I’m not a superstitious person to say the least, but I can’t fight tradition. For as long as I can remember my family has eaten the southern staples every New Year for the first twenty years of my life and then I may have fallen of the bandwagon a few times between twenty-one and thirty but who’s counting?
It simply goes without saying that I’m a sucker for comfort food and the first of the year is just a really good reason to gorge on all of my favorite southern eats. Excuse me while I get sentimental for a moment, if you follow, you’re used to it. If not–you’ll learn. Imagine for a moment sitting on a worn in sofa, you know the one where it’s the only place you’ll take a nap despite the piercing spring you feel on your hip bone. There’s a quilt draped across the back side for easy access when the sudden urge to nap consumes you. The smell of crispy pork bits are filling the living room with a light smoke that dances beneath your nostrils. Lids are trembling from steam fighting through the pots of collards and black-eyed peas. The sizzle of butter around the sides of the cast-iron work its magic on the cornbread and in that moment–your heart is full and your stomach overwhelmed with anticipation.
See, back then New Year’s resolutions were but a thing of some other culture. It was never spoken of at our house. It was more about the blessings of being alive another year, surviving the trials and tribulations that life had brought us the previous year. Reliving the joyous moments of life events and looking forward to what the year would bring. If memory serves me well, I believe collard greens brought ‘good luck’ and I could say without hesitation that a bowl of potlikker and a hot piece of buttermilk cornbread would be a perfect last meal contender. And anyone graced with a bowl should consider themselves none other than lucky…or blessed. There’s nothing quite like it when you talk about southern foods.
But moving on, these collard greens are so easy to make that it’s a perfect side dish to accompany various meals. And I made them the way my great-grandmother used to with a nice slab of pork belly, but you may also use a ham bone or bacon if you please. I can even recall there being some ox tail in there a time or two, so as you wish. First, I pre-heat the oven to 450° and cook off the pork belly, skin side down for about twenty-minutes to render some of the fat off and get a nice sear. While that is cooking, I simply take three bunches of collards – I rinse them under cold water to remove any residual dirt that may be hanging around. I cut the stalk out of the center because it can be annoying to chew on, well at least for me, but hold onto them. Layer the greens, roll them, and cut them into 1/2 inch ribbons. Then take one quart of water and two cups of chicken stock or three bouillon cubes for two cups of water, the stalks and bring it to a boil. Throw in a couple teaspoons of kosher salt and Texas Pete…or Tabasco. Once the liquid begins to boil, remove the stalks and add the greens, cover the pot. I usually let the greens cook for about an hour and a half before I peel, chop and my turnips. If you put them in too early, they will turn to mush and that’s not acceptable. Allow the greens to cook for about two hours or so, though there are those who believe that they should be cooked twice as long, not I.
You can tell that the greens are done when you can penetrate them with a fork with ease, and they are tender. Not to mention, your eyes may involuntarily roll back into your head and your toes may curl. You’ll see what I mean. I love to eat greens with a hot pan of fresh made cornbread or lace hoe cakes, but my grandmother also ate them with a slice of white bread when the mood hit, so as you wish. This year has already been filled with so many changes and I’ve learned some new things about myself. Things that need improvement and things I didn’t even realize were there. Either way, I’m excited about making improvements for the better. I want 2015 to be a year filled with more ‘I dids’ instead of ‘I didn’t’s’. And I’m wishing the same for you this year. Discover something new about yourself and find ways to improve or maybe just enjoy what it is you discovered. But in the meantime, sit down and enjoy a hearty bowl of collard greens and pork belly, you deserve it.