Greens and Southern cooking are to each other as apple pie is to a romanticized idea of America: completely inseparable. And without question, collard greens are one of the most well-known vegetables in the Southern cuisine canon; braising them for hours with ham hocks and other pork parts is a centuries-old tradition.
But there is so much more to Southern greens than just collards. Many leafy vegetables — from tender, quick-cooking chard and spinach to more sturdy, fibrous varieties, like turnip or dandelion greens and kale — can make for a delicious pot. It's what my great-grandmother would call "a whole mess o' greens."
Somewhere along the way people began thinking that Southern greens just meant collard greens. Nothing is further from the truth. Throughout the South, turnip greens, mustard greens, chard, and even kale can be cooked together to make up a pot of greens. It mostly depends on availability and what's in season.
This recipe uses three kinds of greens (mustard, collard, and chard), but feel free to use whatever suits your taste and what you can find.
They all cook down until they are buttery and tender and infused with the flavors of deliciously salty, meaty country ham. Like any good pot of greens they're spiked with vinegar and finished with red pepper flakes. Serve them with a biscuit for sopping up the delicious potlikker and pray you have leftovers for a repeat tomorrow.
The Rule of Three for a Better Mess of Greens
I like to make greens using my "greens in threes" rule. With this method, you are assured a great balance of flavor and texture and the greens will fit beautifully in a standard 12-inch cast iron pan. Pick three greens following this rule, then cook them down until glossy and tender in a seasoned broth.
- Start with a hearty, substantial green: Collard greens, with their meaty, velvety texture, are best.
- Add a bitter green: Mustard or dandelion greens are good ones. And don't forget any of the kales.
- Finish with a soft, tender green: Red or green chard or even spinach work here.
The Flavor of Pork
Smoky bits of pork make any pot of greens outstanding. To streamline this cooking process without compromising taste, I borrow a step from red-eye gravy and fry the country ham in the skillet first. The cured pieces are browned until the edges curl and then transferred to paper towels until they are added back at the end for a simple-yet-decadent finish.
No country ham? If you can't find country ham in your grocery store, get the deli counter to slice prosciutto about 1/3-inch thick. It will fry up and get crispy just like country ham.
Don't Forget the Biscuits
There's nothing more comforting than sopping up greens with a classic Southern biscuit. I love the simplicity of the great Nathalie Dupree's basic Southern biscuits recipe because it lets the greens shine. She uses three basic ingredients: self-rising flour, shortening, and buttermilk. This is what Nathalie says about her biscuits.
"This is the basic recipe most of the biscuit makers we know use, with our technique for shaping. For instance, Rebecca Lang's grandmother Tom had hands that could pull biscuits out of anything and could shape them by hand as if by magic. She would just kind of fondle the dough and it would come together. We use two different fats, for the lightness of one and the flavor of the other."
Southern Greens and Biscuits
For the greens:
3 tablespoons canola oil
3 to 4 (1/4-inch-thick) pieces country ham (about 1 pound, see Recipe Notes)
1 medium sweet or yellow onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, plus more as needed
1 bunch collard greens (1 1/2 to 2 pounds), ends trimmed and coarsely chopped
1 bunch mustard greens (1 to 1 1/2 pounds), ends trimmed and coarsely chopped
1 bunch Swiss chard (1 to 1 1/2 pounds), ends trimmed and coarsely chopped
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
Freshly ground black pepper
Heat a 12-inch skillet, cast iron preferred, over medium-high heat. Add the oil and heat until it starts to pop, about 1 minute. Add the ham and cook until browned and crisp on the bottom, 4 to 5 minutes. Flip and brown the other side, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate lined with a few layers of paper towel; set aside. (If making the biscuits, arrange a rack at the top of the oven and heat to 425°F.)
Add the onion and garlic to the grease in the skillet and cook until soft, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the vinegar, sugar, and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring occasionally, 2 to 3 minutes more.
Add the collards and cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to wilt, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the mustard greens and stir to wilt, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the chard and stir to combine.
Reduce the heat to medium and add the broth. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the greens are soft and most of the liquid is gone, 20 to 25 minutes. Meanwhile, bake the biscuits (recipe below).
Taste and season with salt, pepper, and a pinch more pepper flakes as needed. Break the ham into little pieces. Place on top of the greens and serve with the biscuits.
Basic Southern Biscuits
Butter, softened or melted, for brushing
2 1/4 cups self-rising flour, divided
1/4 cup chilled shortening, lard, and/or butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1/4 cup chilled shortening, lard, and/or butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 cup whole milk or buttermilk, divided
If you have not already done so, arrange a rack at the top of the oven and heat to 425°F. Make sure there is enough space above the rack for the biscuits to rise. If there isn't, move the rack down one space.
Select the baking pan by determining if a soft or crisp exterior is desired. For a soft exterior, use an 8- or 9-inch round cake pan, pizza pan, or ovenproof skillet where the biscuits will nestle together snugly, creating the soft exterior while baking. For a crisp exterior, select a baking sheet or other baking pan where the biscuits can be placed wider apart, allowing air to circulate and create a crisper exterior; brush the selected pan with butter.
Place 2 cups of the flour in a large bowl, preferably wider than it is deep, and whisk to aerate. Scatter the 1/4-inch pieces of chilled fat over the flour and work in by rubbing fingers with the fat and flour as if snapping thumb and fingers together (or use 2 forks or knives, or a pastry cutter) until the mixture looks well-crumbled.
Scatter the 1/2-inch pieces of chilled fat over the flour mixture and continue snapping thumb and fingers together until no pieces remain larger than a pebble. Shake the bowl occasionally to allow the larger pieces of fat to bounce to the top of the flour, revealing the largest lumps that still need rubbing. The quicker, the better. If this method takes longer than 5 minutes, move the bowl to the refrigerator for 5 minutes to re-chill the fat.
Make a deep well in the center of the flour mixture with the back of your hand. Slowly but steadily stir 3 ⁄4 cup of the milk or buttermilk into the well. With a rubber spatula or large metal spoon, and using broad circular strokes, quickly stir the flour into the milk. Mix just until the dry ingredients are moistened and the lumpy, sticky dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl. If there is some flour remaining on the bottom and sides of the bowl, stir in 1 to 4 tablespoons of the remaining 1/4 cup milk or buttermilk, just enough to incorporate the remaining flour into the shaggy, wettish dough. If the dough is too wet, use more flour when shaping.
Lightly sprinkle a work surface with some of the reserved flour. Turn the dough out onto the board and sprinkle the top of the dough lightly with flour. With floured hands, fold the dough in half and pat it into a 1/3- to 1/2-inch-thick round, using a little additional flour only if needed. Flour again if necessary and fold the dough in half a second time. If the dough is still clumpy, pat and fold a third time.
Pat the dough into a round: 1/2-inch thick for normal biscuits, 3/4-inch thick for tall biscuits, or 1-inch thick for giant biscuits. Brush off any visible flour from the top. For each biscuit, dip a 2-inch biscuit cutter into the reserved flour and cut out the biscuits, starting at the outside edge and cutting close together, being careful not to twist the cutter. The scraps may be combined to make additional biscuits, although they will be tougher.
Using a metal spatula if necessary, transfer the biscuits to the prepared pan or baking sheet. Bake the biscuits for 6 minutes. Rotate the pan from front to back and check to see if the bottoms are browning too quickly. If so, slide another baking pan underneath to add insulation and retard browning. Bake until the biscuits are light golden-brown, 4 to 8 minutes more.
Remove from the oven and lightly brush the tops of the biscuits with more butter. Flip the biscuits out upside-down on a plate to cool slightly. Serve hot, right side up.
Recipe used with permission from Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart.
- Ham substitution: If you can't find country ham in your grocery store, get the deli counter to slice prosciutto about 1/4-inch thick. It will fry up and get crispy just like country ham.
- Storage: Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.