The 4 Pieces of Kitchen Wisdom Found in a Pot of Greens

published Feb 21, 2017
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(Image credit: Guy Ambrosino)

There are stories of wise, mystic women stirring cauldrons to create potions and seek divinations. I get that. My cauldron, which is actually a big ol’ Le Creuset pot, is where I stir up a mess of greens with equal parts mastery and beginner’s mind. And then I get to eat them. Truth.

It’s inaccurate to say that all of my kitchen wisdom came from greens, but no other single ingredient has taught me more about how to approach fresh produce, which is my favorite thing to cook in this world.

(Image credit: Maria Siriano)

Lesson 1: Recipes are vital, but they can’t taste a thing.

A well-crafted recipe can guide us, often with great accuracy, to the ingredients and techniques that should produce the desired results, but only you can take a bite to assess how it all came together, and then make adjustments to your liking. The cook who wrote the recipe — no matter how brilliant and experienced — hasn’t tasted any of the ingredients on your kitchen counter today and will never stir your pot. Your responsibility (and privilege) is to receive the handoff and carry the recipe from there. Taste, taste, taste, and trust your instincts.

The cook who wrote the recipe will never stir your pot.

Lesson 1A: Going off script with smart ad-libs works well with a pot of greens and many other recipes, but it doesn’t apply to baking unless you are certain that your changes will not have regrettable and unintended consequences.

(Image credit: Melissa Ryan)

Lesson 2: Every pot of greens is exactly the same, but utterly different.

A proper pot of greens will be velvety, waltzing around in richly seasoned potlikker as complex and nuanced as wine, with bitter, sweet, heat, salty, and smoky taking turns leading. (Make no mistake — the power and glory of all greens lies in their potlikker. To say that potlikker is broth isn’t wrong, but it’s not all right either. It’s rather like referring to a wedding cake as a dessert.)

This means that each and every pot will include greens (obviously), full-bodied stock redolent from something smoked, sharp vinegar, hot peppers, glistening fat, a smidge of sweetener, and so forth.

But no two bundles of greens, pinches of pepper, and dollops of bacon fat are the same, so the proportions and cooking time depend on the needs of this particular pot, which is different from the last and the next. The disposition and demands of the ingredients are as valid as the recipe’s edicts. In this, cooking is diplomacy.

(Image credit: Christine Han)

Lesson 3: Never let a good idea get in the way of a great one.

I head out to buy groceries, armed with a strategic shopping and to-do list secured to a clipboard. I take pride and joy in striking through each task I complete and item I purchase. This level of organization makes me efficient and prepared as a shopper. As a cook, I know when to leave that clipboard in my Volvo and go rogue.

I never let a plan or a recipe keep me from making a better choice when I am lucky enough to come across one. Let’s say I’ve decided to cook Lacinato kale. I adore that kale; I crave it. I once carried a bouquet that included baby kale instead of fern fronds and baby’s breath. Lacinato kale is the bull’s-eye on my personal target of greens that lets me combine my dual passions for Southern and Italian food.

But if during an epic kale quest I come across a mess of frost-kissed collards coated in droplets of icy dew that shine like diamonds, with leaves the size of an outstretched palm dappled in emerald hues that remind me of a forest canopy on a summer day, then I am going to buy collards instead of kale (and be thankful for the gift of a superior option for my pot of greens).

(Image credit: Christine Han)

Lesson 4: You can lead a body to potlikker, but you can’t make them dunk.

You will sometimes make insanely delicious food that delights your body and soul, and other people won’t even taste it. This is neither your fault nor failing.

Let it go, and go refill your bowl with their portion.