Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Spicy Sautéed Collard Greens

The one vegetable I’ve always really loved is spinach. I would devour it even as a kid, and particularly loved it with red wine vinegar. To this day, I could eat huge, massive portions of this leafy green and not feel like I’m eating something good for me. My mom always gave us the frozen kind when we were kids – that came out of the package in a frozen solid, furry green block - and to this day, it’s still my favorite variety, even more so than fresh spinach.

I’ve tried to branch out a bit, and try all other types of leafy greens. I like salads, when my plate is piled with a variety of ingredients that makes the lettuce almost pointless (red peppers, apples, grape nuts, kidney and garbanzo beans, nuts, olives…). I prefer the crunch of romaine, but will tolerate a little limp red leaf thrown in. Frizee is stupid - bitter and totally unsatisfying to eat. Kale is good, when cooked to a spinach-like limpness and smothered with red wine vinegar. I’ll also eat kale when mixed in with other things – the vegan restaurant Angelica Kitchen in the East Village makes an amazing plate with seaweed, kale, steamed sweet potato, brown rice and tofu. That Wee Dragon Bowl with the Southern Style Cornbread, ginger carrot spread, and soup of the day is to die for when my body screams for fiber, nutrition, and passive aggressive thinly veiled contempt from a waiter. I also adore red Swiss chard.
But I don’t cook many of these very often. Sometimes I will buy a bunch of one green or another with the best of intentions, stuff it in the crisper drawer, and forget about it until it decomposes and is discovered as the source of that rotten smell of decay.
Like a lot of native North Westerners, collard greens were new to me when I moved to NYC. As a food popular in the southern US, rarely did its purveyors make their way to the often grey and misty upper left territories. But in the most diverse city in the world, southern delicacies are easy to come by – just like most any cuisine. My first few encounters with collards were in their usual form; long simmered with ham hock and bacon. Delicious. But I wondered about other, less meatified versions of cooking collards. While the traditional recipe is one I enjoy, I rarely have ham hock in my refrigerator, and usually my bacon is of the turkey variety.
Then came Restaurant Week in Brooklyn.
I had never taken advantage of Restaurant week – while I would LOVE to taste what the expensive, high-end restaurants have to offer on their Prix Fixe menus, usually 3 courses for a mere $20 – crowded, loud restaurants with trendy richers and poseurs slumming it with us plebeians just never held any appeal to me. But my experience last week with Tennille was enlightening. Maybe my original judgment was founded in places like Le Cirque (I say this not having the slightest idea what I’m talking about – maybe Le Cirque is a lovely place with lovely people, I’ve never been. I just know its name is usually used in a sentence following words like “Paris” and “Hilton” – two words when strung together tend to send a sliver of evil, and well, yes, envy, down my spine – but I wish her happiness and…self discovery, and a dose of unconditional love…from someone, hopefully her Daddy, who I suspect is the source of her very public attention pandering.)
So, after a day of “boutiquing”, during which I for the first time EVER bought a pair of designer jeans for more than $100, and expensive perfume oil, I was in an “I’m enjoying treating myself in a more-than-Old Navy-kind-of-way” kind of mood. We sat down for some decadent 4PM cocktails at a cute little bartique (I believe that’s two phrases I’ve coined in this paragraph) in Park Slope. I had a lychee martini. Are you kidding? It was so fruity and delicious, I had a second one. I don’t usually order the fruity drinks, but as I said, I was feeling decadent.

Leaving a bar when there's still daylight, with a buzz, tends to send the message “let’s eat!” to my feet. Knowing it was still Restaurant Week, we meandered down 5th avenue wondering if we could get into Applewood. Then we saw the mecca of untouchables in my restaurant rolodex. Blue Ribbon.
I associate Blue Ribbon with a few things: 1) After-restaurant-or-bartending-shift dinner. They’re open until like 4AM, and for people with a lot of cash in their pocket and a menu with a long list of appetizers it was always the perfect late night spot for my co-workers back in the day. 2) Bone marrow. One of my former fellow bartenders couldn’t wait to sink her teeth into their bone marrow with oxtail marmalade. I’m not kidding. 3) Best. Bread. Ever.

Blue Ribbon began in Manhattan, expanded to Blue Ribbon Sushi and Blue Ribbon Bakery, then spread its wings to the borough of Brooklyn, and landed in Park Slope – with Blue Ribbon and Blue Ribbon Sushi right next door to each other. I’ve drooled over their menu online countless times when searching for the perfect husband-Birthday dinner or Anniversary dinner meal. Since my husband’s Birthday happens to be on New Year’s Eve, I always ended up picking another more affordable option, to leave plenty of cash in the bank for presents and wine. And since we never really celebrated our “dating” anniversary formally, it was a little out of our league. But it has remained on the tip of my tasty palate of “must try for dinner sometime”.

I get a little bitter when I look at the prices, I must admit. There was one time while out with friends when we wanted dessert, and no one else was open, so we trudged into Blue Ribbon. We managed to get a table pretty quickly, and while their long list of sweets tempted me, I balked at the prices – “$11.50 for a strawberry ice cream sundae!? Call me when you’re serious!” but the phone rang and I picked it up, and it turned out they were serious. Very, very serious. If I had been allowed and not in public, and had I not been monitored by my bulimic (literally) friend, I would have licked the bowl of all its deep dark chocolate and fresh strawberry gooiness.

But dinner at Blue Ribbon eluded me, until now. We walked into a pretty packed bar, but at 5PM, still managed to get seats to perch on while we waited for our table. The bar tender was so friendly, in that “wait, is he flirting with me?” kind of way. The glass of Côtes du Rhône was very tasty, and 20 minutes later as we were escorted through the crowd of bar-stool vultures, I started hyperventilating a little bit.

We were seated on the middle banquette, packed in among other two tops, but it still felt private, and not like we were sitting on anyone’s lap. The prix fixe menu was promising; 3 courses for $21.12. We both picked the asparagus soup. Between the game hen and the sea bass, I selected the latter because it came with mashed potatoes and collard greens. Tennille was offered a grilled vegetable plate with spicy dipping sauce for a vegetarian option. The soup? Creamy and hearty at the same time. The fish? Flakey and steaky. The potatoes? Dreamy. And the collard greens? Inspiring. Hence, this post. But before I move on to my recipe, let me mention the dessert: Chocolate Chip Bread Pudding. Okay. Ummm…just like that Saturday evening a week ago, I am nearly speechless. Like no bread pudding I’ve ever tried – it was more like custard. There weren’t any strange bites with little crunchy chocolate chips like I feared. And the chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream? The perfect balance of sweet and flavor – not too sweet and sugary in that throat stinging kind of way. And the portions were so perfect, I was content but not uncomfortable after cleaning all my plates. And I cannot fail to mention the impeccable service. Friendly and available, and we were treated no differently than non-prix fixe customers.

So last night I decided to try my hand at collards. A friend once told me that “olive oil, garlic and pepper flakes make vegetables sing!” and I agree.

Spicy Sautéed Collard Greens

One bunch collard greens
2 Tb olive oil
1 Tb pepper flakes
3 garlic cloves (or 1Tb jarred minced garlic)
Vinegar (optional)

Heat olive oil in large skillet on medium high until very hot. Add garlic and pepper flakes. Wash collard greens, and tear leafs from stems. Discard stems. Chop or tear leafs into small, bite-sized pieces. When garlic and pepper flakes have softened, add greens to skillet and stir, coating the leaves. Cover, and reduce heat to medium/medium-low. Allow greens to steam/cook under lid for about 10 minutes stirring frequently, or until they have reduced significantly in size, and are a deep, dark green. Reduce heat to low. Allow to sit on low heat for another 10 or 15 minutes, or until a taste test indicates the leaves are tender and flavorful. Serve, splashed with vinegar if you desire.


anne h. said...

From the full background story and quick, easy, good-for-me recipe-- I think my habitual craving for cereal and ice cream is subsiding! Hopefully I'll pick up the ingredients soon and become a erratic commenter!

Aside: In my experience, some of the coolest blogs have very few comments...Anyone else noticed that?

Nina Roux: The Sweet, The Savory and The Sass said...

lol - thanks anne! but don't give up wonderful cereal and ice cream on my account! Have them for dinner, and the greens for dessert!