Field of Greens - Recap

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Alton’s childhood fears followed a strict hierarchy. Right at the top of that list was “Mean Green”, the leafy vegetables his mother overcooked and then served him. Vegetables so awful smelling, so bad tasting, that even appendicitis seemed like a better choice. But thanks to a little AB ingenuity, Mean Green becomes Deep Green and... Good Eats.

Alton divides leafy vegetables into two groups: tender and hearty. For this episode he’ll focus on the hearty group, including collard greens, cabbage, kale and similar leaves. Most of these plants are from the family brassica, which also includes broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower.

Preparation and storage are the first and possibly most important step. Alton explains how to wash the leaves, which is essential to removing their “earthy” flavor. He uses no less than five inches of water is the key so the sand and soil can fall free instead of simply resettling back on the leaves. Then he dries the leaves carefully to remove all the water. A pillowcase and the spin cycle work well for this. Dry leaves can be refrigerated for at least a week. Alton prefers his greens fresh. Although the bagged greens can be used in a pinch, it’s difficult to see what evil might lurk in the bag so these are best used the day they’re bought.

Plants cells are tough and boxlike. They contain the vital nutrients but their tough cell walls make it hard to extract these. Cows solve the problem by chewing their food for a very long time. Fortunately, man has developed a faster method: cooking. A little bit of cooking softens the cell walls. A bit more breaches the cell walls and releases nutrients into the cooking liquid. Too much cooking breaks those nutrients down into pungent and unpleasant tasting chemicals called isothiocyanates. The right cooking time is vital to good flavor and good nutrition. Phytochemicals in these plants are proven to reduce the occurrence of cancer and may also guard against certain disorders associated with aging.

Greens have strong flavor so they need strong accents. Alton recommends four kinds: pungent, acid, creamy, and smoky. Pungent accents include garlic while acid accents include vinegar and lemon juice. Creamy accents are things like bleu cheese and smoky accents can be as simple as a smoked turkey leg or a smoked ham hock.

Alton demonstrates a smokey accent, in this case smoked turkey, with his Pot O’ Greens. He starts by putting a pound and a half or so of smoked turkey legs in large pot with a lot of water and covering the pot. That goes over medium high heat until it boils, then Alton simmers it for about ten minutes. While that’s going on Alton cleans a couple of pounds of collard greens (you can also use mustard) using the technique demonstrated earlier. Then he chops off the stems and cuts the leaves in half. When ten minutes have passed Alton adds the chopped greens to the pot along with some salt and some sugar and cooks them until they’re tender. That takes around forty five minutes. Every ten or fifteen minutes he stirs the greens. This, Alton says, can be served immediately or it can be frozen for a future time where there are no fresh greens.

Lemon Sesame Glazed Greens departs from the boiling approach. It’s a sautéed dish and it cooks very quickly, so Alton cautions viewers to make sure the ingredients are completely prepared for adding before starting. He starts with a pound or so of hearty greens – mustard or kale. He cleans them and chops off the stems, then roughly chops the leaves into large pieces. He puts a roasting pan over two burners and heats it over a medium burner. When it’s hot he adds some olive oil, then some garlic, lemon zest, lemon juice, honey, salt and pepper and stirs. When that’s mixed he adds the greens and sautés them for about five minutes. At the very end he adds red pepper flakes and sesame seeds and tosses everything together.

Alton’s last recipe demonstrates sautéed and baked greens in Mustard Green Gratin. He preheats his oven to 375º and then washes a pound of mustard greens, spins them dry and chops them into large pieces. Then he whisks together a batter of eggs, cheeses, salt and pepper. He puts a roasting pan over two burners set to medium and melts some butter in one corner. With the butter he cooks some garlic and mushrooms for about five minutes and then adds the greens. He cooks the greens until they wilt – about a quarter of their original volume. They should look like frozen spinach after it has thawed. When the greens have cooked down Alton mixes them with the egg batter and pours all that into a baking dish. He covers the mixture with crushed “round butter crackers” – he can’t say what kind they are but you’ll know them when you see their bright red box. The dish goes into the oven for just over half an hour until it is golden brown and delicious. Alton lets his rest for five minutes before he serves it.

Greens are a popular dish in the South, especially on New Year’s Day. They can be popular anywhere. Cook them correctly and your house may never know a visit from “Mean Green.”