I am a born-and-bred Southerner who surely spent at least one past life in Italy. I am deeply devoted to both Southern and Italian cuisines and am convinced they have the same soul.
I often apply the techniques of one to the ingredients of the other. That explains why I make my Hoppin' John — an iconic Southern dish — like risotto, creating a large pot of creamy rice and field peas studded with sausage. To continue the theme, I top each serving with a heaping spoonful of collard pesto.
Although we often think of pesto as made only from basil, it comes in many forms, such as this delicious version made from collards. It's perfect with the Hoppin' John risotto, but it can be served in any way you'd serve any other pesto. Collard pesto holds its vibrant color for days.
The collards should be small and tender, about the size of an outstretched hand. If the only collards you can find are larger, they must be extremely fresh with good color, pliant leaves, and clean edges. If you cannot find fresh collards of any size, use fresh Tuscan kale (aka black kale, dinosaur kale, or lacinato kale) instead. No type of frozen greens will work in this recipe.
Don't skip the collard pesto; it's heavenly and pulls the dish together.
Hoppin' John Risotto with Collard Pesto
4 to 5 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
12 ounces uncooked sweet or hot Italian sausage
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more as needed
1 cup chopped onion, from about 1/2 large onion
1/2 cup chopped red bell pepper, from about 1/2 large pepper
1/2 cup chopped celery, from about 2 large stalks
1 1/2 cups Arborio, Carnaroli, or Carolina Gold rice (10 ounces)
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 cups cooked field peas, such as black-eyed peas
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
Kosher salt and ground black pepper, to taste
Collard Pesto, for serving (recipe follows)
Bring the stock just to a simmer in a medium saucepan and keep warm over low heat.
Remove the casings from the sausage links. Break the meat into marble-sized pieces, like little meatballs. Heat the oil in a large skillet or wide saucepan over medium heat. Add the sausage and cook until the meat is no longer pink, about 10 minutes. Transfer with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat. (If you happen to have particularly lean sausage, add more olive oil to make up the difference.)
Heat the fat over medium-high heat. Stir in the onion, bell pepper, and celery and a pinch of salt. Cook until softened, stirring often, about 8 minutes. Add the rice and stir to coat each grain in the fat. Cook, stirring slowly and continuously, until the outside of each grain is shiny and translucent with a tiny white dot in the center, about 2 minutes. Stir in the wine and cook until it evaporates.
Reduce the heat to medium, Add 1 cup of the warm stock and cook, stirring slowly and steadily, until the rice absorbs the liquid. Continue adding stock 1/2 cup at a time, stirring all the while and letting the rice nearly absorb the stock before adding more. When done, the rice should be tender, yet a little firm in the center of each grain (like pasta al dente). The rice should be suspended in thick, creamy sauce. You might not need all of the stock. The entire process should take about 25 minutes.
Remove the risotto from the heat and stir in the peas, sausage, butter, parsley, and cheese. Check the seasoning, but the sausage probably contains all the salt and pepper the risotto needs. Serve at once, topped with a sprinkling of cheese and a generous spoonful of collard pesto.
10 ounces small, tender, fresh collards
2 large garlic cloves
2 tablespoons chopped green olives
2 tablespoons chopped oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes
1/4 cup chopped pecans, lightly toasted
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper, or to taste
Big pinch of cayenne pepper or crushed red pepper flakes
Strip the collard leaves off the stems and tough inner ribs. Coarsely chop the leaves; you should have about 5 lightly packed cups. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the collards and cook until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain them in a colander and rinse under cold running water until cool. Drain well and transfer into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade.
Add the garlic, olives, tomatoes, pecans, cheese, and vinegar and pulse until the mixture is finely chopped. With the machine running, add the oil in a slow, steady stream until the pesto is smooth and thick. Season with the salt, pepper, and cayenne. Serve at room temperature.
Make-ahead note: You can make the pesto up to one week ahead. Store covered and refrigerated. Return to room temperature for serving.
Sheri Castle is an award-winning food writer, recipe developer, recipe tester, and culinary instructor. She is the author of The New Southern Garden Cookbook: Recipes for Enjoying the Best from Homegrown Gardens, Farmers' Markets, Roadside Stands and CSA Farm Boxes. Sheri is known for melding storytelling, humor, and culinary expertise, so she can tell a tale while making a memorable meal. She hails from the Blue Ridge Mountains but now lives in Chapel Hill, NC with her husband, daughter, and beloved dog. She is fueled by farmers' market fare and excellent bourbon. Check her out at www.shericastle.com.
(Images: Faith Durand)