Before the bell rang to change classes, one of my former English students asked me to help him prepare for a test in his health class. He wanted me to name the five food groups.
“Beef, pork, poultry, seafood and wild game,” I told him.
He was amazed at my quick response almost as much as he was by the response itself. English teachers are a wealth of information (and sarcasm).
“What about starches like rice and potatoes?” he asked. “What about bread? What about green vegetables?”
I told him those “things” only count as side dishes, then I said the best side dishes were those seasoned by, and therefore complementary to, the main dish — the meat. Among those “veggies” best able to support the centerpiece of any meal are greens.
Collards, mustards, turnips, kale, cabbage and a short list of other green, leafy vegetables are packed with vitamins and minerals and, when properly seasoned, they complement all entrées, from barbecue pork to roast beef to fried chicken.
According to WebMD.com, greens are fortified with vitamins A, C and K and minerals like iron and calcium.
I prefer spinach, broccoli, cabbage (coleslaw) and lettuce raw, although my wife makes a sort-of stir-fry cabbage dish that’s great with beef roast or beef short ribs.
Cooked greens, though, usually refers to collards, mustards and turnips. On New Year’s Day, millions of Southerners will celebrate the new year with a traditional meal that includes one of these three greens, along with black-eyed peas that are meant to bring you good luck throughout the year. Greens, appropriately, are meant to ensure financial success.
Some folks still enjoy the “pot liquor,” that dark-green liquid in the bottom of the pot that old folks said was “good for whatever ails ya.” Whether it improves your prospects for the next 365 days is doubtful, but it will help keep you “regular” for a few days.
Greens are not seasoned the same way. The best collard recipes I’ve found include chunks of smoked ham or pork shoulder or a couple of ham hocks. These are washed thoroughly and then boiled for up to an hour before adding the collards, which themselves must be thoroughly washed. It’s also a good idea to remove the larger stems.
While the ham hocks are cooking, add salt and pepper and either a teaspoon of red pepper flakes or a tablespoon of hot sauce. Some folks also add a tablespoon of sugar.
Add the greens to the pot and more water, or a can or two of chicken broth as needed, and then allow the greens to cook for about an hour.
My mama always cooks her mustards with turnip greens, usually a pound of each. This mixture goes back to her growing up in South Georgia during the Great Depression. My grandmama was widowed after my mama — the youngest of 11 children — was born. Being a widow, my grandmama was allowed to glean leftover vegetables from farmers’ fields. To get enough greens to serve 11 kids, she took what she could get, which led to my mother, and now me, mixing mustards and turnips.
This mixture of mustards and turnips is seasoned with pork neck bones.
Because they’re not cooked, you boil them for over an hour in a large pot, adding only salt and pepper. When the meat starts falling off the bone, strain out and remove the bones, then add the washed greens to the pot and cook for 45-60 minutes.
You don’t have to travel to Paula Deen’s in Savannah for a good “mess ‘o greens.” We have Izola’s Country Cafe, Southern BBQ and Ida Mae’s BBQ in the Hinesville area.
A little further south on U.S. 84, Sybil’s Family Restaurant in Jesup has some of the best greens you can find six days out of seven.