That time we were so green about cooking mustard greens

About a year ago, we ended up with a last-minute mess of donated collard greens we wanted to serve at our takeout lunch ministry. We knew just who to call for guidance. JaNaé Swanson-Brown says she learned to cook her Southern-soul collards by first watching her mother and grandmother in Millen, Georgia, and then perfecting the art through her own “trial and error.”

In early February, we ended up with another big batch of greens – this time, mustards – that we wanted to cook for a senior ministry. We turned to JaNaé’s instructions once again. Read the recipe, then read the rest of the story.

JaNaé’s Georgia Greens

Serves 8

  • 3-4 pounds fresh collard, turnip, or mustard greens (or combination)
  • 1 one-pound smoked turkey leg*
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Vinegar to taste
  • Hot sauce to taste
  • Minced garlic to taste

Wash greens at least two times, including immersing them in water.
Strip or cut greens from stems, discarding the toughest parts. Chop or shred leaves, then chop reserved stalks.
In large pot, add meat. (*Traditional choices also include about 1 pound of ham hocks, 1-3 slices of salt pork, or a slice of fatback, scored to let the flavor out.)
Add enough water to cover meat. Season with salt, pepper, vinegar, hot sauce and garlic, beginning with small amounts at first. Simmer on low for 30 minutes.
Add washed, chopped greens to the pot with meat. Overfill the pot with as many greens as possible. Do not add more water yet. Put the lid on to cook the greens down.
Stir every 15-20 minutes. If water is cooked out, add more water, seasoning again to taste. Do not over-saturate the greens but allow the broth to concentrate while keeping the greens moist and stirred.
Once greens have cooked down, put the heat on lowest setting and cook for 1 hour, stirring occasionally and adjusting seasonings.

The rest of the story
Late on a Monday night, after a day spent picking mustard greens at the Henderson Settlement greenhouses, Mike and I were asking, “What did we get ourselves into?”

We learned about the greens from Casey Smith, who runs the United Methodist greenhouses in Frakes, Kentucky. Casey was preparing for a new season and the mustards had yet to be harvested or sold. They were ours if we would come get them, she said.

My husband Mike and I spent a snowy weekend helping Casey and then headed back home to Knoxville, Tennessee, with a carload of big, leafy, pungent mustards. Our plan was to throw them into crock pots for the night and then give them to Rocky Top United Methodist Church, which delivers a hot lunch to 33 seniors every week. Ol’ fashioned mustard greens sounded perfect for that population – fresh-picked just a couple of days before! Rev. Dave Henderson and Cecilia Henderson accepted our offer and were planning to cook pinto beans to go alongside.

But late on a Monday night, hours before we were to meet Dave with the stash, Mike and I were standing in our smallish kitchen with piles of greens everywhere. Piles of greens that needed to be washed and chopped, with no clear idea of how much it would take to get 33 servings.

So the washing and chopping commenced, with Mike leading the way because he adores greens and has cooked them more than I (although he’s more familiar with collards and kale). We used a salad-spinner to dry the leaves after their baths, before chopping. We had three crock pots ready to go. At the bottom of JaNaé’s recipe, there was this paragraph:

Crockpot: Same exact recipe, except you do it all at the same time instead of letting meat simmer first. Turn on low before bedtime, and it’ll be done in the morning.

We loaded up the crock pots as instructed (our chosen meat was salt pork, easier to find in our supermarket, left over and frozen from another recipe) and then went to bed. Yet an hour later, I went downstairs to check on the crock pots and became alarmed.

It was clear I hadn’t added enough water to the greens, which I was quickly able to remedy. However, the intense, biting aroma seemed too powerful, which I (erroneously) attributed to adding too much seasoning. The greens had also cooked down a lot, and I wasn’t sure we would have 30+ servings. I woke up Mike and told him we might have a problem.

A little bit of online research reassured us that the powerful bite was from the mustards themselves, which are stronger than other greens, and the seasonings and the cooking would eventually soften the aggression. I went back to the chopping block. We added more greens to the pots at 2 a.m., before returning to bed.

The next morning, our mustard greens looked and tasted the way we remembered them in the best Southern restaurants and at the best Southern momma kitchens. Dave later texted us, “The greens were a big hit. You can cook for us any time you want.”

And that’s all we needed to hear.

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