Collard Greens

I like avoiding going to work. So I joined a couple friends and went to a farm in Concord early in the morning. On a quarter acre, Food for Free plants a variety of vegetables to grow, harvest, and donate to homeless shelters. Among other tasks, we harvested 150 lbs of collard greens.

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After the truck had come to pick up our haul for the day, we found a bushel of greens we’d forgotten to send off. Which meant everyone took home a bunch of greens. This was perfect: free, fresh food. Dinner would be greens. A little searching and reading led to two ideas: sauteed collard greens with garlic and sausage; collard green and olive pesto.

I washed the greens and got some salted water boiling (I super salt most boiling water – water alone will leach out flavor whereas salt will add flavor… well, salty flavor anyway). As I cut up the greens into 1-inch pieces, a cloud of gas from the chopped greens hit me in the face. As Ben later told me: mustard gas. Leaves in the mustard family contain glucosinolates which are converted into isothiocyanates when the cells in the leaves are broken (when I chopped them). This gives off a pungent, bitter taste that normally acts as a defensive system for the plant (and was used a defensive system by humans in WWI). As I lowered the leaves into the boiling water, you can here collard greens scream. They sizzled and cried.

Half the boiled leaves (about 1 lb before cooking) went into a food processor with 5 green olives, 1 garlic clove, 1/3 cup water, salt, pepper, cayenne, 1/2 tsp balsamic vinegar, and while mixing, I added 1/4 cup olive oil. I added 1/4 cup of parmesan cheese and mixed. I found the result a little too cheesy, not enough garlic or olives, so I added 3 more olives and another garlic clove. And then I had pesto. “But what defines a pesto,” Sara asked. Pesto comes from the same root as pestle, so pesto is defined by the mashing of some green leaves. Basil is the more common, but we’ve seen arugula, cilantro, parsley… The collard green olive pesto had the same savory sense of basil pesto (from the cheese and oil), but was more intensely olive flavored and had an earthiness from the greens. For a moment I wanted to swear off basil pesto in favor of this (below). But then I remembered all the basil pesto Ben and I had made.

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While the pesto was getting ready, I made a batch of risotto, just with a chopped onion softened in oil, then 1.5 cups rice stirred in and coated in the oil. Normally I would add enough white wine to cover at this point. But I forgot to buy some. Not wanting to miss out, I added juice of a lemon and a little white vermouth as a substitute (and less expensive). Once the risotto was done, I stirred in the collard green pesto. I did not add the typical parmesan to finish it – the pesto had enough. But I did add some more olive oil and a Tb of butter to give it a final shine. And fat.

Meanwhile, I sliced up two Hot Pork Sausages from Whole Foods, sauteed them for a while until cooked through and the fat was out. Just before serving, I added a minced garlic clove to the sausage and fat, gave it some color (brown color), and added the remaining collard greens, and sauteed it all for 5 minutes. Salt, pepper, little lemon juice.

But we needed a cocktail, too. Ben wanted a beet cocktail. So a beet simple sugar was it. I went to the roof, pulled out a beet, and threw it into a saucepan with equal parts water and sugar. I included a few mint leaves, boiled, waited a while, and added to gin and ice. We drank them while I plated dinner.

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The risotto: A definite repeat. The savory earthiness of the pesto and the sweet starch of the stirred rice made us all have more than I plated. You can play with what you put in the risotto – add vegetables, other spices, meat. But I like it simple.

The greens and sausage: It had sausage. Spicy sausage. And garlic. Why would I complain?

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