Last week I mentioned in this space how we eat a lot of greens down here in the Black Belt. I am sure other people in other places also eat a variety of greens. There are even people up north who try and serve greens. I doubt they cook them right, and their family probably won’t eat them, but they try.
I was bragging about how I was taught how to cook turnips by one of the best cooks in Possum Bend, and much to my surprise I received an email asking for the recipe. That is when I realized I do not have a recipe. There are no written down instructions.
It is more of a method, or a technique. And I am not out to start an argument amongst cooks across the state of Alabama. There are several variations of the right way to cook greens. Not as many ways as there are to cook them wrong, but several, and they all start with two basic necessities – a big pot and several hours.
Because of the time involved, nobody makes turnips for people they don’t care about. The decision to cook turnips is a commitment. And there is a whole lot more to it than adding bacon. If your secret ingredient is bacon, you don’t have any secrets. The secret may be that people have been lying to you for years about your greens. If all you have been using to season your turnips is bacon, you have not really been seasoning them enough at all. Bacon is good, add it if you want to, but fry it and crumble it first and add it toward the end of cooking if you do.
The first step is to cooking turnips is to boil a few ham hocks or smoked pork neck bones in the big pot with a sliced onion. If the store where you shop does not offer smoked ham hocks or neck bones, then you may not live in a zip code where anyone should even attempt to cook turnips the right way. And by a few, I mean a lot. Like half a pot full. Cover them with water and cook them until they fall off the bone. This will take a couple of hours at the very least.
During this entire time, you will be washing the turnips or collards or kale or mustard or kudzu or whatever your green of choice. Music in the background is recommended. You wash them and rinse them and wash them again. Then you soak them and start over. They are leaves of plants that grown from the ground in gardens. You cannot wash them too much. Take a break if you need to, but get back to washing them. Then you have to remove all of the stems. All of them. If you can see them they are too big to stay. You do not want to chance having a pot of tender greens with tough stems. Worse than that would be to have a big pot of wonderfully tender and tasty greens, with grit. So rinse them one more time.
Once you are convinced that your turnips are free from even a single grain of sand, remove the pork from the boiling broth and set it to the side to cool. You will debone it and add it back as the greens cook. Add the leaves to the broth, along with more onion. By the time you are done boiling them, the onions will disappear. Nobody will know they were ever even there, but taste-wise they matter. Stir them occasionally. You will also want to add salt and pepper and sugar and more salt. Not too much sugar, just a teaspoon or so, to take away any bitterness. This when other people may add other things like peppers or vinegar or cannellini beans. There are variations, but there are no shortcuts. Boil them until they are as tender as you like them.
The final step is to take out an iron skillet and make cornbread, but that’s another column, for another week.
Amanda Walker is a contributor with AL.com, The Selma Times Journal, Thomasville Times, West Alabama Watchman, and Alabama Gazette. Contact her at Walkerworld77@msn.com or at https://www.facebook.com/AmandaWalker.Columnist.