When I was a ravenous high-schooler, I bought food at the street carts outside my school every afternoon. Back then, I needed a full extra meal to tide me over between lunch and dinner or I felt like I was starving. Philly is an incredible street food town, and not the new-wave gentrified version that has taken over American sidewalks. The carts in Philly are old-school grease trucks, serving up classics like cheesesteaks, scrapple-and-egg sandwiches, and chili dogs to a mostly working-class crowd.
One of my favorite carts to visit in high school was Jamaican D’s, which served a mixture of Jamaican food and soul food. People would travel from all over Philly to buy their most popular dishes before they ran out. It was a lucky day if they still had oxtails to sell after 10am. When I was really hurting for cash, I could buy a bag of fried dough from Jamaican D’s for a dollar and eat the savory doughnuts with hot sauce to sate my teenage hunger. When I had a couple extra bucks, I would spring for a plate of sides. Each order of a side of mac and cheese or rice and beans or whatever cost 2 bucks for a ton of food.
The collard greens from Jamaican D’s were the first green vegetable I can remember willingly eating. The greens were slow-cooked and tender, accented with garlic, vinegar and a touch of chile heat. They tasted good, and they made me feel good too. Greens feel like medicine, like they can protect your body from harm and heal what ails you.
I won’t call this recipe a recreation of the one from Jamaican D’s. It’s been too long since I had their greens to make any such claim. This is my method for cooking collards, trying achieve the perfect balance of sour, savory and spicy I remember from the street cart. This recipe is vegetarian/vegan if you make it with the msg instead of the chicken bouillon. Although the home cooks in the state I live in now would smack me for saying so, I prefer my greens cooked without pork. I think hog is unnecessary and totally covers of the flavor of the greens. That being said, this is more a method than a specific recipe, so play around with ingredients and amounts to suit your needs.
- 3 bunches collard, mustard, or turnip greens
- 1/2 a yellow onion or 1 bunch scallions, cut small
- 4-5 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 tsp chili flakes
- dash of cajun seasoning blend like Tony Chachere’s
- a few splashes of Louisiana-style hot sauce like Crystal
- 2-4 tbsp apple cider vinegar, depending on how tangy you like your greens
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- 2 tsp chicken bouillon powder or 1/4 tsp msg (you could leave this out, but why deny yourself pleasure in these troubled times?)
If using collards or turnip greens, strip the greens from the woody stalks with your fingers or scissors. Wash your greens well. I feel like supermarket greens have less dirt on them than they used to, but crap still hides on the folds of those leaves. I found a caterpillar the last time I picked through some greens before cooking. Chop cleaned greens roughly into segments about 2 inches long.
Sweat onions/scallions and garlic with a pinch of salt on medium heat in a healthy glug of olive oil in your biggest pot. When the onions and garlic go translucent and start to brown a little around the edges, add chili flake and toast for 20 seconds. Add your greens a couple handfuls at a time, stirring to wilt the new additions to make room for more until all have made it into the pot.
Throw in all your other ingredients along with some black pepper to taste and cook on low heat, covered, until the greens have reached your desired level of tenderness. Stir every 10 or 15 minutes so the bottom doesn’t burn. Add a little water if it looks like your greens are drying out. For meltingly soft southern-style greens, you need at least an hour of simmering time. Mustard greens cook more quickly than collards or turnip greens.
Season to taste with salt and serve hot, making sure everyone gets a fair portion of the liquid that releases from the greens as they cook. This “pot liquor” is liquid gold, and I have drank a mug of it by itself before without shame.
*Bonus Recipe: Egg, Green, and Provolone Sandwich*
I love incorporating little handfuls of cooked greens into other recipes. This sandwich mimics many of the flavors of a Philly roast pork and Broccoli Rabe sandwich, but with no meat and for breakfast. Shoutout to Chef John, who inspired me with his St. Pattie’s Melt idea. Stay tuned for my recipe for Mustard Greens Hand Pies sometime in the next few days if you want something else to do with your greens!
Makes 2 Sandwiches
- 4 slices bread
- Garlic Salt
- Sharp provolone
- 1/2 cup cooked greens
Crank your oven as hot as it will go. Slather one side of each slice of bread with mayo, then sprinkle with garlic salt and pepper. Squeeze all the juice out of your greens (please save the juice for another use!!) and chop finely. Spread evenly over the mayo side of two of your slices of bread, then top with a slice of sharp provolone. Throw another slice of provolone on the other two slices of bread. Toss all your bread on a sheet tray and into the oven to heat up the greens and melt the cheese while you fry 2 eggs in your preferred style (the correct answer is sunny side up). Egg the greens side of your bread, top with the other slice of bread, and serve.