Peter

Collard Greens

Collard Greens

 

Collard Greens can stir up some animated conversations about an otherwise unassuming bunch of braised field greens. Lordy me! Seems you either love them or hate them, depending on which side of the Mason-Dixon line you happen to come from. That said, collard greens are real comfort food here in the American south. Their legacy reaches way back to native American diets before Europeans ever set foot here in the new world. Wild greens such as purslane, sorrel, poke, lamb’s quarters, dandelion, and chicory were all staples in the native American diet long before the loose leaf cultivars we call collard greens were planted in fields throughout the American south well before the civil war.

 

Collard Greens

Collard Greens

 

Traditionally collards are slow cooked with bacon fat and ham hocks, which are optional, along with some dried red chile flakes. The resulting braised deep green collards are swathed in a savory broth affectionately called “potlikker” here in the south.

Collard greens are in fact one of the most nutritious greens you could ever eat, They are rich in protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, as well as being low in calories. So whatever your preconceptions may be about collard greens, you owe it to yourself to give them another try. Simple to prepare and ideal fare throughout the growing season. The aroma of braising collards as well as their rich earthy green flavor is sure to win you over.

I prefer omitting the animal fats and meats when I braise collards , but if you are traditionalist by all means include them.

 

Collard Greens aka …a mess of greens with potlikker (Basics)

Unlocking the deep flavors of collard greens is very straight forward. The secret couldn’t be simpler. By following the wisdom of generations of southern cooks, you want to braise these cut greens at at a very low simmer while being mindful of the texture of the greens as they braise.

Ingredients:

  • 2 ½ pounds collard greens, center ribs removed
  • 3 tablespoons bacon fat (optional), or olive + more for finishing
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • ½ to 1 teaspoon dried red chile flakes
  • 2 oz ham hock or bacon, chopped (optional) ,or substitute 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 ¾ quarts stock or water
  • freshly ground black pepper and salt to taste
  • lemon wedges for serving

Needed: A large deep braising pan with lid.

Prepare the collard leaves before you begin cooking.

Using a sharp knife, cut out the center rib from the leaves lengthwise and discard them. Stack the leaves lengthwise and then roll them up lengthwise. Slice the rolled up leaves crosswise into ¾ inch slices. Then unfurl the slices and toss them together in a large bowl and set aside.

Place the braising pan on the stove top set at medium heat. When the pan is hot add the bacon fat or olive oil. When the fat is hot add the onions and saute for several minutes until the onions are softened and translucent. Then add the ham hocks or bacon if using, or the smoked paprika. Season with salt, and chile flakes, and stir to combine, and saute for a minute or so.

Add the stock or water to the pan, raise the heat, and cook until the broth is simmering.

Then add the sliced collards . Once the broth returns to a boil, reduce the heat so the broth is barely simmering. Partially cover the pan with the lid. Adjust the heat to maintain a very low simmer and braise until the collards are well cooked but still retaining a slight firmness. Cooking time will vary depending on the age and size of the collard leaves used, but somewhere between 45 minutes to 1 ½ hours.

Serving:

Serve the collards hot out of the pot along with some potlikker.

Taste and season with salt and pepper, and a spritz of olive oil and lemon juice.

Martha’s Black Walnut Cake

 

Martha was our next door neighbor when we were growing up in rural Lancaster County Pennsylvania. I didn’t know much about cooking back then, but we kids always enjoyed having lunches together in Martha’s kitchen. The radio was usually on and supper preparations were already well under way, so there were usually some enticing aromas wafting above the kitchen table. The whole idea of cooking and the pleasures of those long gone lunches have lingered and shaped my own thoughts about food and cooking.

Every fall, around late October or early November, we kids would help Martha collect the walnuts that fell from the black walnut trees in front of our houses. To us they looked like icky leathery decomposing green balls with a gross acrid odor that were begging to be kicked at one another. Of course what was encased inside those retched balls were Martha’s prized cache of black walnuts that would later be baked into her sublime black walnut cakes.

What we didn’t know then was that those Black walnuts that fell from our trees were from native north American black walnut trees. Black walnuts have a unique assertive flavor unlike the larger milder English walnuts that are commonly found in baked goods and in the baking section of your local grocery stores. Shelled black walnuts are smaller and have a distinctly unique walnut flavor all their own. I urge you to seek them out for this recipe that follows. If you don’t have a source where you live, they are available online. If that is not an option, toasted English walnuts will do in a pinch, though there really is no comparison.

Back home, once our walnuts were gathered up we put them in an oblong rectangular wooden tray with a wire mesh screen bottom. The walnuts were then put up to air cure until the green skin blackened and was soft enough to pull away revealing the hard black walnut nestled inside. This was very messy business and wearing rubber gloves was a must to avoid having sticky black stained hands.

The hulled walnuts were then set out to cure for several days before cracking the shells with a small hammer and meticulously removing the prized walnuts inside. This was very tedious work that we kids usually quickly lost interest in, leaving Martha to finish the harvesting all on

her own.

 

That said, all the laborious preparations do pay off handsomely once you are digging into a slice of Martha’s gloriously moist and delicious black walnut cake. I try to make Martha’s black walnut cake every fall so I can revisit those fond memories from my childhood spent in Martha’s kitchen all over again.

For this recipe I have referenced a penciled recipe from Martha herself along with some of my own recollections.

Martha’s Black Walnut Cake:

  • 4 ounces unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 cups flour
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 2 cup chopped black walnuts
  • confectioners sugar for dusting.

 

Preheat the oven to 350 f/ 180 c

 

Prepare a 9 or 10 inch round or a 13 x 9 inch rectangular baking pan, buttered and the bottom lined with parchment paper.

Using either a stand mixer or a hand mixer and large mixing bowl, cream together the butter and the sugar until light and fluffy. Then add one egg at a time, mixing in each until combined into the butter sugar mixture. Then beat in the vanilla.

 

In a separate bowl combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt and stir until combined.

With the mixer set on low speed begin adding a third of the flour mixture alternately with an equal part of the milk and mixing until combined before adding the second and third additions of flour mixture and milk. Try not to over mix the batter so it retains its airiness.

Then using a silicone spoon fold in the walnuts by hand until evenly distributed throughout the batter.

 

Spoon the cake batter evenly into the prepared baking pan. Shake the pans slightly to even out the batter.

Transfer the pan to the preheated oven and bake for about 40 to 45 minutes. Test by inserting a skewer into the center of the cake. If the skewer comes out clean the cake is done. Keep an eye on the timing so the cake is not over baked which will dry it out.

 

Transfer the cake pan to a wire rack and allow to cool to room temperature.

When the cake has cooled you can place a plate over the baking pan. Then, holding both the plate and the pan together, flip them over and remove the baking pan. Gently peal off the parchment and let the cake cool a bit longer.

 

When you are ready to serve, dust the walnut cake with confectioners sugar and serve.

You can store the cake, tightly sealed with cling film at room temperature for several days, or refrigerated for up to a week. However, from my experiences, this cake is not going linger much past when first served! Everyone’s going to want seconds!

Southern Raised Buttermilk Biscuits

Southern Raised Buttermilk Biscuits

 

The thought of being house bound for the foreseeable future is a dilemma that everyone is facing during these uncertain times.  This pause in our daily lives is an ideal time to reflect and redirect our energies into activities that reinforces a sense of stability and purpose.  If you love to cook, I’ve found, spending focused time in the kitchen always centers your resolve and restores balance when times get tough. 

So here I am housebound in Raleigh, North Carolina with plenty of time to reacquaint myself with some favorite regional Southern home cooked dishes that I can then share with y’all.

There are indeed some quirky names for dishes here in the south you may have never heard of, but just follow along! Southern cooking grew out of a melding of European, African, and native American influences that make it as fascinating as it is delicious!

Whenever biscuits are mentioned here in the south almost everyone has vivid memories of billowy flaky biscuits hat are synonymous with

home sweet home and their Mama’s recipe.

 

 

Biscuits date back to Roman times, though they were then utilitarian hard twice baked unleavened wafers used to feed deployed soldiers on lengthy campaigns. A few centuries later the English were making their version of similar biscuits that were stowed away on ships setting off on expeditions to the new world. Biscuits arrived with English settlers when they established colonies in North America. But it wasn’t until the antebellum years prior to the American civil war in the 1860’s that the biscuits we now associate with the American south came into being. Biscuits baked with newly refined wheat flours and leavening agents in plantation kitchens produced lighter lofty southern biscuits that became the precursors of the raised Southern buttermilk biscuits we associate with the American south today.

Home cooks throughout the American south take great pride in their light buttery risen biscuits. Old family biscuit recipes are closely held and passed down from generation to generation. These recipes are all similar, though the real secret to making truly light airy biscuits is in the handling of the dough. It is a sensory lightness of touch and a feel for working, but not overworking, the chilled butter or fat into the flour before liquid is introduced into the mix that will produce  truly light risen biscuits. The dough is then gently gathered together and folded over itself several times to create billowy layers of dough. Once the biscuits are cut and in the oven the steam from the melting butter or fat encased within the layers of dough provides the lift required for those heavenly southern biscuits coming out of the oven, even in your very own kitchen! So let’s get baking!  

Biscuits straight from the oven are an important part of any self respecting breakfast here in the south. As pictured here at Big Ed’s in Raleigh, Biscuits along with smoke house country ham, red eye gravy, scrambled eggs, and grits!   Dig in!

Raised Southern Buttermilk Biscuits ( basics)

Makes 10 biscuits

Needed; a baking sheet and a 2 ¼ inch metal circular biscuit cutter

Preheat the oven to 425 F / 218 c

 

  • 2 cups all purpose flour 
  • 3¼ teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
    3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small piece, well chilled
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable shortening( or lard), well chilled
  • ¾ cup full fat buttermilk,chilled (see note below) 

Note: If you are adverse to using vegetable shortening or lard, substitute with butter.

 

In a mixing bowl combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar and whisk together.

Add the chilled butter cubes and the vegetable shortening (or lard) to the bowl. Using a fork, or your finger tips, work the fat into the flour mixture. Once  the mixture comes together and looks like large crumbs and you can still see bits of fat in the mix, stop. Don’t be tempted to over work the mix as the bits of fat left in tact will ensure that the biscuits will be rise nicely when baked.

Make a well in the center of the flour and butter mixture and add the buttermilk. Using a fork, work the flour mixture into the buttermilk until the mixture just comes together. The dough will be very moist and shaggy.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and lightly dust the top with a little more flour.Then gently knead the dough together just until all the flour is worked into the dough. Then press the dough out and fold the dough back onto itself. Give the dough a quarter turn, press it out and again fold the dough back onto itself. Repeat this sequence two or three more times.

Then using the palm of your hand gently flatten the dough into a ¾ inch thick circle.

Using the biscuit cutter dipped in flour, cut the dough into rounds, without twisting the cutter. Place the cut biscuits on the baking sheet. Gather the remaining dough together and again flatten into a ¾ inch thick circle and cut out the remaining biscuits and place them on the baking sheet. Arrange the biscuits close together, but not touching.

Transfer the baking sheet to the preheated oven and bake until the biscuits have risen and are lightly browned, about 15 to 18 minutes.

Promptly remove the biscuits from the oven and set aside for a few minutes and serve while still warm.

Note: If you don’t have buttermilk on hand a recipe follows . It couldn’t be simpler.

  • 1 cup full fat milk
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar (Bragg’s if available)

Pour the milk in a small glass bowl and add the vinegar. Give it gentle stir to blend and set aside for 15 or 20 minutes until it thickens.

 

I will be posting recipes for favorite regional Southern classics throughout the summer.

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Fresh Epazote

Fresh Epazote

 

I was so surprised to find fresh Epazote so readily available here in the US if you know where to look for it.

It really doesn’t take much to get me excited when it comes to finding unusual ingredients that are readily available and have no substitutes. Epazote is certainly one of those ingredients and sorely missed in favored rustic Mexican dishes while living in Thailand.

Epazote ( dysphania ambrosioides) is a lush green wild herb, or weed if you will, that originates from southern Mexico, but can be found growing throughout Central America, parts of South America, and in temperate zones in North America. Epazote is a nahuat word that roughly translates as “stinky sweet” in the nahuate language of the Aztec and Maya cultures. That may not be the most enticing description to peak one’s curiosity, but perhaps epazote’s culinary heritage may be convincing enough for the adventurist cook in you to give it a try.

Epazote has been used since ancient times as a culinary ingredient as well as for medicinal remedies. It’s piquant flavor is unique and defies categorization. I would loosely describe epazote’s flavor as resinous or medicinal, with assertive notes of fennel or anise, followed with a minty peppery finish. It is an acquired taste for some, but an essential flavor for those with a seasoned Latin palate.

Epazote’s contributions to Mexican cuisine can be traced back through the centuries. It is Mexico’s indigenous ingredients and unique flavor sensibilities that have contributed to the evolution of tradition Mexican food into one of the most fascinating cuisines in the world.

Epazote has had many names over the centuries including payqu, herba santae, Jesuit’s tea, Mexican tea, wormseed, and the list goes on and on. Added to soups, stews, frijoles de la olla (beans cooked in a clay pot), Oaxaca moles, pork or iguana barbacoas from Chiapas and the Yucatan, as well as a flavoring chocolate, and an ideal footnote when added to enchiladas, quesadillas, papas, tamales, and for wrapping local cheeses.

Epazote’s introduction into Mexican cooking is credited to some ancient cooks who realized epazote’s capacity for reducing flatulence and bloating following a robust meal that included hearty portions of cooked beans!

If you are in doubt try this recipe for home cooked beans. (click here).

Another favorite recipe using is epazote is Papazules from the Yucatan (click here)

Fresh epazote can be found at Mexican markets, some specialty super markets, and online, as well as growing wild along the road or in vacant lots. If you are a gardener, epazote grows like a weed and ideal to have on demand just outside your kitchen door!
If fresh epazote is not available dried epazote is acceptable, but without the full flavor of the fresh.

The magic of epazote awaits. Buen proveco!

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