Friday, September 28, 2012

Collard Greens (and Cornbread)

Collards grow like a weed in these parts in the fall, through the winter, and well into the spring; when it gets hot they typically bolt and go to seed, making the leaves bitter. They descended from wild cabbages that once grew in Europe. They are a continuous crop, meaning that you can harvest the outer leaves while the center continues to grow. Collards can be seeded, or planted as starts – Chris at It’s About Thyme Nursery will have several varieties of starts in the fall, including the standard “Vates” (crumpled dark green leaves, winter hardy, the local standard variety),   and an improved variety, “Georgia Southern”(bigger, thick blue-green leaves, non-bitter, heat tolerant, frost hardy). Collards prefer full to half sun, rich fertile soil high in nitrogen, regular water, good drainage, and organic mulch. Plant them 1-foot apart, and expect them to yield for 6 months or so if they are regularly harvested; increase the mulch when it warms in the spring to insulate the roots and deter blooming. If you get any insect pests, expect small beetles or caterpillars.


 

a pic of "Georgia Southern" from the sowtrueseed's website......

A pot of collard greens is always referred to in the South as a “mess of greens”, and the vitamin-rich, bacon-seasoned savory broth in the bottom of the pot is called potlikker. Traditionally the white plantation owners of the South consumed the cooked and drained collard greens while the slave cooks, who understood the high nutrient value of potlikker, saved the broth to supplement their family’s diets.



Nothing is better for soaking up the potlikker than a hot piece of crusty cornbread that’s been split down the middle and slathered with sweet butter. The Potlikker and Cornpone Debate in February and March of 1931 pitted Julian Harris, an editor at the Atlanta Constitution, against Huey “The Kingfish” Long, the backwoods populist governor and soon to be U.S. senator-elect from Louisiana. The traditionalist Harris contended that Southerners must crumble cornpone into potlikker, criticizing Long as an unrefined rube, who contended that the cornpone should instead be dunked. What started as a lighthearted fluff piece in the local paper turned into a 23-day long news event that captivated the South (and much of the rest of the nation, once it spread on the wires), and ended up dealing with all sorts of cultural affairs, including race relations, gender, social class, elitism, and regional chauvinism. For what it’s worth, we prefer eating our potlikker-soaked chunk of buttered cornbread with a spoon, so as not to lose any of that precious elixir.


 
Collards swimming in a lake of potlikker, flavored with bacon, Balsamic, chicken stock, dried red chiles, and a pinch or two of sugar

Mick’s Collard Greens


2 bunches of collard greens, washed well, central ribs removed, chopped coarsely

¾ pound thick-sliced bacon, sliced thinly
1 large onion, halved and sliced
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups rich chicken stock
3 to 4 tablespoons Balsamic vinegar, to taste
2 to 3 tablespoons white sugar, to taste
1 to 2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper, to taste
Cornbread to soak up the potlikker

In a large stock pot with a lid, sauté the bacon over medium low heat until the fat is rendered and the bacon golden brown. Add the onion and sauté over medium heat until transparent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté 30 seconds. Add the collards and stir well, briefly sautéing the greens in the bacon fat. Add the chicken stock, stir well, and place the lid on the pot. Allow the greens to cook down for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, and add 3 tablespoons of the vinegar, 2 tablespoons of the sugar, and 1 teaspoon of the black pepper. Stir well for a minute and taste for seasonings. The broth should be rich from the bacon and stock, there should be underlying saltiness from the bacon, and the vinegar and sugar should add a subtle sweet-tart flavor. Cook for another 5 minutes and taste again, adding more vinegar, sugar, and pepper if desired. Do a final tasting for salt just before service.


Serve in a bowl with plenty of the pottliker. A piece of crusty hot buttered cornbread makes an excellent accompaniment.




Cornbread cooked in the cast iron Dutch oven....at the center, it's probably 4" tall
 

Mick’s Mile High Cornbread:

Cornbread should always be made from scratch, and never from a mix; using a mix is just plain wrong. Cornbread should always be cooked in a pre-heated cast iron skillet or Dutch oven that has been well-seasoned. When you pour in the batter, you hear the batter sizzle in the fat, and it comes out with a perfect, deep golden-brown crust; the cast iron also keeps it warm through the meal. I have two iron skillets (one an antique that was found in an old ramshackle garage and rehabilitated), and nothing but cornbread ever gets cooked in them; they get washed with only hot water.

This recipe originated with my pal Chef Ray Tatum, but I’ve morphed it through the decades, making it my own. There are many additions you can make to this recipe. You can add fresh or frozen corn, grilled corn or cream-style corn, roasted and peeled chiles or minced fresh chiles, roasted cloves of garlic, or pork or bacon that has been browned and diced. I usually top it with shredded cheese about 5 to 7 minutes before it’s done, so the cheese melts onto and into the top. It should always get split and slathered with sweet cream butter before it’s eaten. The old folks used to love leftover cornbread like this crumbled into a glass, topped with buttermilk, and eaten with a spoon. Me, I never have any leftovers.
   

You can use all-white or all-yellow cornmeal if you like.

If you don’t have any buttermilk, you can fake it by these methods:
• Add 1 tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice into enough whole milk to equal 1 cup. Allow this mixture to sit for 10 minutes to give it time to thicken before adding it to the ingredients.
• Or mix plain yogurt with whole milk. To make 1 cup buttermilk, mix 3/4 cup yogurt with 1/4 cup whole milk.

1 cup white cornmeal
1 cup yellow cornmeal
¼ cup sugar
1 tablespoon salt
3 heaping teaspoons baking powder
1 heaping teaspoon baking soda
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 cup buttermilk
3 jumbo eggs, lightly beaten
3 cloves minced garlic (or ½ teaspoon garlic powder)
Optional:
3 large jalapeños, minced (seeds and membranes removed for less heat if needed)
2/3 C frozen white corn, thawed
3 to 4 green onions, minced
1 C Monterrey jack or pepper jack cheese, shredded

Preheat oven to 425°F and place a cast iron skillet inside. In a large mixing bowl combine all of the dry ingredients and mix well. Add the oil, buttermilk, and eggs and incorporate, mixing just enough to blend the ingredients. Fold in the jalapeños, corn, and scallions. Remove the skillet and lubricate liberally with lard, bacon fat, butter, or vegetable oil (lard will give the best flavor and a crispier crust). Scrape the contents of the bowl into the skillet and lightly smooth the top. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes; if the optional ingredients have not been used it will take about 30 minutes; if they have been used, expect 40 minutes. The top should be golden brown and a skewer inserted into the middle will come out clean. If using, the cheese should be added just before the top of the cornbread reaches the light-golden stage.

Mick Vann: cookbook author, food writer, chef, restaurant consultant, horticulturist

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