Greens, Pepper Sauce, and Cornbread: Southern Cuisine

My family is a large one. My parents obviously wanted a large family, because by the time their family was finished, they had produced eight children. As if that were not enough, they adopted another one. Three of my siblings are brothers and five are sisters, one of whom is no longer with us. As you might guess, when we girls were children, our brothers were major nuisances and counted for little in our girly minds. They tore up our playhouses and chased us with lizards. Now that we are all adults, and in spite of the brothers' boyhood pranks, we sisters adore them. However, sisters share a special relationship that only sisters can comprehend. Even our beloved brothers do not completely understand our bond.

Each year we sisters plan a weekend when we can all be together. The brothers and husbands, bless their hearts, are not invited. Preparing the traditional foods of our Southern heritage is an important part of our reunions. If our meetings are in the cool season of the year-and preferably after frost has visited the countryside, we somehow manage to have a mess of fresh greens. It doesn't really matter which kind; we love the turnips, mustard, and collards that were frequently served when we were children. We know that there are other greens, but it is these that we love best.

Our greens are different from those purchased at grocery stores and farmers' markets. They are not bundled together as whole plants. We take a large paper bag to the garden and fill it with tender leaves from the center of the plants. We leave the tiniest leaves at the very top to grow for our next harvest, but we take the middle-sized leaves that grow beneath them. The tough bottom leaves may be removed to encourage more tender growth, but we do not eat them. As each leaf is harvested, both sides are examined for vermin that we do not wish to eat, and then the leaf is thumped to dislodge soil and any critters that a visual inspection failed to reveal. When our bag is sufficiently full, we bring it to the kitchen sink and dump the tender leaves into a sink full of water. The leaves are washed in the sink at least three times. If any sand remains in the bottom of the sink after the third washing, the greens are washed again.

Just like our mother did, we heat a heavy aluminum pan on top of the stove. In it we fry two strips of bacon. After pouring off most of the drippings, we place the tender, wet greens in the pan on top of the bacon and cover them long enough for steam to permeate the leaves and seal in the flavor of the bacon. Then we add a little water to the pan, lower the temperature setting, cover the pot, and let the greens boil until they are tender. More water can be added, if needed, but there is a fine line between having too much pot liquor and having just enough. You should be able to serve the greens on a plate, and they should pile up and not be all slushy like soup. My sisters and I, like most other Southerners, know that overcooking does no damage to most vegetables. We don't eat the greens when they are crisp-tender, but we cook the stew out of them.

From the garden we also collect a handful of fresh onions, some fresh radishes, and enough tender mustard leaves to serve alongside the cooked greens. Or we may choose to make our favorite wilted mustard salad. (See recipe below.)

Both greens and the salad require a splash of pepper sauce. Not just any pepper sauce suits my sisters and me. Our pepper sauce was made the preceding summer when the cayenne, jalapeño, and banana peppers were in season. We could make the sauce really hot, but we prefer it mild. The "heat" is controlled by the choice of peppers. More hot peppers make a hotter sauce while more banana peppers make a milder sauce. The sauce can be poured on greens, peas, butterbeans, and other vegetables for seasoning, and the peppers can be eaten.

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A combination of banana peppers and cayenne peppers makes an excellent pepper sauce.

Cornbread must, of course, be served with this meal. And again, not just any cornbread will do; it must be made with the right cornmeal. While we prefer freshly ground cornmeal from the grist mill, any medium-grind, stone-ground cornmeal will do. To make our version of cornbread, place an iron skillet on a hot stove eye, and add a bit of oil or bacon drippings. While the skillet is heating, mix the cornbread. Place as much cornmeal as needed in a bowl. Salt to taste, and mix with enough water to make a stiff, cakelike mixture. Pour the mixture into a sizzling skillet and pat down with your fingertips to flatten and shape to fit the skillet. Bake in a hot oven, about 450°F, until cornbread is crisp and lightly browned.

The reader will note that no amounts were given in the recipes. For a big crowd, cook up a big pot of greens and bake up a big hoecake of cornbread. Use your own judgment for quantities and amounts. Just be sure to cook plenty, and prepare to pass the bowl for seconds all around. Do not throw away any leftovers. They freeze well, and can be heated up at a moment's notice for another round of unique but delightful Southern cuisine.

Wilted Mustard Salad

Into a bowl place

Sliced green onions and radishes

Tender, young mustard leaves, torn to bite size

Toss together with prepared salad dressing.

Add salt and pepper to taste.

Sprinkle crumbled bacon on top.

Salad dressing

Fry two strips of bacon in a cast-iron skillet.

When crisp, remove and reserve the bacon.

Pour about ½ cup of water and about a tablespoon of pepper sauce into the skillet

and heat until the mixture boils. Stir well to dislodge any bacon bits.

Pour onto salad just before serving, while mixture is warm.

Crumble reserved bacon strips on top.

Salt and pepper to taste.

Pepper Sauce

Harvest peppers. (cayenne, jalapeño, banana)

Remove stems. Wear gloves.

Wash and pat peppers dry with a clean towel.

Stuff clean peppers into sterilized bottles or jars.

Then, bring enough white vinegar to cover the peppers to a boil.

Pour boiling vinegar over the peppers.

Seal jars and store in a cool, dark pantry.