Get ready, because as the temperatures start to cool down, it’s about to be ‘green’ time, I’m talking the South’s trifecta of fall superfoods, collard, mustard and turnip greens with turnips. There are certain foods that Southerners proudly claim as our own; favorites like cornbread, muscadine jelly, and, of course, greens. Start a pot of greens, throw a sweet potato in the oven and you have a nutritious meal that will make you want to kiss your mama and thank goodness for your Southern raising. Whether you boil them with ham hocks, braise them, toss them into a stir-fry or add them to soups or casseroles, these versatile standouts are sure to satisfy.
The history of these greens is the history of America.
If you are wondering how our region was so blessed to have Southern greens take such a prominent place in our food culture, like many other traditions that were brought to the colonies from the native countries of early settlers and enslaved Africans, greens were a taste of home for the peoples that would inhabit the South.
Research by food historians indicates that collard greens, for example, originated in the eastern Mediterranean, and that it was many years later that they were brought to this continent, after having arrived in Africa in the 1600s.
The habit of eating greens that have been cooked down into a low gravy and drinking the juices from the greens (known as “pot liquor”) is of African origin, according to an article by the Latibah Collard Green Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Collard greens have very large leaves compared to other greens. They have large stalks running through them and veins throughout the leaves.
A native to India, mustard greens have a peppery, bold flavor. A much lighter green than collards – they are thinner and tenderer, and they tend to shrink more during cooking. Mustard greens have smaller leaves than collards and their edges are ruffled. They can be prepared much like collard and mustard greens, as a salad green, or cooked with pork fat or turkey wings until they’re tender.
Turnip greens are a tender green, with the perfect hint of bitterness, often cooked with a splash of vinegar and a sprinkle of sugar to complement that bitterness. They are best when picked and eaten when the plants are young. While many people simmer them with ham hocks, they also can be added to stir-fries or soups. Turnip greens are believed to have been cultivated in Hellenistic and Roman times, more than 4,000 years ago.
Though they all arrived in the U.S. at different times and in various ways, we are certainly happy that these greens made their way to Southern tables. There is an ongoing, let’s say, friendly discussion about which greens or combos of greens are best. Let me just weigh in with my opinion: I like to mix all three and enjoy the best each one has to offer, cooked with some ham or bacon, along with turnips.
Dark, leafy greens have great nutritional value. Collards, mustard greens and turnip greens are an excellent source of folate, vitamin C, calcium and beta carotine. They are also good sources of iron and magnesium. The lutein and zeaxanthin they contain help protect against cataracts and macular degeneration. Greens provide fiber and are filling, although low in calories, depending on how they are prepared.
All greens should be thoroughly washed and large stems should be removed before cooking. When boiling, cooking times will vary between the different types. I remove the large stalks that run up the center and cut the remaining leaves into strips when preparing collard greens for cooking. Mustard greens can be put directly into pot after washing. Turnip greens are tenderer and require less cooking time. When cooking more than one variety of green at a time, add them to the pan incrementally so the tenderest greens are not overcooked. If you are cooking turnips with your greens, it is best to bring the turnips to a boil before you place the greens in the pan. Cook all greens until tender.