When my neighbor D had surgery on his hip a few years back and was facing several weeks of hobbling rehab, a few of us neighbors did what neighborly folks have done for centuries when one of their own is sick or otherwise laid up. Unbidden and unannounced, we arrived bearing platters of food, cramming his fridge full of chickens and casseroles and lasagnas and soups – all things easily reheated in the microwave by a confirmed bachelor with a gimpy leg.
We stockpiled him with a week’s worth of hearty comfort food, but man cannot live by pot pies alone. Or at least he shouldn’t. Thinking that perhaps D might welcome some vegetables, I made a big pot of the greens recipe that my dear friend and former neighbor Richard Brazier had passed on to me, before he himself passed on a year or so later.
I thought it fitting that it was a neighborhood recipe that I was sharing with D, but the hesitation and skepticism on his face when I delivered the steaming container of collard and mustard greens were unmistakable.
“All righty…” (awkward pause…) “And thank you…” he said, voice rising high in a syrupy sing-song tone as he hobbled back inside with my offering.
“Tell me what you think!” I chirped as I waved goodbye, hoping that he would at least try them.
The next time I saw D, a few days later, he looked at me a bit quizzically and cocked his head. Then he grabbed my arm in a strong, you-are-going-nowhere grip and stared me down. “I don’t know how you did it,” he said, “but somehow you channeled a 92-year old black woman. I haven’t had greens like that since my great grandma when I was a little boy.”
And then he broke into a huge smile and gave me a tremendous hug. To this day, it is far and away the best compliment I have ever received about my cooking.
The real credit goes to my friend Richard, though, who used to run Gee Bees catering in Oakland with his partner of 46 years, George. He was truly a dear of a man and I miss chatting with him over my side fence and hearing him pronounce that everything was just “wuuun-der-ful!” when you asked how he was doing.
When Richard taught me how to make these greens, we spent the entire evening together in his kitchen, hovering over the simmering pot as we gossiped about neighbors and sipped seemingly bottomless vodka tonics, his favorite. I have no doubt that Richard would be pleased that I am sharing the recipe, but as far as I know, this is the first time it’s been written down. You see, he showed me how to make the greens; we didn’t measure anything and I wrote nothing down at the time. I’ve made dozens of pots of greens since then, and they are slightly different every time.
This is my best description of how to do it:
Richard Brazier’s Authentic Oaktown Greens
Two big bunches of fresh greens w/stems, chopped
Using one bunch of collards and one of mustards works best, in my opinion, but feel free to use two bunches of collards or to throw in some kale, chard or beet greens, spinach, carrot tops — whatever you have around. At least half collards is a must, though.
One ham hock or shank
You can substitute a couple diced slices of bacon or some salt pork if that’s what you’ve got. To make a vegetarian version, omit the meat but do add some extra butter, a pinch of salt and a splash of Braggs Aminos if you have it.
1/2 a yellow onion, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
A good blurp of Worchestershire sauce, say, a tablespoon or so
A heavy dash of sweet paprika
Pepper to taste
Butter and/or olive oil
Put some butter and/or olive oil in a big soup pot and saute the onions and garlic on low heat along with the ham hock. When the fat starts to melt and the garlic and onions smell really good, add the Worcestershire and spices and a couple inches of water. Bring to a simmer on medium heat and then add the greens. Smash ’em down to make more room as they wilt. Simmer the greens on low for 2-3 hours, covered, stirring occasionally.
Don’t stray too far from the pot, because you need to keep a close eye on the water level. If you add too much water it will be too soupy, but be careful not to let the bottom burn dry. That will ruin the whole pot. Add water a half-cup at a time as needed. Conversely, if there’s too much water, take the lid off for a while and let it cook down a bit.
When the greens are cooked to your liking (I am not sure it is even possible to overcook greens), pull the pork piece out and trim off the fat and dispose of it. Save any usable bits of meat and chop them super small and add them back into the pot before serving.
Whatever you do, though, don’t waste the liquid at the bottom of the pot; it is called “potlikker” and it is awesome when sopped up by cornbread! Make sure there is some potlikker in every bowl – and yes, make sure to use bowls not plates or they will be swimming. Some folks pour the potlikker off into a glass and drink it – the original green power drink.
I usually cheat and make my greens in a pressure cooker in about 30 minutes instead of three hours. Here’s how: Sautee the onions and garlic with the pork in the pot, and then add the spices and one inch of water. Add all of the greens and smash them down so you can close the lid (don’t worry, they will shrink as they cook). Put the lid on and set the heat on high. When the rocker starts chugging steadily, start timing 25 minutes and reduce the heat so it is just enough to keep the rhythm. Turn the heat off when the time is up and be sure to let the pressure diminish before opening. Your pressure cooker may be a little different, so you might have to experiment, but that is what works in mine. (Don’t forget to add the meaty bits back into the pot!)
You can feed these greens to anybody who knows from greens, and even people who don’t usually like them often warm up to these. I can’t promise that you’ll channel anybody’s grandma, but you might very well have someone pronounce that they are wuuun-der-ful!