Greens may be the most iconic of all the soul foods. Many count a big pot of greens gently bubbling away on a stove as the definition of comfort food. A steaming bowl of them – with a side of cornbread if you’re lucky – is a completely satisfying supper at any time of the year, even more so if there’s a chill in the air.
I love greens. But, ironically, this veggie-centric dish was almost off the menu when I stopped eating pork. That’s because my mom (and all my relatives) cooked greens using ham hock or salt pork. When I went to Philadelphia for college, my friends there – who cook amazing soul food – used smoked turkey neck instead. That was a great alternative for me … until I stopped eating turkey, too.
Over the years, I’ve dedicated a lot of hours to a greens recipe that let the greens amazing flavor and tender texture shine. I also wanted to include elements that paid homage to the good stuff that you get from the cooking meat (fat, salt and smoke), without the actual flesh. Here’s what I came up with. This is the recipe that more people ask me for than any other. (If you asked my husband, he might tell you he married me because of these greens.)
I usually use a mixture of greens. Kale and collards are my go-to mix because they’re easy to find, and I often buy washed and cut greens in bags from the produce department to save on prep time. If I happen to see mustard or turnip greens in the store or at the farmers market, I add them, too. Mustard greens are spicy and turnip greens add a pleasantly bitter bite. (Fun fact: the more bitter a green, the higher it is in calcium. So if you’re looking for a non-dairy source of calcium, dark, leafy greens are a great place to start.)
To clean the greens (even the pre-washed ones), I fill up one side of my sink with well-salted water, add in the greens and let them soak for a few minutes to remove any sediment or debris. Most debris will sink to the bottom but skim off anything that floats to the top, too.
After sauteing onion in olive oil, I add the greens to the hot pot a couple handfuls at a time. I let the greens cook down a bit after each addition before adding more. I think this leads to a more tender green.
Greens can take a while to get meltingly tender. You can cook these for as little as 45 minutes (or less if you have really fresh, young greens). If I have the time, though, I let them cook longer. Soul food should not be rushed.
While you wait for your greens to cook, give this article in The Atlantic a read. It’s an amazing recap of the 2016 social media kerfuffle over collard greens, a Whole Foods tweet, cultural appropriation and the history of greens in the U.S.
Give these greens a try – maybe alongside black-eyed peas for good luck on New Year’s Day – and let me know what you think!
Slow-Cooked Southern Greens (6-8 servings)
- 3-4 bunches greens (e.g. collards, kale, turnip, mustard or a mixture), washed, de-stemmed and chopped. Substitute 2-3 bags of washed, chopped greens for faster prep.
- 1 large yellow onion, roughly chopped
- 2 Tbsp. olive oil
- 2 vegetarian/vegetable bullion cubes
- Red pepper flakes (1 tsp. or to taste)
- 1/4-1/2 tsp. Liquid Smoke (a little goes a long way)
- Tabasco (optional)
- Red wine vinegar (optional)
Heat olive oil in a heavy-bottomed large soup pot over medium heat. Add onion and saute for 4-5 minutes until translucent. Break up the bullion cube into the onion and stir around for a few seconds (until the seasoning gets into the oil and coats the onion).
Add the greens, but not all at once. Add a few handfuls at a time, stirring after each addition until all the greens come in contact with the heat and the oil and start to wilt down before adding more. Once you’ve gotten all the greens in the pot, continue to cook them down until the volume is significantly reduced and they’re uniformly deep, dark green in color.
Add enough water to cover by 2-3 inches, plus the red pepper flake, liquid smoke and a few pinches of salt. Bring to a soft, rolling boil. Cover and cook until tender, about 45-90 minutes depending on how tender your greens were to start with. You may need to add more water during cooking.
Once they’re tender, taste for salt and add Tabasco and vinegar.
~Six 1 cup servings. Calories: 69; Fat: 5.7 g; Sodium: 70 mg; Total Carbs: 3.9 g; Protein: 2.7 g