If you don’t know much about Southern cooking, you might think Paula Deen is the final word on comfort food south of the Mason-Dixon line. I’m not going to lie. I’ve never eschewed butter. When I was a kid, I ate the hell out of fried chicken, baked mac n’ cheese, beer-battered catfish, and Shake n’ Bake crusted pork chops. And don’t get me started on all the BBQ pork ribs I devoured until I became a vegetarian. Southern Alabama has the corner on the BBQ rib market.
I converted to strict vegetarianism in 1997 during my first year in college. (That Yankee liberal arts college put all sorts of Commie ideas in my head.) I’m not a strict vegetarian anymore. After living in coastal regions in China and Malaysia, I re-integrated the occasional seafood treat back into my meals, but the focus is on flavor rather than the deep-fried batter.
Still, since those early days of foregoing meat for tofu, I’ve been considering ways to focus on the nutritious and less meaty alternatives on offer in the Deep South. Right about now you might be thinking that alterations to Southern cooking destroys what it signifies, but who says a type of cuisine must exist in a vacuum? As much as we’d like to believe Southern folks are still whiling away their days on rotting antebellum porches sipping mint juleps or repairing their moonshine still in the backwoods, people have been migrating to and from the South for as long as it’s been the “south,” and every new resident brings along his or her cuisine preferences.
Innovative and creative Southern cooking has never been missing in the South. Maybe most of us folks just don’t look very hard to find delicious and nutritious Southern dishes. They’re there, though. Look no further than the many small farms that cover so much of the South. The first time Cameron visited Alabama to meet my parents, he was blown away by how many produce markets Baldwin County showcased. The amount of healthy, local food available in southern Alabama is truly astounding, and it made me rethink all those summers my father forced my brother and me to tend our own 1/2 acre vegetable plot.
One of the largest and most loathed crops we yielded were the fall and winter dark, leafy greens. I grew to love spinach, but I couldn’t abide the tough texture and bitter taste of turnips and collards. Even when they’d been boiled down for pot liquor, I cringed when my father plopped a spoonful of those soggy greens on my plate.
How times have changed. Whenever Cameron and I make dark, leafy greens now, he has to fight me for his share. Certainly a person’s taste buds mature as they grow older, but I’m still no fan of boiled and salted greens or pot liquor. For me, a delicious plate of greens is all about the prep and complementary ingredients. Below you’ll find my new favorite collard recipe. Sweetened with orange juice and a handful of raisins, these greens are so good I had to double the recipe recently to keep Cameron and me from dueling over seconds.
Collards are in season right now, so it’s a perfect time to add a great Southern recipe to the “eat your greens” campaign.
Citrus Collards with Raisins (adapted from Vegetarian Times)
Serves 6 as a side or 2 if you’re hungry
1 ½ lb. collard greens, tough stems trimmed
1 ½ Tbs. olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced (3 tsp.)
⅔ cup raisins
½ tsp. salt
1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1. Stack several collard leaves atop one another, and roll into tight cylinder. Slice crosswise into strips.
2. Cook greens in large pot of boiling, salted water 8 to 10 minutes, or until softened. Drain, and plunge into large bowl of cold water to stop cooking.
3. Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic, and sauté 1 minute. Add drained collards, raisins, and salt, and sauté 3 minutes. Stir in orange juice, and cook 15 seconds more. Season with salt and pepper, if desired.