Who would have thought – frost bites are good for you?
While Jack Frost was nipping at our noses over Christmas weekend, the icy leaves on the collard greens in fields stretching across our sea islands were busy creating a sweet reward. Those nights that dip into mid-20 degree temperatures seem anything but beneficial to most plants but for leafy greens, it does something wonderful. The plant defends itself against freezing weather by turning starch into sugars. Think of it this way – the plants make their own anti-freeze and that anti-freeze is positively delicious!
Cool season crops such as kale, collards, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, mustard, and broccoli all benefit from these frosty nights. The same holds true for root crops in your winter gardens such as carrots and turnips. When they are left in the ground the starch converts to sugar.
If you plan on making Hoppin’ John for New Year’s Day which is a great tradition held dear in the hearts of Southern families everywhere, don’t forget the potlikker. It’s that delicious, highly concentrated, vitamin-filled soup that develops as the leaves simmer. Potlikker is what enslaved and indentured cooks had left over in their pots at the end of the meal. Potlikker was even used by country doctors who prescribed a vigorous rubdown with potlikker as a remedy for aches and pains and even nervous exhaustion. No one has ever finished a bowl of potlikker and cornbread without feeling better for it.
I love serving collards with just about any kind of seafood, with fried shrimp being a favorite.
I always serve potlikker and collards with cornbread in some form for sopping: hoecakes, dumplings, or fritters. Making a proper pot of greens is somewhat of an art form. The greens must be sturdy, and the cooking liquid must be richly flavored and smoky. Beyond that, people get creative. Some add heat with pepper pods, crushed red pepper flakes, ground cayenne, hot pepper vinegar, or some combination of all these things. My dad always tempered the bitterness of his greens with sorghum. Even once the greens are seasoned by the best of cooks, a bottle of vinegar or hot sauce should be on the table.
My grandmother raised collards in her North Carolina garden and had a stockpot on her stove at all times with a big mess simmering away to perfection. Only a true Southern woman knows how many collards are in a mess and how far it is to over yonder. And never, ever did she throw away that delicious broth in the bottom of the pot.
The best way to eat your collard greens is to drink them. But after that, don’t forget the Hoppin’ John!
Hoppin’ John is that hearty African-American dish made by slowly simmering black-eyed peas with pork and vegetables. Traditionally served over a bed of freshly cooked rice, this humble dish is incredibly flavorful and is believed to bring luck and prosperity for the upcoming year. As for collard greens, they’re green like money and ensure you a financially prosperous new year. After all, we are a region of long-held superstitions. We paint our porch ceilings light blue to stave off the “haints.” We hang mirrors in our garden and save old wine bottles to put on dead tree branches for the same reason. But perhaps one of our longest-held traditions is that of eating Hoppin’ John on New Year’s Day. In Texas, it’s called Cowboy Caviar.
This recipe is courtesy of John Martin Taylor from his book Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking
1 cup black-eyed peas
6 cups water 1 dried hot pepper
1 smoked ham hock
1 medium onion, chopped
1 cup long-grain white rice
Wash and sort the peas. Place them in a saucepan, add the water, and discard any peas that float. Gently boil the peas with the pepper, ham hock, and onion, uncovered, until tender but not mushy – about 1 /2 hours or until 2 cups of liquid remain. Add the rice to the pot, cover, and simmer over low heat for about 20 minutes, never lifting the lid.
Remove from the heat and allow to steam, still covered, for another 10 minutes. Remove the cover, fluff with a fork, and serve.