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The (non-political) Greens

September 11, 2008 - Eric Paddock
If you like vegetables — and I’ve already established that I like them even though I consider myself a little on the carni- side of omnivore — this is the best time of year.

OK, sure. Spring is pretty good for early peas, but that’s about it.

I’m talking about the whole cornucopia of garden produce — sweet corn; peppers of all shapes, sizes, colors and heat; broccoli (perhaps my favorite green); green beans; potatoes; tomatoes; and the list could go on until this web server goes full.

But the best part of fall’s contribution to epicuriean pursuits are without doubt the green leafy things.

I grew up south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and while Maryland doesn’t qualify as the Deep South, my family — particularly my mother’s side — cooked southern. That is, my mother, my aunt and my grandmother could make gravy from virtually anything and had a way with greens that defied description.

After I moved to Pennsylvania so many years ago, I’d plan my visits “home” in the early fall for a number of unrelated reasons, but also for the availability of kale. Invariably, my mom would ask me what I’d like for dinner on the porch. My answer was always the same: fried chicken, kale, mashed potatoes or grits and gravy.

Like many other people my tastes were already fully developed — and unalterable — by the time middle-age and cholesterol screenings entered my life. I grew up eating stuff that would make a cardiologist’s head spin.

The contents of our refrigerator contained all the usual rotations of dairy and meat, and the larder varied only slightly from week to week, but it did vary. The one constant however, was this green-fired quart-sized crock on the middle shelf. In it was the gold standard of seasoning, the mother of arteriosclerosis: bacon fat, rendered from countless high-calorie breakfasts.

The crock was always there, and while the level of its grease would magically ebb and then top off, it was never empty. When I was in college I calculated that the bacon grease in the bottom of that crock was likely as old as I was, perhaps older.

One of the things for which that grease was saved was the cooking of greens.

The Arlene Paddock formula for the greatest greens I ever ate follows:

— Place about a quart of water in a 12-quart kettle and bring to a simmer -- not a boil.

— Strip the tough stems from what seems like a bushel of fresh, crisp and dark green kale.

— Add as much kale as the kettle will hold and about three tablespoons of fat from the crock

— Cover

— Do yard work, laundry or read for “a while,” checking the contents of the pot every half-hour or so by giving it a stir with a long-handled spoon. As the level of kale goes down, add more and another measure of fat and “some” salt and pepper. Do this most of the day. Taste periodically.

Serve with vinegar on the table (although no one ever used it). The kale, which grows tough and somewhat bitter, becomes tender and savory. And, I rationalize, since green, leafy vegetables are supposed to be really good for you, it cancels out the unfortunate long-term effects the bacon fat may have on your health.

Thanks, Mom. The memory of your kale is just one tiny, wonderful example of what you left me.

Next: The Fifth Southern Food Group: Gravy


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