Cooking Greens

By Lucinda Hutson
Photography by Lucinda Hutson

My grandmother loved Galatoire’s, the iconic New Orleans restaurant where customers have sipped Sazerac cocktails and enjoyed traditional French Creole fare like oysters en brochette, shrimp rémoulade and crabmeat maison for over a century. It was in Grandma’s honor that I slipped out of a recent conference to poke my head into this French Quarter establishment, even though I knew it wasn’t yet open for lunch.

A kind, ebony-skinned man with silver hair and an endearing shuffle invited me in. Immediately, the tantalizing aroma of Louisiana spices and simmering seafood engulfed me and made my tummy rumble.

I mentioned my grandmother’s deep love for the restaurant, which delighted him—he’d worked at Galatoire’s for well over 50 years and perhaps may have even served her. He led me into the kitchen and before I knew it, I was eating with the kitchen staff and waiters before their shift. We sat around a long, wooden table and crumbled cornbread—hot from a cast-iron skillet—into red beans and rice, then passed around a big bowl of collard greens to douse with vinegar and Louisiana pepper sauce. Like Grandma’s green beans, the collards had cooked so long they’d turned to mush, but I loved them anyway.

As food memories go, this one remains indelibly etched in my mind as a true soul-food experience. Thinking about it brings me comfort, just like eating collards and winter greens. And though my updated quick-cook methods have replaced the traditional Southern-style of slowly simmering greens laden with plenty of ham hocks, the soul still remains in the bowl (or on the plate).

Tender greens are great in salads, or add a big handful, cut into slender ribbons, to finish soups and stews. Sauté greens and garnish with garbanzos and a drizzle of balsamic. Toss with pasta or top a heap of cooked greens with roasted sweet potatoes or other veggies. Bake them au gratin with Parmesan and a splash of cream, or serve them as a side for roasted meats. Try greens with simple corn bread or with polenta, like the Tuscans, or awaken your taste buds with Chinese bok choi/pak choi mixed with Chinese mustard greens, fresh ginger, garlic, fiery chilies and tamari. These methods of preparing greens help retain their vivid color and high nutritive value.

Or step out of the kitchen for a green treat while eating out. Try Sampaio’s stir-fried collards accompanying feijoada, a hearty Brazilian black bean and pork stew, or the popular Ruby’s barbecue side dish, collards with caramelized onions.

During this season, my garden abounds with a plethora of soulful greens. Bright Lights chard with its ruffled emerald leaves and colorful stems of sunshine yellow, orange and magenta—or the rhubarb variety laced with scarlet—are as pretty in the garden as they are on a plate. The purple-and-green coarse-leafed mustards with their fiery flavor, lacinato kale with its dinosaur-skin texture (my favorite for soups) and crinkly kale make festive ornamental and edible partners.

For some, enjoying greens may mean a trip to the farmers market, but it’s worth it! Greens are simple food, comfort food, food that feeds the soul. Eat your greens and make Grandma proud.