I hated greens when I was a child. But then I also hated sweet potatoes, bananas, Mexican food, beets and liver. My mother didn’t like greens, either, but she served them to us on occasion because she knew they were good for us. So, nobody was happy to see that side item come to the table.
Now I love them. Greens aren’t limited to the meat-and-two and soul food restaurants; the toniest restaurants serve them. And everyone seems to have their own take on them.
Chef/owner Peggy Brown makes traditional greens at Peggy’s Healthy Home Cooking, but she doesn’t use animal fat. Hers are made with olive oil, red pepper flakes, chicken broth and onions. She usually cooks turnip greens, but sometimes
substitutes collards and mustard greens. She might add some spinach, too.
Describing her greens, Brown said, “That was what my grandmama cooked there in the country. I just replace the fat meat with olive oil. People have become health conscious now.”
After thoroughly cleaning them, Brown cooks the greens until they’re tender and “not slick,” for 3 to 3½ hours. She cooks them in a heavy, stainless steel pot with a cast iron bottom. “It distributes heat better.”
The pot liquor, the juice left after cooking, is a special treat. Brown watches customers pick up the bowl and drink the juice after they’ve eaten the greens. The usual way of finishing off the pot liquor is to crumble up cornbread, mix it with the juice and eat it like soup, Brown said.
She remembers when her mother and grandmother used to pick wild greens, including dandelion greens, in the country, but that was a long time ago. “All the fields where I was growing up now have a subdivision on them.”
I tried a fancier version of greens at The Elegant Farmer. These come on a plate, not a bowl. There’s no pot liquor. They have a sweet, but not cloying, taste.
Jon Olswanger, who sat at the table next to me, said he’s eaten greens all around the world and considers The Elegant Farmer’s his second favorite. They bring back a “sensory memory” of his favorite greens, which are at Cafe Flora in Seattle.
Chef/owner Mac Edwards uses seasonal greens: collards, turnips or mustard. “As local as I can get them,” he said. He also uses caramelized onions and garlic and brown sugar and cider vinegar. In place of pork, he uses smoked and dried chilies from Sparkling River Pepper Co. in Arkansas.
Edwards cooks the greens only one hour because he wants them to be “a little toothy.” Instead of mushy, he wants them to have “a little bite.”
Felicia Willett uses collard greens from Woodson Ridge Farms or Whitton Farms at her restaurant, Felicia Suzanne’s, for her BBB (Bacon, Budweiser, Brown Sugar) Southern Cooked Greens. “I just like the flavor of a collard vs. the mustard,” she said. “It’s a little bit milder and it holds up in the cooking and doesn’t get mushy.”
Willett removes the center rib — the least favorite part of collard greens, and finely chops the rest. In a stock pot, she adds a couple of tablespoons of bacon fat, some thinly sliced yellow onions and a little salt and pepper.
After the onions cook, she adds Creole mustard, brown sugar, chilies and Budweiser beer. “It’s just a mild beer. It’s not like Guinness or some of those dark Abitas.”
The beer is an acid, she said. “It brings out the flavor of everything else. I add the ham hocks and then I add those greens.”
She serves her greens in little cast iron skillets and puts toasted cornbread on top “to sop up that liquid.”
Willett fills a big jar with peppers when they’re in season, pours warm white vinegar over them and lets them sit for about a month. “We strain it in a wine bottle with a spout.”
When you order greens at Felicia Suzanne’s, the server comes over and offers you pepper sauce from the wine bottle. Willett refers to it as “tableside pepper sauce.”
Peggy’s Healthy Home Cooking is at 326 S. Cleveland; 901-474-4938.
The Elegant Farmer is at 262 S Highland; 901-324-2221.
Felicia Suzanne’s is at 80 Monroe; 901-523-0877.