You’ve gotta try this Southern turnip greens recipe. Slowly simmered with cider vinegar and ham until tender, it’s down home cooking at it’s finest.
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After five years of marriage, I discover that my husband loves turnip greens. Loves them so much that he ate the first batch I made before I even had time to photograph it. I threatened The Husband within an inch of his life if he laid a finger on the second batch before they got their close-up.
The Origin of Turnip Greens in the South
Turnip greens are a staple of American comfort food. But why? I did some digging on how they became a part of Southern culture and found this little excerpt from whatscookingamerica.net:
“The Southern style of cooking of greens came with the arrival of African slaves to the southern colonies and the need to satisfy their hunger and provide food for their families. Though greens did not originate in Africa, the habit of eating greens that have been cooked down into a low gravy, and drinking the juices from the greens (known as “pot likker”) is of African origin.
The slaves of the plantations were given the leftover food from the plantation kitchen. Some of this food consisted of the tops of turnips and other greens. Ham hocks and pig’s feet were also given to the slaves.
Forced to create meals from these leftovers, they created the famous southern greens. The slave diet began to evolve and spread when slaves entered the plantation houses as cooks. Their African dishes, using the foods available in the region they lived in, began to evolve into present-day Southern cooking.”
Turnip, Collard or Mustard Greens … what’s the difference?
You’ve probably heard of turnips, right? They are a root vegetable closely related to kale, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. Turnips grow under the ground. The “greens” refer to the green leaves that grow above the ground. Coincidentally, the leaves are also where all the nutrients are.
Collard greens are a variety of cabbage. Mustard greens, considered to be an herb, are the leaves of the mustard plant (that yellow mustard you squirt on your hot dog comes from the seed of the mustard plant).
Each has a different texture and taste when cooked. Turnip and collard greens in their raw form are very tough in texture. It is not something you would want to toss into your salad. Both are simmered for long period of time to soften them up. Mustard greens are more tender. You can eat them in their raw form or cook them down similar to spinach or kale.
I’ve cooked all three and I find this recipe is ideal for turnip or collard greens. If we’re being honest, I actually prefer the taste and texture collards over turnip. Because of their more delicate texture, mustard greens tend to cook down to mush if cooked in this manner.
Never cooked greens? You gotta start somewhere!
In the beginning, my knowledge on how to prepare greens was extremely limited. I knew you cooked them with a bit of pork, but other than that, I was at a loss. I started by flipping through my cookbooks for some direction on the proper way to cook greens.
I thought it would be an easy recipe to find, since greens are such a popular dinner table dish. Much to my surprise, after scouring four books I came up empty-handed. Was this something I was just supposed to know how to do? Was it something only a Mamaw could tell me?
I finally found some instruction from Martha Hall Foose’s Screen Doors and Sweet Tea. I was surprised that the recipe listed a cooking time of five hours! And the ingredient list included one single whole pecan.
Just one? Left whole? Why?
According to Martha, the whole pecan prevents the smell of cooking greens from permeating your entire house. I didn’t have any pecans and I wasn’t even sure I could find whole ones (much less a single one) since they don’t come into season until the fall.
I decided to venture on without the single pecan, preparing myself for an awful stench that would linger throughout my house for days. I had flashbacks of when I was a kid and my Dad would make sauerkraut. You could smell it before you even walked through the front door.
Do you know how embarrassing it is to be a fifteen-year-old girl, a member of the football team shows up to take you on a date (a guy I really, really liked, by the way) and the inside of your house smells like a giant fart?
My mother is going to be so embarrassed that I just used the word fart in a blog post. She may not speak to me for a while. Luckily, there was no awful stench.
How to Prepare Turnip Greens
Keep in mind, greens are just like spinach. You buy what looks like a truckload, but then after you cook them down you’re left with something that could fit into the palm of your hand. Three to four bunches may look like A LOT, but in the end it won’t be.
Most true Southern turnip green recipes call for some type of smoked pork product to add flavor. Ham hocks, salt pork or even bacon will work. I’ve even used the bone from my holiday ham. This traditional method starts with making a broth. Simmer the pork for one hour in a large covered stock pot with about a quart of water.
While your broth is simmering, start washing and cutting up your greens. Greens tend to be notoriously filthy, though the last several bunches I’ve picked up from my grocery store have been surprisingly clean. But you want to wash all that sand and dirt and grit off the leaves so it doesn’t end up in your pot. Nothing worse biting into a bit of grit while your eating.
The stems of the leaves are very tough and bitter, so fold the leaves in half and remove the stems with a sharp knife. Discard the stems and roughly chop up the leaves. Once your pork is finished simmering, remove the meat from the pot and set aside to cool.
You want at least four cups of water in the pot, so if your water level is looking a little low, add more. Add the greens.
Because I’m in the South, I always have a jar of bacon grease in the fridge. I like to add a few tablespoons to the pot along with some apple cider vinegar. The acid in the vinegar helps to break up the leaves and it adds great flavor. I add a little sugar to the pot as well. It just enhances the flavor and will not make it taste sweet.
Cover the pot and simmer the greens for a minimum of two hours. If you want a more tender texture, I would suggest cooking them longer. They will only taste better!
Remove any meat from your ham hock or ham bone, or if you used bacon chop it up and add it back to the pot before serving. Season with salt and pepper to your preference.
I usually make a big batch of these greens on a Sunday afternoon and we eat them all week. My Southern boy (aka The Husband) has said this turnip greens recipes was some of the best he’s had. I like to serve this alongside some homemade cornbread to sop up the juice.
Update: Since this original post, I have made greens quite a few times and (thanks to some great tips from my readers) have modified the recipe along the way. The recipe below reflects those changes.
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Southern Turnip Greens
- 1 smoked ham hock or ham bone
- 3 large bunches of greens collard, turnip, mustard, washed
- 3 tablespoons bacon grease
- 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1/8 teaspoon sugar
- salt and pepper to taste
- Fill a large stockpot with 1 quart of water.
- Add ham hock, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, for 1 hour.
- In the meantime, remove the stems from the greens. Discard the stems and coarsely chop the leaves.
- Remove the ham hock from the pot and set aside to cool.
- Add the greens, bacon grease, cider vinegar and sugar to the pot.
- Cook, uncovered, for 2 hours for firmer greens, longer for more tender greens. My experience is, the longer they cook the better they taste.
- Remove any meat from the ham hock or bone. If using bacon, chop the bacon up. Add the meat back to the pot and stir.
- Season greens with salt and pepper.