When a Southern mama urges you to eat your vegetables, it's likely your plate includes a mound of pork-studded, glistening greens. The South Carolina diet is anchored by a variety of leafy greens, the most popular being mustard, turnip and the abundantly grown collard, named the official state vegetable in 2011. Nutritionally, greens pack a punch as they are high in vitamins and calcium, and help lower cholesterol and cancer risks. While Southerners love those health benefits, of utmost importance is the good luck greens impart when eaten on New Year's Day, alongside a helping of Hoppin' John for good measure.
Though considered a quintessentially Southern dish, these cool-weather cruciferous vegetables were enjoyed by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and eaten in European countries long before they graced our tables. In fact, greens were already growing in the Southern colonies when the African slaves arrived, but it took their ingenuity to cook them in a way that earned greens a permanent place in Southern cuisine. The secret? The rich, seasoned cooking liquid called pot likker, a soupy concoction typically made with chicken broth, onion, salt, pepper or pepper flakes and a smoky ham hock for ultimate body. It's a delicacy best soaked up with a piece of cornbread, a pairing some folks consider the the best part of eating greens.
For all their good taste, a "mess of greens" (Southern-speak for "enough to feed a large family") develop a rather funky bouquet as they slowly cook down. If you're not from these parts, you'll likely find this pungent odor unpleasant. In South Carolina, it's like a beckoning finger. We just follow our noses to the kitchen and dig in.
Of course, you don't have to stink up the kitchen to enjoy this heritage-rich taste of the South. You'll find that cooked greens are a staple menu offering, with many restaurants across the state serving traditional interpretations or showcasing them in more versatile ways. For example, some chefs team their chosen greens with garlic and olive oil, serve them with a poached egg, shave them for slaw or coat them in a spicy peanut sauce. Sounds fancy, but it's all good eating.
Now a word about taste. While a good many folks are partial to mixed greens, some harbor preferences for specific types. The flavor profile for each is different, so mixing them lends some complexity to the dish. Turnips, for example, have a cabbage-like quality, while mustard greens deliver a bitter, peppery bite. Collards tend to be milder, though may have a hint of bitterness. Thanks to those African cooks of long ago, we know how to tame the wilder flavors of our greens by cooking them slowly with the right combo of seasonings. To further rein them in, hit ‘em with a splash of vinegar or pepper sauce.
Ready to give it a try? Here's a recipe from Magnolias in Charleston, which appeared in the cookbook, Magnolias Southern Cuisine. It delivers delicious, largely traditional results. Clemson Extension says to avoid aluminum pots for best results. A good iron or ceramic pot will do the trick. Mix your greens if you prefer more bite. And never, ever throw out that pot likker!
Magnolias' Collard Greens and Ham Hocks
12 cups collard greens (2 or 3 small bunches) washed, stemmed, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup yellow onion, diced (1/4-inch)
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
1 smoked ham hock
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
9 cups chicken broth
2 teaspoons Tabasco or to taste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Wash the collard greens thoroughly with cold water, remove the center stem and the large ribs then give them a rough chop. They should still be leafy.
Heat the olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed stockpot over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring until onions are translucent. Add the ham hock and then vinegar. Now gradually add your collard greens. Cook the greens over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until they are all wilted. As they wilt you will have room to add more into the pot. Add the chicken broth and 1 teaspoon of Tabasco.
Bring to a boil and simmer for 1 hour and 45 minutes to 2 hours, adding more chicken broth if necessary, one cup at a time, until the greens have a good flavor and are silky in texture.
Add another teaspoon of Tabasco (or to taste) and salt and pepper to taste.