Fresh collard greens can be found at your local farmers market year-round, but they are tastiest in the cooler, damper months. Usually quite cheap, this slightly bitter member of the cabbage family is classic Southern comfort food. The dark green leaves have graced the dining tables of the South for many a generation.
In my kitchen, “collards” are a side dish on our menu. I cooked them for months as a part of my station prep. At work, cooking collard greens started with sautéed applewood smoked bacon and Spanish onions. Pork – and the flavor of it – is an integral ingredient in this dish; in fact, the pig and its by-products feature prominently in Southern cooking.
To this basic mirepoix of sorts, the greens are added and allowed to sweat until they eventually shrink about 1/3 in size. Apple cider vinegar and chicken stock are added, and the greens are allowed to braise for an hour until tender. Season with salt and pepper; scoop them into a 4-inch hotel pan, label date and time with masking tape. Is it good? My chef says it’s an acquired taste, and I certainly agree with him. That’s why I’m not posting the recipe from work. I want you to cook collard greens and eat them and enjoy them as I did.
This post is about Grandma Davis’ recipe from New Orleans. I’m sharing her home cooking with you, as she showed me how to prepare it.
Buy three bundles of collard greens from the farmers market or supermarket. To prepare fresh collard greens, wash them thoroughly and remove the thick fibrous center stem of each leaf. Lay six to seven leaves flat on your cutting board and roll into a tight bundle, like a cigar. With a sharp knife cut into ¼ inch ribbons. Repeat until all the greens have been shredded like confetti.
It’s just as easy to pick up a pack of shredded greens from the produce or frozen food section of your neighborhood supermarket. I can assure you that the integrity of the dish will remain untarnished by this shortcut, and the finished product will be just as scrumptious. If the second option suits you, purchase at least a pound, which should be enough for 8-10 portions.
Don’t leave the supermarket empty-handed. In the meat section, buy a half pound of salt pork. Grandma Davis uses salt pork for her collard greens, and you should too. Don’t be afraid to use salt pork in cooking. It’s easy as long as you follow these simple steps.
Wash salt pork thoroughly to remove the excess salt.
In a quart of cold water, bring salt pork to a boil then drain water
Bring to a boil a second time and drain again
It’s ready to be used for your collard greens.
Sounds like a lot, maybe, but this is what Southern cooking is all about: simple ingredients cooked with care and time to tempt the taste buds. This dish smacks of history. Pigs, low-maintenance and easy to raise, were an important food source in the South. They were introduced to the region by early Spanish explorers, and became a staple of the traditional Southern diet.
Scraps of meat, oftentimes the unwanted portions from the butchered animal – trotters, tail, ears, snout and entrails – were given to the slaves. Usually there were many mouths to feed with this small ration of meat. Allowed to cultivate small gardens for food, the slaves learned to use their small ration of meat as a flavoring ingredient in their meals. This was the only way they could give a dish “meat flavor” without using much meat. This explains the prevalence of pork in southern vegetables and stews. Ponder this while perusing the shelves in the supermarket. Purchase a quart of chicken broth; look for Kitchen Basics or Swanson’s Chicken Stock. Add a Spanish onion to your cart and join the checkout line.
Great!!! You’ve brought all the goodies home, now it’s time to braise your way to some yummy delicious greens. First, wash, boil and drain the salt pork. That’s out of the way. Dice the Spanish onion. Put the salt pork and diced onions in a thick Dutch pot and add 4 cups chicken stock. Let simmer on low heat for 30 minutes; the pork should disintegrate in the broth at which point add the collard greens. Here’s a secret – add ¼ tsp of baking soda, which helps soften the greens and preserves the color. Add ½ tsp. brown sugar as well as 1tsp ground black pepper. Taste and let simmer for another 30 minutes. Minimal attention or stirring is required, just put it in the pot and let it go! Adjust seasoning if necessary.
“S is for Sad… And for the mysterious appetite that often surges in us when our hearts seem about to break and our lives seem too bleakly empty. Like every other physical phenomenon, there is always good reason for this hunger if we are blunt enough to recognize it.”
M.F.K Fisher, An Alphabet for Gourmets
S is for sweet potato. And the alphabet is made richer for its inclusion. There is no sorrow in the letter S when it’s a tuber with parched, rust-tinged skin, uneven in shape and unassuming in appearance. But underneath that blotchy exterior lies flesh saturated with a nut-like sweetness and bright orange vibrancy.
It was man’s inquisitiveness (and most certainly the pangs of hunger) that led to the discovery of what nature tried so hard to hide. The tubers of the sweet potato vine, buried secretively among roots and earthworms, were no match for man’s primal driving force… Hunger. As a cook, I am indebted to the eager gourmet who, armed with sticks for digging, pried this edible treasure from the clutches of the earth.
This member of the morning glory family originated in South America and was spread through the New World by Christopher Columbus. Sweet potato tastes even sweeter when heat and flame turn the tuber into candied yam deliciousness.
I love to prepare this side dish as part of a big Sunday dinner spread; it brings back childhood memories. Sunday meant helping my mom make crispy roast chicken with homemade barbecue sauce… rice and peas flavored with coconut milk and thyme… buttery mashed potatoes… cheesy macaroni and cheese… deep-fried sweet plantains… creamy coleslaw.
And then there was her cinnamon- and brown sugar-flavored sweet potato casserole, seasoned with nostalgia of breezy Sunday afternoons. That time I spent with my mom around the stove is still ingrained in my psyche. And in New Orleans, at Grandma Davis’s table with a generous serving of candied yams, I am twelve years old again.
When this humble tuber is baked in a pie shell, it assaults the mouth with a velvety smoothness reminiscent of toasted almonds. Try these recipes at home, to wake the jaded palate, inebriated by microwave meals and fast-food cookery.
Peel one large sweet potato (about 1 lb.), and cut into a ½-inch dice. Measure 2 quarts water, add 2 tsp. salt, and pour into a suitably sized pot. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 10 minutes.
Rule of thumb for cooks: Vegetables above ground should be cooked in salted water at a rolling boil: i.e., asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini. Start root vegetables in cold salted water, bring to a boil, and let simmer till done: i.e., potatoes, turnips, beets, parsnips.
The sweet potatoes should be halfway done and offer some resistance when pierced with a fork. Save 1/2 cup of the cooking water; drain and discard the rest, leaving the sweet potato in the pot. Add 1/2 cup of your saved liquid, 1/4 cup of good salted butter, 1/2 cup of granulated sugar, a drop of vanilla and a pinch of cinnamon and return to the stove. Let simmer on low heat for another 12 minutes, stirring carefully every few minutes. Butter melts, liquid reduces, sugar dissolves to create a light caramel glaze, enhanced with cinnamon and vanilla – and it is done! Enjoy your candied yams!!
Sweet Potato Pie
Dinner has been served; the meal is at an end. In that moment of sated relaxation, when friends and family reminisce on the pleasures of a sumptuous meal; sweeten the ending with a slice of sweet potato pie. Have a store-bought 9 inch pie shell ready; it works well for this recipe. Bring to a boil then let simmer for 25 minutes, 1 lb. of sweet potato cut into a ½-inch dice. Drain and place the hot and steaming sweet potatoes into a large mixing bowl.
Add 6 Tbsp. granulated sugar, 8 oz. evaporated milk, 3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour, 4 oz. of good salted butter, ½ tsp. cinnamon, ¼ tsp. nutmeg, 1 Tbsp. vanilla, 1 tsp. salt. Blend everything together with a cake mixer until smooth and creamy. Mixture should be slightly thick. Pour into pie shell and bake in a 350 degree oven until golden brown, (about 30 minutes). The aroma of fresh baked sweet potato pie fills the room like no other. Resist the urge and wait for it to cool. Cut a slice, and indulge your sweet tooth with the taste of Grandma Davis’s New Orleans sweet potato pie.
“Yes.” Christian shifts in his seat to face her. “Could you please… slow down.”
She sucks air between her teeth, “Relax.”
“I’m not speeding. And why waste money on books? No one reads like that anymore.”
“I do.” His hands betray his annoyance at her tone and he deliberately turns his head toward the oncoming lights. “Do you?”
His jaw tightens. The tail lights of a tractor-trailer wink in and out of the darkness.
“Ten years ago, kitchens used real recipes to make food. Back then I used to cook – with real vegetables that still had dirt on them. I used a real knife and a cutting board and made salads with real lettuce and dressing.” His voice grows quiet as he utters the last syllable.
Unbidden, an image of him wearing a chef’s jacket surfaces. His next sentence comes out in a rush, “Now it’s just a matter of mixing one flavor strip with the next.”
She grips the steering wheel more tightly and the car speeds up.
Christian sighs and says, “Celia, let the GPS take us home.”
“Why are you so stubborn? Let the computer do what it was programmed to do. He reaches out and strokes her cheek. “I promise… promise to stop living in the past.”
Celia allows the tension to leave her shoulders. “It’s just that sometimes, I feel as if you’re trying to make the world leave you behind.”
He leans closer to her. “My love, let the GPS steer the car. I‘m in the mood.”
The words echo across the tiny interior of the car, in counterpoint to the rapid staccato of raindrops falling on the roof. Christian doesn’t wait for an answer. He wiggles out of his t-shirt and climbs between the seats and into the back. He pokes her in the side with a toe. Laughing, she presses the green neon button in the center of the steering wheel and a male voice chimes in and asks for a destination.
“Home,” she says, and the computer searches for the coordinates. After a few seconds, the metallic voice chimes in, “Your destination is 1-0-4, P-e-a-c-h, T-r-e-e D-r-i-v-e, A-t-l-a-n-t-a, G-e-o-r-g-i-a. The right indicator light flicks on, and the steering wheel turns silently to the right. The computer adjusts speed and guides the car behind a white Ford Explorer.
She disengages the safety harness and squeezes into the backseat on top of him.
“Ouch! Be gentle, Celia!” They wiggle into a more comfortable position and his legs wrap hers as the landscape slips by, painted in jagged slashes of light and gloom. Moaning, Christian uses his hands to firmly clasp her buttocks and presses himself hard against her body. She responds to his advance by biting him on the ear. Their passion ends quickly, muted by the glaring headlights of cars passing.
He allows his thoughts to drift backwards to the first time they met. It’s one of his clearer memories: Celia kneeling over him, her hand shaking his shoulder, her voice asking him his name. The feel of old leaves wet with dew pricking him in his back. The smell of garbage, ripe, and overflowing from the bin close to his head.
The sound of traffic somewhere nearby. The sting of mosquito bites on his face. The crunch of shoes on the grass around him.
Flashing lights, red and white pinpricks as he drifts in and out of consciousness.
Her eyes, hazel, looking into his.
The antiseptic whiteness of the emergency room.
Waking to see her speaking to a nurse by his bed.
Sleep, so restless.
Dreams of a book with a silver binding, its words and symbols spinning like a spider’s web at the edge of his sub-consciousness. The book! Taunting him. He cannot remember.
Panic, then the sound of her voice talking to him, asking him his name, asking questions.
Her visit to the hospital the next day to talk to him, and then the next.
He strokes her hair as they lay nestled together in the dim interior of the car. A big rig glides by, tires sluicing water onto the windshield. The white line on the road brightens as city lights hover over the highway. She sighs as he gropes around for her clothes and gives them to her. The left indicator light blinks on and the car overtakes the Ford Explorer.
“Shhhh, be quiet, my phone is ringing… Artichoke, look for it.”
“It’s on the floor underneath your seat, can’t you see the lights flashing?”
Celia leans forward and sticks her hand under the seat searching with her fingers. Finally, she feels the slim outline of her still vibrating phone. Resting it on her lap, Celia touches the screen and a holographic image of Tony appears.
“Hey Celia, I need a cocktail waitress for a function tomorrow night… interested?”
“Oh yea, what about that bar mitzvah last week, Tony? I still haven’t got my money yet.”
Tony turns to face Christian.
“Hey, Christian; can you come in early tomorrow? Damn purchasing software has a glitch again. It forgot to place my order for macaroni and cheese flavor crystals for dinner service.”
“Gonna have to do it old school and cook some from the box, if we can find some. Should make you happy, eh?”
Celia uses her finger to poke Tony’s image in the stomach “Tony, what time is the function tomorrow?”
Distracted he looks away, as if listening to someone else, “Tell them I’ll be out in a minute,” he shouts to someone inside the kitchen.
“Damn roast chicken flavor strips, can’t any of the cooks get it right?” mumbling to himself.
“Sorry Celia” he laughs apologetically, “Chow time is at 7 p.m., but you gotta be there by 6:30 for set up.”
“Christian, come in at 1 p.m., and get with José; see if you can find some pots. God knows why I kept those things.” Tony says, chuckling. “There should be some in the storeroom somewhere.”
“Ok, kids; gotta go – got things to do and people to see.”
“What now, Celia?” sounding slightly annoyed.
“You’re a sleazebag; I want my money when I come in for work tomorrow.”
Laughing at the compliment, “Sure, sure, sure,” he terminates the call and disappears from view.
With a grimace Celia slips into the driver’s seat. She sits still for a moment, thinking about Christian. She never meant to take him home after he was released from the hospital. But he looked so lost and alone, her heart took a chance. Her mother always said she was like Florence Nightingale; there was Sam the turtledove with the broken wing and a whole litany of wounded pets through her teenage years. It helped that she volunteered at the animal center. Celia had a gentle, familiar touch with animals, and somehow they sensed it.
Christian is singing slightly off key to a Sublime song floating through the speakers. She’s glad he’s distracted. His book is waiting for him, on top of the growing pile in the corner of her apartment. She felt strange holding it. She was glad to put it with the rest.
She thought about how she had first met Christian six months ago while jogging in the park. One minute she was alone on the pathway and the next moment he was there, right under her feet. She almost tripped over him. He had no idea who he was or where he was. The only reason she knew his name was because it was on the nametag of the old chefs’ jacket he had on. She was so surprised she had run ahead a few hundred paces before curiosity got the better of her and she decided to go back.
The strange book had appeared at her doorstep in a similar manner. It seemed she had a way of collecting strays. And yes, she had almost stepped on the damn book, too. It lay with the others. “Artichoke’s relics of the past,” she liked to call them, unopened, still in the thick brown envelope with his name stenciled across the front.
“Celia” he breaks her reverie.
“I love you, baby” he puts a hand on her leg.
Both car doors slide upwards and they run towards the protective alcove of their apartment building. Christian lets her go in front as they bolt up the stairs to their second-floor apartment.
“Hurry, Celia; I’m getting wet,” he jumps up and down as a pool of water forms around his sandals. Celia peers into the sensor and a beam of light scans her iris. She blinks and it winks back as if acknowledging an old friend. Celia steps back, the light blinks green and the door slides open. Celia pushes Christian inside, then pushes past him as a crack of lightning stabs the darkness. She’s home: it’s tiny, but comfortable. It’s all she could afford on her salary. Cocktail waitresses were poorly paid even in the days of gas stoves and deep fat fryers. That hasn’t changed – and veterinary school still isn’t cheap.
Her apartment is sparsely furnished, anchored by a cube that unfolds into a sectional sofa when pressed. A 40” Sony holograph TV on the wall, a collapsible dinette set that hangs on the wall as decoration. They hardly use it, preferring to eat their meals on the sofa watching television. Celia moves around in the small space and heads to the bathroom. It’s late, and she needs to get out of her damp clothes.
“Christian, I’ll be in the shower a while,” the sound of running water distorts her voice.
“Take your time, baby; I’ll be right here,” he answers and walks towards the stack of books in the corner. Sitting on the floor beside it, Artichoke gingerly takes hold of the package and holds it in his lap. For a minute he just sits there, alone in the semi-darkness. Pointing to the ceiling, he says the words, “reading light,” and a beam illuminates his hands as he slowly tears away the wrapping paper.
He slides a hand inside and drops the brown packaging paper on the floor. “Ghost in the Kitchen,” he mouths the words and a knot forms in his belly. His fingers feel so cold; he wants to get up, but can’t. He tries to look away, but the pale indistinct image on the cover holds him transfixed. He recognizes the face of the person on the cover.
His name is Christian Artichoke, and suddenly it all comes back to him in a rush of memories. The cover flips open as his vocal cords constrict and the face on the cover looks up at him and smiles. Suddenly, he remembers what he had left behind and he tries to force the book shut again. He tries to fight as his soul is pulled from his body with the slick sucking sounds of boots walking in mud.
He thinks about Celia and what his life could have been with her. What could have been – should have been. The face pulls him closer and it pulses and squirms as the grin widens and his face is swallowed. First his short brown hair, then his nose, then the scream from his lips.
Yearning to stay conscious, finally Christian gives into his past as he is pulled deeper into the book with a snap until there’s nothing left but silence.
“Christian, Christian! Are you ok? I thought I heard someone screaming.” Celia runs into the living room barefoot with a towel hastily wrapped around her body. “Christian, where are you?” She looks around the room growing more concerned. She walks over to the beam of light and notices the book sitting on the floor. Tears well in her eyes, and she knows she’s about to start crying. Christian! Something draws her eyes back to the book lying on the floor and for the first time she looks down at the cover.
A face stares back at her as if confined behind glass. She starts to scream, a sound so wrenching and terrible that it breaks her heart. Celia couldn’t hear the sound of her own screams; in fact, she couldn’t see anything beyond the book cover and the face staring back at her.