Let me tell you about one of my all-time favorite meals. It goes, oh so wonderfully, something like this. Cajun-fried catfish, crisp yet meltingly tender with an edge of fragrant heat. Candied yams, sweet and savory, gilded with clover honey. Mac n’ cheese, rich, creamy, subtle yet intense, its surface caramelized to a layer tastier than candy. And collard greens, slowly simmered into a heap of smoky goodness. Bathed in a luscious pot liquor (or likker) succulent enough to be imbibed all on its own. This is Southern soul cooking at its very finest. If you’ve never had these dishes, you are missing a sublime experience.
I will take a moment here to go on an uncharacteristic (for me) rant. A number of years ago, maybe five or so, Gourmet magazine (R.I.P.) devoted an entire issue to Southern cooking. In a letter to the editor, a reader wrote something to the effect that he/she had no interest whatsoever in Southern cooking, didn’t even open the magazine, and simply threw the issue in the garbage. He/she then chastised Gourmet for wasting an issue on such a worthless cuisine. Rrrrrrr. An emotion akin to anger began to rise within me as I read. Ignorance of any kind always has that effect on me. But then I realized it was just that, ignorance, and base snobbery. And ignorance. Oh wait, I already said that. An unfortunate number of (ignorantly snobby) people feel the exact same way about Southern cooking. Beyond my comprehension. The essay in that issue by the legendary Edna Lewis alone was well worth the price of the issue. (I cut it out, and have kept it to this day.) And the recipes themselves, what they represent, are some of my most treasured. I myself am a Northern girl who loves excellent food wherever I find it.
Southern cooking is not one thing. It cannot readily be defined. The term encompasses so many different types of cooking from various regions, from the Eastern shores of Maryland and Virginia, down through the Carolinas into the low country, down into coastal Georgia and across the deep South all the way to the bayous of Louisiana. And then there is the upper South, and other areas besides. There are so many cuisines all grouped under the label Southern cooking. Anyone not interested in exploring any of them, all of them, does not, cannot, appreciate good food. So there. Rrrrrr. I suppose I am finished with that topic for now.
If you’ve never had good Southern cooking, this is an excellent recipe to try. It is easy. It is foolproof, because the greens only get better with longer cooking rather than being ruined. It is ridiculously healthful, those greens densely packed with nutrition. Despite being traditional, it represents a modern sensibility, using only a small quantity of meat to make a huge mess o’ food that can be eaten for days. And it is so good, so decadently good despite having only a few ingredients, that you will make it again and again as if it were a naughty treat. Paulo and I love to eat it as a main dish, accompanied by squares of steaming cornbread.
Smoky Collard Greens
3 lbs fresh collard greens (or frozen, thawed)
2 T oil
2 onions, chopped
8 oz hunk smoky ham, halved (or 1 smoked ham hock)
3 cups chicken or vegetable broth, or water
hot sauce (optional)
Trim the toughest stems from the greens and discard. Cut the greens crosswise into one-inch-wide ribbons. (You will have a huge heap of them, but they will cook down quickly.) Heat the oil in a large stew pot and saute the onions until translucent, a few minutes. Add the greens, ham, and broth, along with 1 tsp of salt and several grinds of pepper, and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until the greens are very soft and the entire dish is a lovely, soupy, stew-y amalgamation of goodness. Reaching this point should take at least an hour, and often longer. Don’t worry about cooking the greens for too long. Any additional time will only made them better.
Remove the two hunks of ham. Tear or cut them into bite-sized pieces and return them to the pot. Add additional salt and pepper to taste, if needed. Serve the greens in bowls, making sure to include the pot liquor, and sprinkle with hot sauce if desired. The greens are fantastic with big squares of cornbread.