52 Foods Week Twelve: Collard Greens

A few weeks ago, Capay Organic was blowing out collard greens for a dollar a bunch, because “no one cooks collard greens.” While I almost always get collard greens when I eat at Southern restaurants, I had never considered cooking them myself. Committed to being one person who does cook collard greens, I brought a bunch home and attempted to cook them Southern style, guided by little more than memory and some suggestions offered by the admittedly vegetarian woman working the Capay Organic table. That Sunday night, we made some cornmeal crusted rock cod and the collard greens. While they both turned out well, both dishes were first attempts, and I identified several things I wanted to do differently. We did a second run of the fish the next night, but the collard greens would wait a couple weeks.

Going into this, I really only knew two things about making collard greens: they should be a bit vinegary and you have to cook the hell out of them. My greens dealer had mentioned olive oil and garlic, which made plenty good sense. She also suggested balsamic vinegar and honey. The vinegar I was down with, but the honey didn’t feel like a direction I wanted to go. I opted for some dry sherry which would add a touch of sweetness and balance the vinegar while keeping things acidic. To add a bit of spice, I used a teaspoon each of ground mustard and coriander.

Equal Parts Sherry and Balsamic Vinegar

After the first attempt, Jen immediately hit upon the key ingredient that was missing—and, frankly, I was a bit embarrassed to have missed it—pork. I had somehow forgotten that collard greens are always listed in the not vegetarian section of our favorite Southern restaurant’s menu. For our second round, we were sure to correct this omission.

Browsing the Farmers’ Market after picking up two bunches of collard greens, we were pleased to learn of Bledsoe Meats’ new double-smoked slab bacon. John Bledsoe, the friendly and enthusiastic owner of Bledsoe Meats assured us we’d enjoy it (though he later scolded me for using slab bacon and not jowl bacon in my collard greens), and proudly described the 18 hours of smoking it undergoes.

Slab Bacon

I sliced off a couple 1/2″ thick slices of the bacon, then cut those into cubes for a quarter pound of deliciously smoked lardons. Rather than olive oil, I sautéed the lardons until they were about half cooked, then removed them to another pan to finish. I added chopped garlic to the bacon fat, then the rough chopped collard greens, sherry, balsamic vinegar, mustard and coriander. After stirring the greens around for a couple minutes, I added the now crispy lardons, mixed everything together, and covered to cook for an hour.

Add Lardons

While I can’t claim to have made true Southern collard greens, I was quite pleased with the way they came out. The greens were vinegary and toothsome while not being tough, and the bacon (even if it wasn’t jowl) added a smokiness and heartiness that really rounded out the dish.

Michael’s Northern California Style Collard Greens:

2 bunches collard greens
1/4 lb. smoked slab bacon cut into 1/2″ cubes
3 garlic cloves minced
1 tsp. ground mustard
1 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 cup dry sherry
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

In a large skilled or braising pan, sauté bacon until half cooked. Transfer bacon to another pan to finish cooking and add garlic to pan with bacon fat. Sauté garlic until soft, then add chopped collard greens, mustard and coriander. Toss in pan to mix and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add sherry, vinegar and cooked bacon. Mix and cover. Cook 1 hour. Add salt to taste.

Finished Collard Greens

More photos of the entire process here.

52 Foods Week Eleven: Deglet Noor Dates

Just east of Palm Springs and the jutting San Jacinto Mountains, lies the Coachella Valley. Known to many as the home of a large music festival, it is also the largest date producing region outside of the Middle East. Two winters ago, we visited the valley and stopped at Shields Date Garden, in Indio, CA, whose small store is as much a paean to the date as it is a retail outlet. At Shields we tasted nearly a dozen date varietals, most of which are difficult—if not impossible—to find in grocery stores outside the valley. Because a trip to Indio is impractical on an average Saturday morning, I was thrilled to discover Siegfried Dates at the farmers’ market. They offer many date varietals from Coachella growers, including some delicious Deglet Noors from Leja Farms.

Deglet Noors are a fairly robust date varietal, recommended for cooking. While we were selecting out dates, another purchaser mentioned she was going to use her Deglet Noors in a pork dish, and leaving the market, we initially had similar ideas; however, when I realized that Monday was Pi Day, my thoughts turned to baking a date-pecan pie.

Based on a quick Google search, there seems to be a canonical date-pecan pie recipe, sourced of all places from Cooking Light. I am a bit skeptical about the “light” claims for this pie, but my wife assures me that the recipe is “light for a pie.” As I am far more versed in eating pies than baking them, I am trusting her on this point, but I would consult your a nutritionist or physician before making this, if calories and fat are a mortal concern.

Using a pretty good store bought pie crust (again, I am not a baker) makes this recipe ridiculously easy. I chopped the dates and pecans (Pawnee pecans from Chico, CA), then sprinkled them evenly on the bottom of the pie crust.

Dates and Pecans in the Shell

For the rest of the filling, I mixed brown sugar, molasses (which I used to replaced the dark corn syrup the recipe calls for), eggs, a little flour and a touch of vanilla and salt. When poured into the pie crust, this lifted the date and pecan pieces, suspending them in a rich, dark mixture of fat and sugar.

Filled Pie Shell

I baked the pie for 45 minutes, then removed it and added a layer of whole pecans to the top. It needed about 15 more minutes in the oven to finish.

45 Minutes Along

I think the pie came out looking pretty sharp.

Finished Pie

We served the finished pie with a healthy dollop of unsweetened whipped cream.

Pie with Unsweetened Whipped Cream

To complement it, we opened a cellared bottle of Full Sail Brewing’s 2009’s Black Gold Imperial Stout, a delicious, bourbon barrel aged imperial stout from one of Oregon’s premiere breweries.

2009 Full Sail Black Gold Imperial Stout

This is an awesome pie recipe, and I consider this a first run with it. I found the cup and a half of molasses to be a bit too strong, and in the future I plan to try a half cup of molasses and a 1/2 cup of bourbon brown sugar simple syrup (1/2 cup brown sugar dissolved in 1/4 cup bourbon). I also have a strong desire to add a little chopped bacon to the filling. The pork-date alliance is too strong to resist.

The pie making is documented in full here.

52 Foods Week Ten: Shitaki Mushrooms

Sometimes the most important thing you cook is a side dish. We were invited to a pork dinner that we knew would be fantastic. The hog itself, tucked into our friends’ industrial freezer, was already stuff of legend. All we had to do was choose whether to bring a side or a dessert. We chose side.

Browsing the Farmers’ Market the morning of the meal, I happened upon some glorious shitaki mushrooms. I’m generally bullish on mushrooms of all kinds, and the shitakis that Solano Mushroom sells may be the most impressive I’ve seen. They were nice and full and appeared to have been very gently handled. I happily snapped up half a pound of them, then browsed the other tables to figure out what I was going to cook with them. Visiting the folks at Capay Organic, again, I picked up two bunches of rosy chard, as well as some collard greens for a Fifty Two Foods practice run.

Two Bunches of Chard

Having both leafy greens and mushrooms in hand made for an obvious choice—creamed chard with mushrooms—since mushrooms take to cream so well, and there’s nothing quite like creamed chard for a hearty yet refreshing side dish.

I sliced the shitakis into good sized slices, then sautéed them in butter and garlic until they softened and the juices ran out.

Releasing Their Juices

The garlic I sliced very thin, and cooked slowly in the butter before adding the mushrooms, allowing it to soften and caramelize a bit. It tasted a lot like roasted garlic, but instead of soft, thick pieces, they were thin and crispy. The garlic alone was absolutely delicious.

Cook Garlic in Butter

In another pan, I sautéed a minced shallot in olive oil, then added the chard stems, which cooked for 5-10 minutes before I added the roughly chopped chard leaves. I added a bit of white wine, then covered the chard to let it soften for another 10 minutes, or so, before adding the entire contents of the mushroom pan.

Add Chard Leaves to Pan

Finally, I added two ounces of heavy cream and stirred everything together for a couple minutes.

Add Heavy Cream

The shitakis added a fantastic earthy taste to the chard, elevating a dish that already would have been tasty to a profound complexity. It paired very nicely with the pork we had, but could also have served well alongside any roast or grilled meat. Check out all the pictures here.

52 Foods Week Nine: Fennel

There aren’t many foods I have a distinct memory of first discovering. There are, of course, many meals I remember that gave me a new appreciation for a food that was already familiar, but very few instances whereupon having something for the first time I also fell under its spell. For years, I knew nothing of fennel—beyond its seeds, which are key to so many Italian meat dishes—scared off by the fear that the root and stalks would be too licoricey for my taste. That all changed the first time I had roasted fennel root.

About a year after my wife and I began dating, she briefly worked near a weekday farmers’ market. One night she brought home a collection of root vegetables, including a large, milky fennel bulb. While I generally do most of the cooking, the market’s haul were her babies and she prepared a simple meal by roasting the sliced vegetables with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and some herbs. Having never before tasted fennel root, I was impressed and relieved by it’s mellow, sweet flavor. It quickly became a regular in our vegetable rotation, especially in the colder months, when hearty, roasted vegetables help to warm the belly.

Since eating at the very tasty Ubuntu Napa a month ago, I’ve been eager to make a meal where a vegetable that is typically served as a side moves center stage. Fennel seemed like a perfect choice, with the bulbs standing in for a shoulder roast, in a slow braised preparation.

I bought 4 medium fennel stalks from Capay Organic at the Davis Farmers’ Market. The bulbs I got were each a nice palm size, allowing them to be easily handled whole.


I washed and trimmed each fennel bulb, and chopped two cherry bomb peppers, a fairly mild pepper varietal that nicely balances sweetness and heat.

Cherry Bomb Peppers

I sautéed the peppers in a few tablespoons of olive oil until their skin began to pucker, then added the fennel bulbs, searing them on each side just as I would a roast.

Sear Fennel Bulbs

Once the bulbs were seared on all sides, I placed them upright in the center of the pan, added about 8 ounces of beer (Sudwerk Pilsner) and reduced the heat to low.

Stand on End and Add Beer

The fennel cooked for about 40 minutes, until it was soft but still nicely intact. While they cooked, I took advantage of the plentiful fennel fronds by placing about 4 ounces of them in a pint of vodka to make what I hope will be a heady, dry anisette.

Making Fennel Frond Vodka

We plated the fennel alongside a spicy potato with mustard seed recipe we got from Sunset, and poured a reduction of the braising liquid over it.

Beer Braised Fennel with Potatoes

Checkout all the photos here.

52 Foods Week Eight: Lemons

Update: Per Henry’s suggestion in the comments, cooking the lemon low and slow results in even better caramelizing.

I was a little under the weather this week, which put a damper on my enthusiasm for cooking and especially coming up with new ideas. Fortunately, there is one thing I enjoy when I have a cold—a nice hot toddy—that includes lemons, which our generous neighbors have plenty of, and are willing to share.

Neighborhood Lemons Happy to Share

I didn’t feel it would be right to just make a hot toddy and call the week good, since that would really only entail squeezing a lemon wedge over a cup of hot whiskey, honey and water. I tried to think of something to up the ante, and finally found inspiration in an old memory from college. One night while making mulled wine, a Russian friend showed us a way to eat lemon slices as a snack. She sliced a thin round, covered it in sugar and popped it straight into her mouth, rind and all. We may have been a touch skeptical at first, but we quickly became converts. I figured that I could cover a lemon slice in sugar this way, then caramelize it before adding it to a hot toddy for both a burst of lemon and sweetness.

I sliced a few 1/4 inch thick rounds from a nice fresh lemon. It’s really amazing how good a fresh lemon smells—entirely more fragrant and rich than one that has been sitting in the store. I removed the seeds from each slice, then set them aside to prepare the sugar.

1/4" Slices

Rather than covering the lemons in just sugar, I decided to mix in some other spices that I like in a toddy, so that they would cook with the sugar and lemons. I chose allspice and cinnamon, but you could use anything you like. I didn’t measure, just tasted the mix a few times until it had the right balance. If I had to guess, I’d say it was about 1/3 cup of sugar, 1 tablespoon of allspice and 2 teaspoons of cinnamon.

Sugar, Allspice and Cinnamon

I dredged each lemon slice in the sugar until they were well coated, then placed them in a sauté pan over medium-high heat. The sugar and juices melted out of the lemons and began to smell slightly of marshmallow after about a minute and a half. I flipped the slices and continued to cook them for about another minute, then removed them and placed them on a cooling rack with paper towels underneath it. I also immediately ran the pan under water to rinse out the melted sugar, which would have been hell to clean if it had cooled.

Place on Rack to Cool

As the lemons cooled, I sprinkled more of the sugar mixture over them, flipping them once to coat each side.

Sprinkle with Sugar Mix

They took about 10 minutes to cool, which is plenty of time to heat a pot of water, and place whiskey and honey in a mug. I skewered each lemon with a small bamboo skewer and balanced it over the mug, then poured the hot water over the lemon and into the whiskey and honey. Once served, the lemon slice should be slid into the drink to flavor it more and to use as a stir stick.

Skewer Lemon and Place Over Mug

Caramelized Lemon Hot Toddy:

2 oz. Bourbon
1 tsp. Honey
1 Caramelized Lemon Round
6 oz. Boiling Water

Mix bourbon and honey in a mug. Place skewered lemon round over drink and pour boiling water over lemon into mug. Steep lemon and use to stir drink occasionally.

Caramelized Lemon Hot Toddy

More photos of the caramelized lemon process are here.