When you bring up southern cooking, you immediately think vegetables. Okra, field peas, snap beans, corn, squash and leafy greens – they all hold a hallowed place on a Southern dinner table.
What southern cooks figured out, long ago, was “veggies” need to be fresh, cooked slow and long in a flavorful broth.
This is most true with a mess of Southern greens!!
I come from a long line of southern cooks. My family history on both sides is contained to three southern states: South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. While some may argue that, due to the influx of yankees, Florida could be considered a northern state, that is not our case. The family in Florida migrated all the way from South Carolina and Georgia.
All this is said to bring context to my story about Facebook and greens. Despite all this southern upbringing, I grew up never eating greens.
Mom didn’t cook greens. She said they stunk up the kitchen. I assumed that if they smelled bad, they must taste bad. I never considered them an option in my recipe file. However, greens are becoming popular and are considered healthy, so they came to my attention. They are included, in some way, on the menus of all the trendy restaurants and are a staple in the popular southern farm-to-table cuisine. And, in 2011, they became the official vegetable of South Carolina.
“There has to be something there,” I thought. “In the South, we eat them on New Year’s day for wealth in the upcoming year. Who doesn’t want that?”
So, I tried them and I liked them.
But, my attempts to prepare them produced a bitter, soggy, and tough side dish. I was confused by the difference between the types of greens and the cooking methods. Then, in November 2017, I came across my friend and FW cover girl, Bisa Batten Lewis’ Thanksgiving menu post on Facebook.
A picture of Bisa’s handwritten list: “Mac and Cheese, Cornbread, Pecan Pie, Collard Greens, Sweet Potato pie ( with a question mark)” popped up as I scrolled my feed.
“When you see how many things you are ‘voluntold’ to bring… anything for the fam,” Bisa posted.
Facebook gets a lot of hate these days, and rightfully so, due to the overload of information and arguing that it brings into our lives – not to mention the time it consumes. I have to admit that I am NOT looking forward to the upcoming political season and everyone’s overbearing opinions and the fights they will spawn. But, on this particular date and post, everything that could be good about Facebook manifested itself on my computer screen.
Bisa’s menu sounded good and I loved her verb ‘voluntold’ and knew it indicated she knew how to cook these things. I quickly replied so and added:
“–after the holiday, I’d love for you to tell me how to make greens. Mine come out too bitter. Not sure if it’s the greens I’m buying or the way I’m cooking them. I need help.”
And help I got. Bisa immediately replied as did her mother and her aunt. The tips and information they shared was invaluable. They were the springboard to many attempts on my part to get to the recipe I share today. But even more, I was touched by their willingness to help… while it may have been a small gesture and no big deal to them, it meant a lot to me. I’d like to publicly say, “Thank you Bisa, Pearlie, and LouAnn for your kindness.”
I would be remiss to share anything about greens and not mention Potlikker (aka Pot Liquor) and cornpone. Potlikker is the savory broth left over when cooking greens and many believe this leftover from the cooking process is better than the greens themselves. Since it contains essential vitamins and minerals released from the greens as they cook down, it is considered the “chicken soup” of the south. This southern delicacy to served with cornpone either crumbled or dunked into the liquid.
Cornpone is cornbread made without milk or eggs and absolutely no sweetener. It is baked or fried in a cast iron skillet with oil to produce a dense bread.
Somethings never change and even with no Facebook (along with most technology), back in 1931, politics couldn’t stay out of the kitchen. The Great Potlikker and Cornpone Debate of 1931 began when Julian Harris, an editor at the Atlanta Constitution, verbally assailed Huey Long, governor of Louisiana and United States senator-elect, over the question of whether cornpone should be dunked or crumbled into the potlikker. The debate escalated and for 23 days engaged most of the south and much of the nation in deep argument.
Just so you know, Julian Harris and most of the state of Georgia believe you should crumble the cornpone. Huey Long was a proponent of dunking.
For the record, I want to state here and now, that I don’t care if you dunk or crumble… any more than I care if you’re liberal or conservative. What I do care about is sharing recipes. I think they are an important part of our history. Even as products and cooking styles change, it is important to pass along the traditions. I think this is why I was so excited by the Facebook exchange. My greens recipe is an example of “crowdsourcing” at its best.
As with all recipes, they are just to guide us, especially in southern vegetable cooking where there was a pinch of this and a pinch of that. A cook should taste and tweak along the way. But you have to have a place to start.
Each of our recipes are similar, but each has a little different twist. So, along with our recipes, here are some basic tips and tricks I discovered about cooking greens.
What You Need to Know to Get Started:
Choose the Right Greens for Your Taste:
Collards, turnip greens, mustard and kale are all pretty interchangeable because their texture will hold up to long cooking times, but they do have different flavors. It comes down to personal preference.
Mustard Greens are peppery and turnip greens are bitter. I recommend kale. I think it cooks down to nice mild flavor and firm texture. Bisa recommends collards. Bisa’s mother, Pearlie, says cook turnips but add a bit of sugar to balance the bitter flavor. Her Aunt Louann Smith-Overstreet recommends putting a potato in the pot while they are cooking to tame the bitterness. All of the varieties mellow as they are cooked. You can even mix them for a combination of flavors.
Whichever variety you choose, look for dark green leaves without any yellowing, browning or wilting. After purchase, store loosely wrapped leaves, in the refrigerator.
How Many Greens?
You want to cook a “mess of greens.” The exact quantity that constitutes a “mess” varies with the size of the family. Greens cook down – The internet says you can feed five people with a bunch of greens or get four servings in a pre-chopped bag. They reheat nicely, so I cram my pot as full as possible.
Wash the Greens
No matter which you choose, it is important to wash them thoroughly. The curly, thick leaves hold onto to the dirt. Fill the sink and swish the greens in the water. Drain and repeat, as many times as necessary, until you no longer have any dirty, sandy grit in the bottom of the sink.
Try adding salt when washing your greens. It will get rid of any worms or insects suggests Louann.
You can buy pre-washed and chopped greens. But, consider this a first wash and give them a good wash of your own.
Cutting and Tearing
The stems are tough and don’t get much better after cooking. So either cut them out with kitchen shears or tear the leaf away from the stem. After it is removed, tear or chop the leaves into bite sized pieces or thin shreds.
Stovetop or Crockpot
Greens are best when simmered and so you can use a crock pot. (Despite the hammering the crockpot took after the This is Us fire episode, I am an advocate of the crockpot and love the start them and forget them capability.) They are also good simmered on the stovetop. In most recipes, you need to plan to cook them on low heat for up to 6+ hours.
Meat for Flavor
Unless you are a vegetarian, you definitely want meat to flavor your greens and make your potlikker. Turkey, ham or bacon – even chicken stock – are all good choices and personal preference should be your decider. The richer the broth, the better the greens and potlikker. I originally used chicken broth and bacon drippings, but switched to homemade ham broth since discovering that you can purchase ham bones from Honey Baked Ham. They are pretty reasonably priced considering the fact they usually have enough meat on them to add to the greens and sometimes for a meal… plus you can make enough broth for greens and soup.
Louann suggests using a ½ teaspoon of baking soda if the greens are tough. Gradually add a small amount until you get the consistency you desire. Too much baking soda will make them mushy.
If a mess is too much, you can freeze the cooked greens serving-size portions in freeze safe containers or ziplock bags. Include greens and potlikker in the bag. Simply reheat on the stove
My recipe isn’t a quick one and I’m not sure it would be considered healthy, but it produces really flavorful greens and makes enough for a large gathering or multiple meals. I use kale but this works with any of tougher leaf greens – collards, turnip, mustard, chard. This makes a lot of greens but they get more flavorful everytime you reheat them and you can freeze some too! So don’t skim and don’t be afraid of the left overs.
- Ham Bone to make ham broth to cover greens
- Diced or hand shredded ham removed from ham bone
- 1 package of prewashed and chopped kale or mixed greens OR fresh greens washed, chopped or torn
- ½ cup Apple Cider Vinegar (or to taste)
- 1 tbsp or to taste of Brown Sugar
- Salt and Pepper
- A crock pot (you can simmer on the stove top quicker but this is my preferred method)
- Wash the kale and removing any stems (even the pre-washed and pre-chopped.)
- Fill your crockpot with the kale and add enough broth to cover the greens.
- Salt and pepper to taste.
- Sprinkle with a tablespoon of brown sugar. (Brown sugar seems to compliment the honey baked ham broth- but you can use regular sugar.)
- Add about ¼ cup of apple cider vinegar - a little at a time to get it to your taste.
- Set crockpot on low.
- Taste often and add more vinegar, sugar or salt and pepper as desired. The amounts needed will vary based on the size of your mess of greens, bitterness of the batch and the flavor of the broth. You can always add more seasoning… but you can’t take it out. Push the greens down into the liquid, as opposed to stirring them, for even cooking.
- Cook for about 6 hours on low in the crockpot and at the last hour add small diced pieces of ham that were removed from the bone prior to making broth. The amount you use is personal preference. I like enough ham that you get it in most spoonfuls-- but I also like to save some of the ham for meal or to add to soup. You can add the ham at anytime, but it seems to lose flavor and texture if it cooks for the full six hours.
Bisa was featured on the cover of our August 2012 issue. Dr. Bisa is Founder and CEO of Ideal Early Learning, LLC. She is a published author of education and parenting articles, college textbooks, children’s books and music, and WINGS Curriculum – a nationally recognized learning system for birth to 5-year-olds that celebrated its 10th Anniversary in July, 2019. And, yes, she cooked everything on that Thanksgiving Facebook list. Family traditions matter to her!
- 1 Bunch of Collard Greens
- 4 Slices of Turkey Bacon
- 1 tsp. Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO)
- Salt and Pepper to Taste
- 1 Dash of Cayenne Pepper
- Lay 4-5 cleaned collards atop one another; tightly roll leaves together lengthwise; and then, slice crosswise into ½ inch strips.
- In a skillet, sauté turkey bacon in EVOO until slightly browned, but not crispy.
- Add collards to skillet and sauté along with turkey bacon.
- Add seasonings as collards start to soften.
- Cover and simmer on medium heat until collards are a little softer than raw and slightly darker.
Pearlie is Bisa’s mother and with her guidance, it is easy to see how Bisa became such a good cook! Advice from Pearlie: “Always add a little sugar in everything you cook. It’s called love. I’ve always added just a little to my greens and peas.”
- 1-2 Bunches of Collard Greens
- 2-3 Knuckles of Smoked Ham Hocks
- 4 Slices of Smoked Jowl Bacon, Fatback, or Salted Pork
- Salt to Taste
- 1 Dash of Sugar
- Water (enough to cover ham hocks)
- Lay 4-5 cleaned collards atop one another; tightly roll leaves together lengthwise; and then, slice crosswise into ½ inch strips.
- In a pot, add ham hocks and Smoked Jowl Bacon.
- Add water to the pot covering the meats to the level where ham hocks meet the water.
- Allow smoked ham hocks and jowl to cook until tender (about 4 hours).
- Add salt as the ham hocks start to get tender.
- Once ham hocks are tender and separate from bones when pricked with a fork, remove them from the pot. Keep the seasoned water and smoked jowl in the pot.
- Remove all skin and meat from ham hock bones.
- Cut up the smoked ham hocks and place back in the pot. Discard bones.
- Add cleaned, sliced collards to the pot.
- Cover and simmer on medium heat until collards are soft and dark green.
“Cooking in the kitchen with my mother was one of the most amazing and fulfilling things to do as a teenager. This is how I learned to cook. It made my day after cooking a complete meal and seeing the look on my mother’s face after the dinner was done. I was able to cook Sunday meals when I was only 14 years old,” says Bisa’s Aunt Louann Overstreet. “I believe that dinner time is a time when the family can bond and that is exactly what we did. I do love to cook and trying new recipes. As I get older, I try to find recipes that are healthier yet tasty. Another meat alternative to turkey is ham or bacon. Turkey is flavorful and healthier.”
- 1 Bunch of chopped collard greens
- ¼ cup of chopped onions
- ¼ cup of chopped bell pepper
- ¼ cup of oil
- Smoked turkey meat –however much is desired
- Morton’s seasoning salt –
- however much is desired
- ¼ cup of sugar
- 2 tablespoon of vinegar
- Boil turkey meat in ⅓ pot of water and cook until almost done.
- While meat is cooking, wash greens until water is clear and the dirt and grit are gone.
- In pot, add seasoning salt, sugar, vinegar and oil.
- Cover and simmer for about 5 minutes. Then add greens, onions and bell pepper to turkey stock.
- Cover and cook on medium until greens are tender.
- Add more seasoning if needed.
- *Try using a ½ teaspoon of baking soda if the greens are tough. Gradually add a small amount until you get the consistency you desire. Too much baking soda will make them mushy.
- *Try adding salt when washing your greens. It will get rid of any worms or insects.