We have been having quite the festival of fresh 'n' local produce chez AFIEP.
What I've been enjoying almost more than anything else are shelling peas. I've eaten them raw, made them into mint-and-basil scented soups, risottoed them, cooked 'em lightly in the English fashion with lettuce, mint and butter, and tossed them with great success into a spur-of-the-market sautéed vegetable mélange of spring onions, green garlic, tiny squash, a chopped (early) heirloom tomato, some leftover not-so-good corn that found its metier in this medley, and a handful of wild arugula to wilt at the very end. The peas were still detectably sweet and delicious, even when combined with all those other good things screaming for attention (and by the way, it's good when vegetables scream for attention. It means they have so much flavor that you don't have to do a whole lot to them). The peas I purchased this morning are going to find their home with a medley of other greens in a charming tangle of homemade egg pasta with herbs, seasonal vegetables, and fresh Brebis Blanche sheep's milk cheese.
But I'm here to talk to you today not about peas, but about G's clear favorite of our summer vegetable offerings: collard greens. Let me say that as the white, Jewish, Yankee, newly-married wife of a man who grew up in Baltimore raised by a formidable clan of African-American Southern women, I have approached the making of collard greens with some trepidation. It wasn't that his mother or aunts cooked greens all that much -- or even cooked a whole lot at all. His grandmother, however, the venerable Nana (whose love for G is such that she actually left East Baltimore for the first time in many, many years in order to attend our wedding party) was apparently a genius at greens, as well as many other traditional Southern dishes.
Now I love greens, and invariably order them when they present themselves on a (generally soul food) menu. I just didn't know if I could cook them. Turns out, I can. Instead of boiling them to death in pot likker, I created my own method. I cleaned them, cutting out the tough center rib, chopped them, and plunged them into boiling water. I let the water return to a boil, and then drained them very, very thoroughly. Then, in a judicious quantity of smoky, flavorful bacon grease (from some good bacon like Niman Ranch or North Country), I sautéed lots of chopped garlic (green at this time of year), some minced little spring onions, and a good shake of Aleppo pepper, as well as some freshly ground black pepper and a little coarse salt. When all that wilted down, I added the greens and cooked the whole mess together until the greens were tender and toothsome without a trace of their tougher nature, still with a slight resistance to the tooth and vibrant, not drab, in color.
"These are the best greens," declared G the first time I made them. "The best greens ever?" I asked. "Certainly the best greens any white woman has ever made," he replied.
Then I made them again, and once again, slightly refining the recipe each time. I used some mustard greens in the mix at one point, adding them in later since they don't need as much cooking as the tougher collards. And when I just couldn't help myself, I crumbled a little strip or two of bacon left from breakfast over the greens as I served them, just a little garnish, so the bacon would still have crunch.
Finally, one night, over a plate of greens, my husband confessed what the dinner of his summer fantasies would involve: as much fresh corn as he could eat -- and a bottomless pile of these collard greens. For such a serious carnivore to request a vegetable-based dinner without a hunk of meat to center the plate seemed pretty significant. "Okay," I agreed. "As soon as the corn is really good, we'll have it." G took another forkful of greens. "I have to revise what I said before about these greens," he said. "They are the best greens anyone has ever made, anywhere."
Please keep this information to yourself. Nana is very fond of me, and I'd like it to stay that way.
Serves 6 reasonably; 4 generously; 2 lavishly and immoderately
2 large bunches fresh leafy collard greens (and/or other greens as well -- mustard, turnip, beet)
2 Tbsp bacon fat (from a flavorful, smoky applewood or fruitwood bacon)
1/4 cup chopped green or young garlic, if available -- if not, stored garlic will do
1/4 - 1/2 cup minced fresh spring onions or other onions
1 tsp. crushed red Aleppo pepper (or other red pepper flakes)
freshly ground black pepper and coarse salt
crisp crumbled bacon for garnish (optional)
Bring a large pot of water to the boil while you trim, clean and chop the greens. If you're using collards, cut out the tough center rib before chopping them into coarse ribbons. Plunge the greens into the boiling water. For collards, let the water return to the boil before draining them. For more tender greens, just blanch them for 30 seconds or so. If you're mixing them, put the collards in first, and then just before the water returns to the boil, add the other greens, wait a half minute, and drain it all, very very well.
Heat the bacon fat in a large skillet (or you can even use the greens pot if you want to do fewer dishes later). Sauté the onion and garlic until tender. Add red and black pepper and salt. Toss in the greens just as the aromatics start to turn golden (let them color a bit -- it gives them a richer flavor). Toss everything together, and cook at a low heat for about five minutes, or until your greens are just tender. Adjust seasoning, sprinkle with crisp bacon and devour -- by themselves, or as part of a large dinner composed of all kinds of southern-style seasonal vegetables and perhaps fried chicken or baked ham, some cornbread or biscuits -- if you're up to making all that on a hot summer evening. Just make sure you have plenty of iced tea on hand. No matter what else you serve, the greens will still be the star.