I grew up with a Father who fell in love with Southern Food & Cooking in his 30s. Even though my parents were both born and raised in Southern California, my Dad threw himself into the regional tastes and dishes everytime our family relocated to another state.
In the early 80s, my family migrated over to Texas, and shortly thereafter, I was born.
My Dad, working in food service vocationally, fell hard for the food of that place: BBQ (which in Texas means brisket), cornbread, fried okra, black-eyed peas, peaches, smoked sausage, chicken fried steak with cream gravy - Texes knows how to make good food. And Texans love to eat this food.
One dish that is VERY southern which I don't remember us having - ever, really - is stewed collard greens.
Collards are a tough, somewhat stringy plant, best treated with acid, pork fat, and a long, slow cooking.
When I make collards, which is really only 1-2 times a year, I always think of my Dad.
This kind of cooking requires that one stay attuned to the task at hand. If left unattended for too long, the greens could burn in the pot. If the heat is too low, the greens will take FOREVER to soften up.
In order to properly cook collard greens, one must stick around for awhile, and check in from time to time. One must pay attention.
Making collard greens reminds me that the best things in life take time. If you want the rich flavors, and satisfying textures of steward collards, you need to give yourself over to the process for 3-4 hours.
Life is no different.
In a culture that says, "you may have anything that you want, anytime you want it," cooking in this way helps remind me that the best things - and really, anything worth having or doing - takes time.
Building a family takes time.
Building a business takes time.
Cultivating a church takes time.
Growing a garden - time.
Planning a dinner party w/ friends - time.
Getting in shape - time.
Education takes time.
Marriage takes time.
Health takes time.
Growth takes time.
Pretty much anything worth doing in life takes more time than most of us care to admit, myself included.
But it's the investment of our hearts and lives over time that make these things the best things. The things that we're proudest of. The things that shape our lives, and our identities.
I'd like to think that my Dad, even though he is no longer with us in this life, would be proud of my collard greens. He would understand how much time and care it takes to make them meltingly tender. To cause the ham hock to fall apart. To get the balance between salty-acidic-sweet-umami, just right.
I'd like to think that he would love these collard greens. Because even though he didn't teach me this recipe, he taught me how to care enough about food to invest my heart, my life, and a lot of time, into creating the best things.
Especially slowed cooked greens.
This one's for you Dad. Love you, and miss you.
David's Stewed Greens
-3 or 4 bunches greens (I prefer collards, but I'll admit to throwing in the occasional swiss chard bunch too)
-1 meatly ham hock
-one onion, sliced thin
-4 or 5 garlic cloves, sliced thin
-1 T cider vinegar
-2 t hot sauce (I prefer Tabasco brand, Chipotle flavor)
-couple pinches of sugar
-olive oil (or better yet, bacon fat)
-salt + pepper to taste
(and lots of time)
1. choose a heavy pot w/ a tight fitting lid, and place it over medium heat. After the pot is heated up nicely, pour in about a tablespoon of olive oil (or bacon fat), and place the ham hock in the pot, letting it begin to brown, turning it over a few times.
2. Add in the onion, and continue to cook until the onion begins to soften, about 3-5 minutes.
3. Clean your greens well, making sure there is no lingering dirt. If using collard greens, put the leaves from the stems. If using swiss chard, finely chop the stems. Stack up all your clean leaves, and roughly chop them into 2x2 inch pieces.
4. Add the garlic and greens to the pot w/ the onions and ham hock. Pour in the vinegar, hot sauce, a pinch of salt, a bit of pepper, a couple pinches of sugar, a 1/3 cup of water. Stir to combine.
5. Bring the pot to a simmer, cover, and turn down the heat to low, keeping the liquid at a low simmer. You're essentially braising the greens and ham hock in their own juices.
6. Check every 30 minutes or so to make sure the greens are not drying out too much. There needs to be a small amount of liquid in the bottom of the dish in order to cook them properly. Total cooking time will likely be 2.5-4 hours, depending on how long it takes to make everything REALLY tender.
7. Once the greens and ham hock are tender to your likely, pull the ham hock out to cool, and taste a bite of greens, paying attention to vinegar, hot sauce, salt and pepper. The greens should be a little salty, but not overly salty, a little tangy, a bit sweet (not much), and as spicy as you'd like them to be. Adjust seasoning to your liking.
8. Once the ham hock is cook enough to handle (and is falling-apart tender) pull the meat from the bone, and roughly chop it. Add the meat back to the perfectly seasoned greens, and stir to combine. Taste, and adjust for seasoning.
Sit down, relax, and enjoy your labor of love. Enhance this dish with cast iron skillet cornbread, smoked sausage links, fried okra, and black-eyed peas.