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Summer produce is easy. Summer produce is the embodiment of an easy, breezy sunny day. Tomatoes are sliced. Okra only needs a short simmer or perhaps a bit of grilling. Fresh corn takes a quick dip in salted, boiling water and is eager and ready for a soft, melting knob of butter.

Fall brings wet mornings and long cool nights. The darkness of night lingers longer in the morning and quietly eases in earlier in the evening. As the days grow shorter, cabbage, kale, collards, spinach, Swiss chard, and mustard greens replace the tender lettuces and easy vegetables of spring and summer. The dark leafy greens of fall are more complex than sunny summer produce.

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Winter greens are members of the Brassica family and are noted for their bitterness. They need full, bold flavors to meet their match and test their mettle, like the red pepper flakes shown in the photo above. Yet, winter greens are also wonderfully versatile. The peppery heat of turnip greens are pungent and sharp when compared to the subtle grassiness of Swiss chard or the aggressive vegetal flavor of kale.

One troublesome aspect of cooking these nutritional powerhouses is that winter greens can be quite gritty. The best way to clean greens is to fill a clean sink with cold water, add the greens, and swish them around. The dirt will fall to the bottom of the sink. Lift the greens out, drain the sink, and repeat until the water is clear and the greens are free of dirt and grit.

As a helpful hint, if you don’t buy your produce from the local farmers market, look for the washed bagged greens sold in most supermarkets. These bagged greens can save a lot of time in the kitchen. After a day or so, make sure to blanch them in boiling salted water once you get them home so they don’t spoil in the bags. Once they’ve been blanched, you can store them 3 to 5 days in a sealable container in the refrigerator.

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Traditional Southern cooking cooks the life out of them. Oh, don’t get me wrong. Slow-cooked greens with some form of glistening fatty pig suspended in salty, smoky potlikker are the primary DNA of the taste memories from childhood. There’s nothing like a wedge of cornbread dipped in that rich, oily, green broth. However, it’s a real revelation when you understand you can cook greens 4 to 5 minutes, not 1 hour 45 minutes!

You may have avoided these nutritious greens in the past because of their bitter reputations and gritty nature, but when you balance their flavors with full flavored ingredients like garlic, red pepper flakes, creamy cheeses, smoked meat, and rich, crème frâiche —it’s easy to moderate their bitterness. Now is the time to celebrate the dark side this fall and welcome these beautiful greens into your kitchen.

Bon Appétit Y’all!
Virginia Willis

Mozz Greens Bruschetta

Mozzarella and Winter Greens Brushchetta
Makes 8

Fresh mozzarella is increasingly available in better stores and markets. This cheese is moist, soft, and delicate. It’s miles away from the hard pizza cheese. Mozzarella was originally made from water-buffalo milk, but now most fresh mozzarella comes from cow’s milk, both in Italy and here in the United States. Fresh mozzarella is normally sold in a container of water. It’s highly perishable, so refrigerate it in its liquid for no more than a few days.

1 baguette or Italian loaf
1 garlic clove, halved
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound tender dark greens, stems removed, leaves chopped
4 garlic cloves and mashed to a paste with 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup shredded fresh mozzarella cheese
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the broiler. Slice the bread crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick slices and place on a baking sheet. Broil the toast about 4 inches from heat until golden brown, about 1 minute. Remove to a rack to cool.

Rub toasts with garlic on one side and lightly brush same side with about 1 tablespoon of the oil. Set aside.

Heat the remaining oil in a large heavy-bottom sauté pan over medium low heat. Add the garlic paste and cook, stirring constantly until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Add the greens and season with salt and pepper. Sauté over medium high heat, stirring, until wilted and tender, about 3 minutes. Pour off any excess liquid and transfer to a large bowl. Stir in the mozzarella and taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Divide the greens between the toasted bread and serve immediately.

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Kale Tangle
Serves 4 to 6

1 to 2 tablespoons canola or olive oil
3 medium cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 medium bunch kale (about 1 1/2 pounds), cleaned, tough stems removed and discarded, and leaves very thinly sliced in chiffonade
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the slightly damp ribbons of greens; season with salt and pepper. Toss once or twice, and then add the garlic. (I add mine after the greens to buffer the garlic from possibly burning.) Cook until the greens are bright green and slightly wilted, 3 to 4 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

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Vegetarian Collard Greens

Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons canola oil
1 sweet onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 medium bunch collard greens (about 1 1/2 pounds), stems removed and discarded, and leaves very thinly sliced in chiffonade
4 cups water
1 tablespoon smoked salt
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
Hot Pepper Vinegar, for accompaniment

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until soft and translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Add the greens, water, smoked salt, pimenton, and apple cider vinegar. Season the mixture with pepper. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to medium-low, cover, and cook until the greens are tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with smoked salt and pepper. Serve immediately with the hot pepper vinegar on the side.

Smoky Slow-and-Low Mustard Greens
Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons canola oil
1 sweet onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, smashed to a paste
1 pound mustard greens, tough stems removed and chopped
2 cups fruity white wine (such as Riesling or Gewurztraminer)
4 cups homemade chicken stock or reduced-fat, low-sodium chicken broth
4 cups water
1 smoked turkey neck or drumstick
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a large stockpot over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until golden, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds.

Add the greens and cook until the greens are slightly wilted, about 5 minutes. Add the wine and bring to a boil; cook until reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Add the stock, water, and smoked turkey neck; season lightly with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil; decrease the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the greens are very, very tender, about 1 hour. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Ladle into warmed serving bowls with plenty of the flavorful broth. Serve immediately.

Spinach with Pine Nuts and Golden Raisins
Serves 4 to 6

1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup chicken stock low-fat, reduced-sodium chicken broth, heated
1/2 cup pine nuts
2 tablespoons pure olive oil
2 shallots, very finely chopped
2 pounds spinach, tough stems removed
Pinch red pepper flakes, or to taste
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place the raisins in a small bowl. Pour over the heated chicken stock. Let rest to plump and rehydrate, 10 to 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, place the pine nuts in a large heavy-duty skillet over medium heat. Toast, stirring frequently, until golden brown, about 8 minutes. Remove to a bowl and set aside.

Heat the olive oil in the same skillet over medium-low heat. Add the shallots and cook until translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Increase the heat to high, add the spinach, and stir-fry until wilted, 1 to 2 minutes. Drain the golden raisins, discarding the liquid or reserving for another use. Add the drained raisins, toasted pine nuts, and red pepper flakes.Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

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Braised Cabbage
Serves 4 to 6

This is another example of simple country cooking that would be equally at home cooked in a cast-iron skillet in the South or simmered in a cocotte on grandmère’s stovetop in France. Cabbage is an inexpensive vegetable, and if stored properly, will keep for weeks in the refrigerator.

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 medium head green cabbage, cored and thinly sliced (about 8 cups)
1/2 cup chicken stock or low-fat, reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 sprig of thyme
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a large skillet, heat the bacon fat over medium-high heat until sizzling. Add the cabbage and saute until the cabbage starts to wilt, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the chicken stock and thyme. Season with salt and pepper.

Decrease the heat to medium, and simmer until the cabbage is meltingly tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the sprig of thyme and taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, virginiawillis.com. Thanks so much.

Photo credits – Virginia Willis, Ellen Silverman, and Kathy Waites

Copyright © 2013 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.