This year, as I have for probably every other New Year’s Day since gaining access to my own stove, I cooked rice, black eyed peas and collard greens for dinner. Even though I’ve used the same recipe for at least a decade, they never seem to taste quite the same.
Several of our guests commented on their deliciousness this time, which could be a consequence of last year’s over-salting disaster, where I followed Deborah Madison’s directive to “taste again for salt, they can use a lot,” without paying enough attention. But I prefer to think that I just got it right this year.
For starters, I used the best quality produce I could find. Fighting temptation to be both cheap and lazy, I averted my eyes and tiptoed by the pre-washed, pre-chopped, bagged and aged collards sold at Trader Joe’s. Hunting Joe’s isles for a remaining case of prosecco on the last day of 2010, I promised myself an afternoon collard gathering trip to Rainbow Grocery, which of course never happened. Luckily, our neighborhood Andronico’s opened bright and early the first morning of 2011, and I sent my haggard husband off to the store. He returned home with four big, beautiful, organically grown bunches, so fresh they still dripped with dew. Or maybe it was spray from the produce mister.
Back when I was young, my mother would cook us black eyed peas and collards on New Year’s day. “For good luck” she would say, without further explanation. And today I am still not quite sure how to explain our New Year’s party food to the uninitiated. “Its a tradition...for good luck...” I usually mumble, ducking quickly out of the conversation before anyone realizes I don’t know what I’m talking about. But recently I encountered a little blurb about collards, somewhere in a recipe book or magazine, groggily, in the middle of the night.
Collards, it said, are a prominent staple in Soul Food of the Southern United States because they have been traditionally grown and eaten in Africa, and seeds were brought over to this country by people enslaved by early Americans. I’ve always associated collards with southern cooking, but never given much thought to why. Collards are a cheap food that grows easily in hot southern weather, I just assumed. But having never grown any of my own, who am I to say such a thing? They are, after all, a member of the brassica family, many of which are notoriously difficult to grow. Were they instead a beloved crop, painstakingly nurtured in southern gardens as a reminder of life back in Africa by American slaves?
A quick bit of research didn’t really bring me an answer. The World Book Encyclopedia at my daughter’s elementary school mentioned nothing about collards coming to the US from Africa. Neither did Wikipedia or the handful of cookbooks I checked.
What some sources did say, though, is that collards are eaten for good luck because they look like money. At first that seemed utterly ridiculous. Collards look as much like money as cabbage leaves, chard, kale, spinach or plain old lettuce. But after sleeping on it for a night and studying another set of the greens, I can now say for sure that collards do have a color more similar to american currency than any other edible green. And with those white striations on their money colored leaves, I can envision myself doing a double take when passing a single collard, laying crumpled in the gutter of Irving street. So maybe that’s really it - collards are the color of money, and so we eat them in hopes of bringing on more. I’ll take a little of that kind of luck any day.
Braised Collards: (adapted from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone)
4 bunches collards or turnip greens, long stems and tough ribs removed
1/4 cup brown butter (see recipe below)
1 onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Bring a large pot with lots of salted water in it to boil while cleaning the greens. To clean them, wash each leaf, shake off the water, then grasp the thick end of the stem and pull your hand quickly toward the top of the leaf. This separates the leaf from the thick stem. Chop the leaves into 1-2 inch pieces, and then give them another rinse in your salad spinner if they look at all dirty or sandy.
When all are ready, drop the greens into the boiling water, wait for the water to return to a boil. Let them cook for about ten minutes, uncovered. Reserve a 1/2 cup of the cooking water, then dump them into a colander in the sink.
Heat the butter with the onions, garlic and pepper flakes in a large skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Let the mixture cook until softened, about ten minutes, but don’t let it brown. Add the greens, the reserved water and 1 teaspoon salt. Cook for 30 minutes and taste again for salt. In Deborah Madison’s words, “they can use a lot”.
Brown Butter: (adapted from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone)
1/2 cup butter
This is similar to clarifying butter, but you cook it longer, to make it brown. The flavor is nutty, much more complex than regular butter. Heat a skillet over low heat, melt the butter in it, and cook until the butter is a golden brown and smells toasty and nutty. Place a piece of cheesecloth in a sieve over a bowl, and pour the butter through once it is finished cooking. This will make a little more than 1/4 cup.