from "Living Within", November 2013
I have been travelling since I last wrote - a short trip round some of the Southern States of the USA. Technically, it is “fall” there but, if you squint your eyes enough to miss the mass of pumpkin patches (selling, not growing) and the plethora of Hallowe'en themed items hanging out on homes and businesses, you could almost imagine it still summer; the sun is hot and being outdoors the preferable option.
The South is having a bit of a moment food wise - the rest of the country is leaning in to see what is happening down there while a new generation of Southern cooks re-discover and re-imagine heritage ingredients and good down-home cooking. We ate like kings - soul food, fried chicken and okra, cornbread and creamy grits, lima beans and succotash, catfish and shrimp. We learned that buttermilk can find its way into a batter or a biscuit or a filling for a pie and add subtleties, softness or sharpness with which we are not familiar.
Whatever the main dish, “sides” normally feature - this is the land of “meat and three” (a main dish and three sides) and greens are nearly always on the menu. Southerners favour their greens bitter - turnip tops and dandelion leaves, arugula (rocket) and mustard greens - but by far and away the most popular are collards - large, cabbagey, bitter tasting, sold in the market in piled-up flat-leafed bunches, cooked in a smokey ham stock for a VERY LONG TIME, until the bitterness has been tempered and the colour darkened, and with so much seasoning - spicy, sour, sweet or just plain salty - that you must sit up and take notice and be grateful for that ubiquitous pitcher of iced water.
We have no collard greens here but we have a very close relation in kale. Now kale is not by any stretch at the glamour end of the vegetable spectrum, my optician mentions it as good for the eyes which makes it sound worthy; it is a difficult leaf to learn to love, particularly when sold by supermarkets in hermetically sealed plastic bags, hacked about with little care or understanding of the nature of the central rib or clue as to the look of the whole leaf. These quibbles aside, however, kale, curly or black (cavolo nero), has a complex winter flavour that is improved by the first frosts of the year and a stretch of cold weather, and is perfect for just about now.
The new Southern chefs, devoted as they are to locally sourced ingredients, inherited tradition, and recipes “talked down” through generations, do allow themselves whatever other influence happens to be theirs - “Grandma cooking on steroids” is how one Tennessee chef describes his style. So here is an English cook’s take on Southern collard-style greens, with a nod to the South and its traditional seasonings (notably onion and smoky ham); I have not worried about the dread word ‘authenticity’ that plagues our modern food landscape. These are greens influenced by a grandmother from South Carolina and a chef based in Nashville with Italian inclinations who have “talked me down” some of their methods, but I have felt free to take or leave from them and add to them what I will - I hope that you might try them too with whatever main takes your fancy.
Blanch washed and sliced kale in a pan of boiling salted water until tender (about 3 minutes) - remove from the water and set aside to drain (reserve the cooking water). In a frying pan, fry some chopped smoked streaky bacon (ideally sourced from a good butcher and not a plastic packet) in olive oil until golden; add in a chopped onion and cook until soft, then add in sliced garlic, a sprinkle of chlli flakes and season with salt and pepper and allow the garlic to soften too. Add some cooked butter beans or cannellini beans and the cooked kale - stir and leave to simmer until the kale is as you want it - retaining colour and bite or very soft, as you prefer - use some of the cooking water to help moisten if you need extra liquid. Add a squeeze of lemon juice mixed in at the very end to sharpen up the flavour. Taste and adjust seasoning before serving; serve hot and, for those who want more of the South, with hot sauce to hand.