In these weeks when the leaves burn red and orange and the dim cover of twilight cuts too soon into the day, it is greens that give us hope. We plant them at the end of summer, an act of faith that even as the light goes and the cold wraps around, we will survive–and thrive. We see bright leaves of buttercrunch and big wings of collards growing in fields and next door and across the street, and they are an irrefutable proof, right before our eyes, of a life force that cannot be contained. Indeed, the frost makes them sweeter. Sometimes, we harvest them in the dark. What greater statement of faith could there be?
Most people I know celebrate the farmers’ markets in the summer, when cucumbers grow like party balloons and we are deluged with tomatoes as if caught in a Spanish tomato fight. Those are great days, all right, but nothing like the thrill I have now when I wander the dwindling market stands and find the ones that are bursting with a fall harvest. Instead of sulking at the thought of hydroponic pods and cringing over chemical fruit cocktails from another hemisphere, we are livened by local collards the size of diesel engines and salad mixes that invoke flavors as subtle as any wine.
Last week, at the Durham Farmers’ Market, many of the booths were rich with all kinds of greens. There were the standards–collard, mustard, turnip, kale, cabbage, salad, spinach. Even among those there were rich varieties: baby turnips with the most perfect, creamy white little bulbs, and sorrell, lemony to the taste, that melts like ice cream when sauteed in butter to bed under a piece of fish. And there was a bright sprig called creasy salad, a country favorite that one old gent told me smoothes his mustard and turnips when he cooks them all together. NCSU calls it upland cress.
As bitter as greens are when not cooked (and spicy when judiciously mixed in a salad), they are sweet as candy when cooked, slowly, in fatback or bacon grease or olive oil and garlic. And you can drink the pot liquor, a power drink unmatched by any protein shake.
So, when all else is dark and most plants are losing their leaves, remember that greens are fresh and crisp and young. As winter presses on, they will bear up, patiently waiting for the thaw. When the new year arrives, they will warm us and bring us luck and wealth.
This Saturday is the last weekend of the Durham Farmers’ Market. But others continue– the State Farmers Market in Raleigh is open every day, year ’round, and the Carrboro Farmers’ Market is having special hours from 2-6 p.m. this Tuesday for Thanksgiving. Get your greens now, before the light and warmth return and make us forget the days when we missed them.
There are all kinds of old-fashioned and nouvelle ways to cook greens. But here’s my favorite. You can substitute any greens you want.
Mary Beth Boney’s Collard Greens
Wash your collards 3 or 4 times in fresh water, draining them each time. (There’s nothing worse than gritty collards.) Then strip the leafy part from the stems and throw the stems to the chickens, if you got any. In a large pot fry down 1 lb. of fatback, thick bacon, or ham chunks til brown. Then add collards. Stir and fry all this until collards start to wilt. Add 2 cups of water and cook until tender. Add more water if necessary. Some people like a spoon of sugar in the water to sweeten the greens. Stir frequently on medium heat so they don’t burn.
—White Trash Cooking, By Ernest Matthew Mickler, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, Calif.