I won’t mince words. I’m not sure there is an uglier food than stewed greens. As a child, when we would go to Luby’s for dinner, I would stare at the vat of greens, usually in between the fried okra and macaroni and cheese (obvious winners in my book) and think, “Who in the world would ever eat stewed greens?”
As it turns out, I would eat stewed greens.
It took a long time and a trusted family connection for me to willingly take a fork full of soggy, marsh-like greens and put them on my plate. And, if I’m honest, I only took a bite because I didn’t want to offend. Timm’s grandfather was an avid gardener, and he had grown and cooked the greens on my plate, so I felt the least I could do was take an obligatory bite. When I did, I was instantly a fan.
When done correctly, stewed greens are sweet with a smoky undertone and a distinctive bite depending on which kind of green you choose. Typically, when people refer to stewed greens, they are talking about collard greens. However, turnip greens and mustard greens (or any combination of the three) work equally well in this recipe. I particularly like adding at least one bunch of mustard greens because they have a spicy bite that I enjoy.
I learned to make greens by watching Timm’s grandfather, asking him questions, and writing down notes as best I could on a piece of scrap paper I found on his counter. His instructions were a bit vague, as would be expected from someone who has prepared something from memory literally hundreds of times. He told me to render down some bacon, very slowly cook some onion (make sure it doesn’t brown!), and then to add the greens. He showed me how the water from rinsing the greens was all the liquid you would need in the pan. “Then,” he said, “you put the lid on and walk away.”
Easy enough, right?
It took a few times cooking greens on my own for me to find the magic. In my experience, it is very important to use applewood smoked bacon, and even more important that everything is cooked on medium to medium-low heat. We are slowly heating the bacon, rendering as much fat as possible. We are slowly sweating the onion, allowing it to mellow and become sweet without ever becoming brown. Then we are adding greens, dripping with water from being well-rinsed in the sink (greens are notoriously sandy and grit-filled), and watching them shrink down to almost nothing.
If you follow this method, never in a hurry, never rushing it, you will be rewarded with a pot of greens that is smoky, sweet, and meltingly delicious. I usually do not even add any salt (which, if you know me, is quite out of character), but I have found the salt from the bacon is plenty of seasoning. If you choose to season the greens, wait until they are fully cooked. Otherwise, you risk over-salting as the liquid and greens will concentrate as they cook.
One of the beautiful things about greens is once they are cooked, they can hang out on your stove for a long time. No need to worry about over-cooking them…that’s kind of the point. The longer they cook, the better they get. Keep the lid on to make sure there is all the liquid possible in the bottom of the pot.
I have written this recipe for three bunches of greens, which will seem like an absurd amount of foliage in your refrigerator. However, it will shrivel down and barely feed six people amply. If you are serving a crowd, and if you have the room in your fridge, doubling this recipe is not the worst idea in the world.
While there are a number of wonderful menus that would go well with stewed greens, I typically serve them alongside black eyed peas and buttermilk cornbread on New Year’s Day. I think Timm’s grandfather would approve.
- 4 slices applewood smoked bacon, chopped
- 1 onion, chopped
- 3 bunches greens (collard, turnip, or mustard)
- Remove the greens from their thick stem. If you like, you can also tear or chop the greens into smaller pieces. Most of the time, I don’t bother.
- Once your greens are off of the stem, wash them very well in a sink full of water or in a large bowl. Depending on how sandy your greens are, this might take a couple of rounds of rinsing to remove all of the grit. When your greens are clean, you do not need to dry them. The water from the rinsing will facilitate the steaming process.
- In a large pot over medium-low heat, add the bacon and onion. We want to very slowly sweat the onion in the bacon fat, taking care not to allow the bacon or the onion to take on color. We don’t want raw onion or raw bacon, but we don’t want it brown either. When done, the cooked bacon will look pale, and the onions will have a glassine quality.
- At this point, add all of the wet greens to your pot. It’s going to look like they won’t fit, but keep going. Press them down. Use tongs to rotate the bottom to the top. Little by little as the greens heat and wilt, you will be able to put the lid on the pot.
- Cook the greens, covered, for 20-25 minutes.
- Once the greens have wilted and are a beautiful marshy green, taste them for seasoning. Most of the time the salt from the bacon is ample seasoning, but if you think they need more, add some salt to taste. Cover the pot and turn the heat as low as possible. With the lid on, the cooked greens can hang out on your stove as long as you need them to.
- If you like, you can add a ham hock or other smoked meat to the greens while they cook. This is not necessary, but it adds a nice smokiness to the finished greens.