for lots of cultures–whether it’s Greek horta or Italian broccoli rape. Greens are part of a valuable rediscovery of cucina povera–simple, local food that is nutritional and easy to cook.
And it’s delicious. Head includes a world’s worth of greens recipes–West African Greens and Peanut Stew; an Italian-inspired (and delicious) Penne with Sausage and Collard Greens; Collard Green Dolmas flavored, Greek-style, with lamb, cinnamon, and cumin; Mustard Greens Punjabi-Style with green chili, garlic, and ginger.
Head’s strictly southern recipes include Potlikker Soup, Eugene Walter’s Sunday Greens cooked with fatback, and because it’s Sunday, served with turnips dressed with heavy cream and butter. Head adapts, serving greens in empanadas, a savory cobbler, transformed into chips and marmalade.
You can and should enjoy every one of his reliable recipes, but start with his basics, outlined in the introduction. Wash the greens, stem and chop them, and cook them with pork–smoked, salted, or ham. There is a natural affinity between pork and greens and if you can’t go there, be sure to season liberally. Cook them in lots of liquid (which will render lots of healthy and delicious potlikker), flavor them with vinegar (acid has another natural affinity), and season with hot pepper.
You’re almost there–use some of Head’s recipes for relish and chowchow and make his Everyday Cornbread or your own–yellow or white, sweetened or not, but cooked in a skillet and dipped in the likker for a perfect porch dinner.