Southern Comfort for Strength

Ham hock cured collard green risotto made with barley. This dish has citrus notes and a satisfying meatiness as much from the ham as from the greens that still retain a good bit in them.

Ham hock cured collard green risotto made with barley. This dish has citrus notes and a satisfying meatiness as much from the ham as from the greens that still retain a good bit in them.

Winter is still here even though I see promising signs of new life beginning on the trees around me. And, while it is still cold, it is still time to cuddle and snuggle with a warm bowl of nourishment. They say in the North East, little grows this time of year and whatever does survive usually looks battered and weighed down from all the snow and then ice. It is a hard time indeed.  At my local farmer's market, I see evidence of this harshness. If the week before had been particularly brutal and icy, I can see the brussel sprouts showing their struggle. They look bruised and a touch water logged. If we have a lucky break from precipitation for a whole week, even if it is bitterly cold, they look a lot more brave. It is heart wrenching and fascinating to see nature's different creatures struggle with her moods.

I will go out on a limb and say that we, the humans, are the poorest equipped of the lot and also the least courageous. We bundle up, cover ourself in layers, stay wrapped up in blankets, in bed or on the couch, drink copious amounts of warm stuff and eat indulgently comforting stews. Well, thank god for the last two! I, for one, have no shame in admitting that I am weak. Yes, dear mother nature, I am your weakling offspring. I do not have a natural coat of fur, an aged bark or even the audacity of a street cat to survive the cold. And, no, I cannot hibernate, nor burrow below ground nor sleep for months even though I would like all that. But, it is ok, I will be fine, because I can cook myself a splendid broth or a magic stew.

Cooked low and slow, the collard greens still retain a meaty texture and are a great complement to the ham that is barely holding together.

Cooked low and slow, the collard greens still retain a meaty texture and are a great complement to the ham that is barely holding together.

Every week, as Sunday rolls by, I look out of my window as soon as I wake up and look for the telltale signs of the market setting up. They are there rain or shine, cold and wet or cold and dry. Often, I go in and pick up something out of a sense of duty. And, respect for the braveness of weathering even inclement weather with nothing more than flimsy tent poles and heavy parkas. Actually, I go because I am selfish. They still have some of the best winter produce and greens around me, and, the best croissants, my guilty indulgence once a week.

My absolute winter favorite is collard greens. I love eating them for their flavor but I love them even more for the irony that I associate with it. You see, for me, collard green is a distinctive Southern comfort. I have seen collard greens here in NY for as long as I have lived here. But, the first time I tasted them was in New Orleans in that distinctive Louisiana gumbo. After my first bite, I fell head first in love with this meaty greens with a citrus note that could so easily compete with fall-off-the-bone tender meat, in both oomph and satisfaction. Whenever I have searched for recipes using this green, the results are usually something Southern cuisine affiliated. I decided it was just swell because what could be better than a plate of food that transports one into a warmer regions while you struggle against white monochrome outside?!

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And, so it is that collard greens are a winter indulgence for me. I don't get it often because I want to perpetuate the myth of its luxury that I have created for myself.  When I do, I inevitably slow cook it, overall several hours, drawing out the flavors into the dish and building up the anticipation of that climactic first taste.

This dish here I cooked for 24 hours. No, that is not an exaggeration. My sincere gratitude to whoever invented the slow cooker. It is a cook's best companion any time of the year, but, particularly in winter. It is cheap, energy efficient and versatile. And, it is perfect for cooking collard greens. Your southern mama may not approve of this new fangled device but give her a taste of this Ham Hock Cured Collard Greens and I'll bet she will be wanting one of them cookers herself!

This dish cooks in two parts to make a one pot meal. The greens cook with the ham hock and juices for several hours and then the barley is added to bring it up to a risotto consistency. You can also leave off after the first and simply serve the greens and meat on grits or mashed potatoes. Or, just bring the bowl to the table, stick a spoon in and eat family style. Or, skip the table entirely; I won't judge. It is worth it. It begs for it. :)

You can serve this slow cooked dish either as a risotto, shown here, or simply as a cured greens over grits or mash. Either way, the collards shine through with splendid warmth

You can serve this slow cooked dish either as a risotto, shown here, or simply as a cured greens over grits or mash. Either way, the collards shine through with splendid warmth


Ham Hock Cured Collard Greens with Barley Risotto

{Slow Cooker Recipe}

This is really a peasant dish that uses no expensive ingredients. As exotic as ham hock sounds, it is actually a cheap cut of the pork, purely because nobody wants it. But, the amount of flavor in its meat and fat belies its worthiness. You can get a pound at the local butcher for under $10. If you can't find the hock, you can use either trotters or thick whole bacon.

I deliberately do not add any spices in this recipe to allow all the subtle flavors come through without being overshadowed. Like the lemon note of the green and the fattiness of the hock that hits the back of your palate to the mild acidity of apple cider. You can always add spices to your preference. But, when you make this the first time, I would beseech you to give the plain version a chance to see how good something in its raw, natural form can be.

Yet, by that same accord, it becomes paramount that you then find the best possible ingredients that you can. I know I am lucky in where I live and the access I have to pasture raised meats and unsprayed produce. I do not want to get into the debate and realism of that choice for everyone but I would urge you to find the best that you can afford because this dish is not only worth that investment but also stretches to several meals, making it rather affordable.

To make just the cured greens, you need the minimum of 10 hours of cooking time. However, I would recommend cooking for 14-15 hours. The additional time will help render down to the fat covering of the hock to a wonderfully aromatic edible lard like texture that would be a shame to let go without a try.

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1 lb ham hock

1 big bunch collard greens

1 cup fresh apple cider

1 cup beef or lamb stock (or any other. if you don't have stock, use water, it is ok)

1 large onion, diced small

6 cloves of garlic, peeled and whole

For the risotto: 1-1/2 cups barley

salt, pepper and olive oil as needed

Season the ham hock with salt and pepper and set aside for at least 20 minutes for that to settle in.

Meanwhile, chop all of the collard greens, stalk and leaves into strips. You can use all the parts because they soften well and over the next 10 hours, every bit taste sublime.

Prep the slow cooker and spread the onion, garlic and greens on the base and season.

Sit the hock pretty in the center, pressing it down a little to nest in the middle. Pour all the liquid over and drizzle some olive oil over.

Set on low and leave to cook for atleast 14 hours. By this time the meat on the hock will be barely held together by the fat cover.

Wash the barley and add to the pot gently swirling it around the tender meat.

Cook for another 6 hours on low until fully cooked and almost creamy. 

Serve with a squeeze of lemon and some cheese if you wish