When it comes to early Spring, Southerners are still thinking Greens…no, not events and color coordination or updating our wardrobes. No, we’re thinking about –
- Turnip Greens.
- Mustard Greens.
- Collard Greens.
- Spinach, Kale and Cabbage.
In the land of Beauty Queens, Festivals, Farmer’s Markets, Scenic Drives, Coastal Delights and a long growing season- what we eat may be our favorite topic, and Greens are almost always on the menu! We talk while we eat- about food and crops; frost or drought- maybe we talk about who’s sick, if they got well and of course who died and when- then… we always want to know how well folks ate after the service. If it’s true that ‘you are what you eat’…Southerners would be tinged with shades of Green.
Greens- We know how many ways Greens are fixed, and most of us know how they’re supposed to be cooked! In fact, in the South, we watch in horror when folks who’ve never even heard of Salt Pork, Fat Back or Ham Hocks, sit there and try to tell us how to fix Greens! I love to see someone with a buggy full of big bundles of Greens at the grocery store! I whisper- ‘I’m going home with you!‘
It could be that cut and come again Turnip Greens kept the South from starving. Greens are the legacy left to us by Survivor Chefs. It hasn’t always been easy being green. When fields were laid fallow, abandoned, destroyed by natural disasters or hordes of insects, war or unrest- the foragers and those who grew or sold cut and come again crops of Greens kept starvation at bay. Leaving the turnips in the soil, the tops would replenish quickly. The tailgate of an old truck farmer would sputter along through neighborhoods or park on the side of the road, pulling in like the truck’s looking for a place to choke out and die. He’d sell a whole load- while working under the hood, so he could get back to the farm.
Southern Farm Tables have always been laden and bountiful. There might not be much meat- but always, fresh or preserved vegetables ruled the table, in great steaming bowls or casseroles. These days. the Farm to Table movement, showcases seasonal vegetables in amazing ways- you can bet Southern Greens take the starring role! Well, if you don’t count desserts. Still. A humble Mess of Greens is always welcome and make a fresh appearance almost year round. Served at country clubs or country kitchens, if you give a Southern Gentleman, a Good Ol’ Boy or a Redneck- the menu for a Blue Plate Special – he never struggles over what to order- ‘I’ll take Turnip Greens.’ Count on it.
In the South, Dinner is eaten in the middle of the day- Supper might be a bowl of Greens swimming in Pot Likker, dotted with bits of Ham and a fat wedge of Cracklin’ Cornbread. A meager meal- no… a favorite way to end the day. Humble Greens aren’t saved just for New Year’s Day, even though we’re superstitious enough to believe Greens mean Money, especially if you eat them or dream about them… I’m taking no chances! We eat Greens every chance we get!
Nowadays, we call Dark Leafy Greens- powerhouse foods, then put them in Smoothies or Juices- I’ll take Pot Likker any day. Turnip Greens, when they’re cooking, emit tart, sweet, pungent vapors…Even when there’s nothin’ much left in the house but a few dried beans, a bit of salt pork, a cup or two of cornmeal- an onion and if you’re lucky a sweet potato or two in pantry… you can make a meal. And always, always, if Greens are on the menu, there will be Pepper Sauce, so hot it will make your cheeks pink and set your tongue on fire- dousing the Greens.
Now, if’ you’re not well versed in the art of Southern Greens- don’t go thinking we cook them down into a mushy mess- No. Think Steamed Cabbage with Meat Loaf, Stuffed Peppers, even Corned Beef with a side of field peas and fried okra. Or, recently, there was a warm spell, so I fried some Pork Chops, baked Sweet Potatoes and added Wilted Spinach Salad with a tart warm onion-y dressing poured over the greens; Crisp Bacon crumbled on top and wedges of bright yellow eggs. Turnip Greens aren’t cooked to death as some folks think… Fresh Greens have some texture if you cook them right and for sure they aren’t greasy. Here’s how you make them:
Camellia’s Greens Southern Style
*Prepare the Greens: Rinse and drain.
- For Turnip Greens: 3-4 lbs of roughly torn Greens- Turnip or a blend of Mustard and other tender greens- Remove any damaged or yellowed leaves and cut away thick veins or stems, though I do use smaller stems for texture.
- For Collard Greens: (If using Collards-don’t blend with other types since they are sturdier greens.) Use 2 pounds- *Make sure bruised or yellowed leaves, tough stems and ribs are removed. *For faster cooking, roll collard leaves, then slice in very thin strips)
- For Steamed Cabbage: Take a large head of Cabbage, core and thinly shred with a knife.
- For Wilted Spinach Salad, remove large stems and bruised or damaged leaves, place in a large salad bowl. Do not cook! The hot dressing will slightly wilt the greens. Recipe for Wilted Spinach Salad follows below!
*All Greens, whether cooked or eaten raw in salads- are treated the same way to prepare. A word of warning: Unless you buy washed greens, you may have to rinse turnip and mustard greens several times! *Rinse Greens and drain, but do not worry if they are still damp. (Damp Greens do not hold or absorb as much fat!) You will need:
- 3 slices of Bacon or Salt Pork.
- One large Sweet or Yellow Onion- sliced or diced.
- 1/4 to 1/2 cup of Pepper Sauce or Apple Cider Vinegar.
Fry bacon or salt pork in a deep Dutch Oven to cook Greens or a skillet if making the dressing for Wilted Spinach Salad. Remove Bacon and reserve. Pour off excess fat- leaving approximately 3-4 Tablespoons in the Dutch Oven. Saute Sweet or Yellow Onion in reserved Bacon Fat, until onions are almost browned and opaque.
- For Cooked Greens: Quickly add Prepared Greens or Cabbage to the Hot Dutch Oven and toss to coat. Salt generously.
- You may need to add a small amount of liquid to sautéed greens- approximately 3/4 cup of water- please do not drown! Reduce heat.
- Simmer Greens, stirring and tossing occasionally. When Greens have wilted, add Pepper Sauce or Apple Cider Vinegar. This step is critical to Good flavorful Greens– the vinegar-y pepper sauce dissipates the pungent odor; but more importantly adds a wonderful flavor which makes up the famous Pot Likker.
- Once the Greens have been tossed and turned- Cover the Dutch Oven and The Cooking Down phase begins… for Greens: I tend to cook down Cabbage until tender, Collards are a sturdy green and require more cooking time, Turnip Greens cook down fairly quickly but count on steaming about 30- 40 minutes. Stir occasionally to make sure they aren’t scorched- need more liquid or to test doneness.
- Granted, some Southern Cooks let their greens steam longer- I think this is personal taste. Cabbage generally does not give off as much liquid as the Dark Leafy Greens.
- Reserve the Pot Likker, you may want to use it again- but after one use- discard. Most of us want some of the famous liquid in our bowl of Greens! please note! *Pot Likker is the remaining liquid in the pan with Cooked Greens.
- *Some folks make a heartier Pot Likker by cooking a Ham Hock in 2 -3 cups of water in a separate pan before cooking their Greens. When I make Greens with Ham Hock, I generally pull off the bits of ham, saute the ham in the bacon fat before adding the greens. If you do make the heartier Ham Hock Stock-use some of the Ham Hock liquid if needed.
- *Variation for Turnip Greens: You may also cut up peeled Turnips into a small dice and cook with the Ham Hock. Strain out the cooked turnips and add some of the Ham Hock liquid when the greens are cooked, toss in diced turnips gently with the Greens.
- *Variation for Steamed Cabbage: Add a cup or less of diced cooked ham while onions are sautéed in Bacon Fat, OR you can proceed with the Ham Hock Liquid if so desired. Pot Likker isn’t a product of Steamed Cabbage- though the remaining liquid is very good!
- *Collard Greens benefit greatly from steaming in the Ham Hock Liquid since they are a sturdy green and require a longer cooking time. Ham Hock adds more flavor, especially if you like Collards very tender.
To Serve Cooked Greens: Drain Greens, reserving that wonderful liquid. Crumble Bacon or Salt Pork on top! Ladle in Bowls or Serve as a perfect side for almost any southern meal!
Camellia’s Wilted Spinach Salad–
- Don’t cook spinach! Instead, place prepared and drained Spinach leaves in a large bowl.
- Boil a few large Eggs, then peel and set aside with the fried Bacon. *If you have some Spring Onions, chop them and toss with Spinach Leaves.
*For Wilted Spinach Salad Dressing:
- Fry Bacon, set aside to drain. Reserve drippings
- In a large skillet- Saute Onions in bacon drippings
- Add 3 tablespoons or more of Pepper Sauce or Apple Cider Vinegar to the sautéed onions and bacon fat until heated through. Do not add water!
This makes a Wonderful Warm Dressing for the Spinach leaves. Pour the hot briny onion dressing quickly over the fresh spinach leaves, tossing as they wilt slightly. Garnish with crumbled Bacon and wedges of Hard Boiled Eggs, it’s a scrumptious Southern Chef Salad!
Southern Greens are what our ancestors tended to think of as a Seasonal Tonic, high in fiber, vitamins and minerals- they are seriously good for you! I tend to enjoy cooked greens from early Fall to early Spring. The weather is so fickle in Early Spring, that a bowl of greens or steamed cabbage tends to hit the spot like a bowl of Soup! Fresh greens, such as Spinach, Spring Garden Lettuces hit the spot from Spring until it’s too hot and they bolt or go to seed! And coleslaw is great year round! It was drilled into my head from an early age, that to have a balanced meal- you must have a green vegetable on the plate!
Our Southern Mothers were fond of telling their daughters- ‘Eat your greens- they have B for Beauty Vitamins and those greens have minerals to make you strong!’
The South does tend to have an inordinate amount of Beauty Queens, y’all! The men tend to be good looking too! We love our Greens…dark and leafy, shredded Cabbage, Spinach cooked or in salads and our Green beans, Asparagus, Broccoli, Early Peas, Baby Limas, Cucumbers, even Poke Salat all make up a critical part of the Southern Dinner Plate! Now, about that Poke Salat- that’s sort of dangerous eatin’ but Cracklin’ Corn Bread?…umhmm, the only danger there is making yourself sick eating too much!
We’ll just have to wait until another time, for that! But Greens, oh my! At home on a plate of Barbeque, at a Catfish Fry, on our Famous Vegetable Plates, Church Suppers, Potluck Suppers or even Holiday Meals… Greens are always welcome!
Love y’all, Camellia
*Poke Salat is a foraged Green, since a portion of it is poisonous- I’ll probably never tell you how to make it, but those who know how- and I’ve eaten it a time or two…it’s delicious!
*Many Southern cooks use other and different techniques, I love them all! We tend to enjoy any and all methods, but almost always you will find a bottle of little pickled peppers in vinegar on Southern tables as a condiment, essentially for dousing Greens or even Barbeque, and that flavored vinegar is what we call Pepper Sauce!
*All photographs are obviously mine.