Greens have finally begun to crop up in the markets of the lower South, and it’s about damn time, too. Stewed greens have long been a staple of the Southerner’s winter diet, and greens remind us that our cuisine, like any other, is rooted in need. After the turn of the century, greens were often the only sustenance here that stood between a steady diet of fatback, cornmeal and beans against pellagra.
For a good mess, buy three bunches of turnip and two of mustard. Once you get these home, take a knife and cut the bunches right above the gather. Some people cut the turnip roots and cook them with the greens, but I don’t. Strip the leaves from the stems and put them into a clean, stoppered sink. Sprinkle with a generous amount of salt, and then cover them with cold water. Agitate to knock off sand or other debris; the salt will dislodge pests. Drain the sink, and repeat the process until your greens are absolutely clean. Trust me when I tell you that there’s nothing worse than taking a bite of gritty greens or gagging on a stewed slug. (And this, my dear brothers and sisters, is the voice of experience you hear.)
After your mess is thoroughly clean, get a big pot, set it next to the sink, lift the greens out of the water and set them off into the pot while they’re dripping wet. Put the pot on the stove on a medium heat, and then add about two cups of water. Occasionally stir the greens, reducing heat as they cook. When they have settled down to liquid level, add a chopped white onion, a trimmed ham bone, smoked hock or turkey and a fresh slit hot pepper or two. Then reduce heat and let them stew until the “likker” is good and strong, at least two hours, then adjust your salt. Fresh cornbread, raw onion and hot sauce are necessary appurtenances.