[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]
I wasn’t a very good vegetable eater as a kid. My sister was. She was evil about it. I’d be midway through the go-to opening pea deployment – a spread with a rise towards the plate edge, a scooped out crater in the middle, and a spread of green dots like a monochrome Pollock painting whisping along the curvature cunningly contrived to make it appear as there were less peas than before – as that little shrew was asking for seconds she didn’t really want. She didn’t just want to be Mom and Dad’s good little eater. She wanted to highlight that I wasn’t. A stray dog bit her once when we were playing in the woods and she had to endure a painful series of injections “just in case.” The rabies shots and the venal display she put on mugging for vegetable praise are probably unrelated. Contrary to popular usage, karma doesn’t act within the same incarnation so she won’t get hers until the next life. But she will get hers.
My oldest son claims to love veggies, but he’s got a narrow definition of them that includes French fries, pickles, and corn on the cob and excludes everything else. His younger brother will eat his brother’s list plus anything we’ve grown in the garden. It doesn’t have to be from our garden, it just has to be a variety of edible plant he’s seen come out of our garden at some point or a bell pepper, which isn’t really a vegetable but gets lumped in with them like tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and a lot of the things I immediately think of when I think of vegetables but aren’t. Both turn their noses up at the bulk of our dinner sides.
The internet will tell you kids dislike vegetables because vegetables have natural defenses against predators… predatory herbivores. There are flavonoids which is a word I didn’t make up and other chemicals that mimic the bitter taste of toxins to scare away would be eaters. Apparently, children are more sensitive to such things and more likely to stage dinner table battles of will.
I like the idea of a plant with a clever defense. They’re weak little things against a world of belligerents intent on devouring them but with wit and wherewithal they live to see another period of photosynthetic activity. They’re like the Grey Mouser or the rabbits in Watership Down. Plants with a thousand enemies.
At some point, the defenses fail and as we lose the aversion the great vowel shift begins. It’s part of growing up. That child like “Eww!” shifts to a wizened “Ooh!” and the sides become a treat. Some rare adults get sophisticated and preachy about what’s good for you and act like a mean-spirited sister in need of a pat on the head, but most get genuinely excited about seasonal well-prepared vegetables. They want to share the enthusiasm. Watch an old man’s eyes light up when he’s served a bowl of fried okra. There’s a wistfulness there. It’s like he’s a kid again but one that likes vegetables.
Despite what I’ve been told, I have trouble accepting that meat and threes don’t exist beyond a few novelties outside of the South. In case I’m wrong, for the non-Southerners a meat and three is a lunch restaurant where you order just that: a meat and three vegetables. There’s usually a list of four or five steam table type entrees like pork chops, Salisbury steak, catfish, and chicken and a list of ten to twenty vegetables like fried okra, greens, mac & cheese (counts), and creamed corn and you pick ala carte. The places are known as meat and threes but they have prices for meat and two or just three or four vegetables. Everything comes with cornbread. It’s fantastic and the reason people come is the produce.
I know a guy that owns a white table cloth place in one of the tonier enclaves on the skirts of Birmingham. It used to be dinner only. At some point he decided to do lunch but he wanted to do something different from what he was offering in the evening. He started serving Birmingham’s first fine dining meat and three lunch. The hamburger steak is made with last night’s filet or strip trimmings. The salmon is wild caught. The chicken is from a farm that’s reputable enough to get its name italicized on the menu. You get the idea. But most impressive is the array of vegetables: maque choux, sauteed squash with a splash of white wine, garlic spinach, parmesan grits, and Mardi Gras slaw to name a few. Made to order. No steam tables. He’s got great instincts.
Below is my home version of his Spicy Pineapple Collard Greens. It seems off the wall, and it is, but I think you’ll love it.
Spicy Pineapple Collard Greens
- collards, leaves roughly torn and thicker ribs removed
- 8-12 cherry tomatoes, halved
- ¼ yellow onion, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 habanero, deseeded (or not – up to you) and diced
- 4-6 1 inch slices of canned or fresh pineapple, cut to preference but I like them around the size of your exposed thumb when you play Got Your Nose
- soy sauce
- apple cider vinegar
- olive oil
Start with a few glugs of olive oil in a sauce pan over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until aromatic and starting to turn translucent.
Next add the pineapple and sweat for a minute.
If you prefer, you can add tomatoes instead of pineapple first. All you’re doing by putting in either a bit early is to add moisture. I’m trying to avoid acrid garlic and the juice from the tomatoes or pineapple reduces the chance of excessive browning. Either way, now you want the garlic, tomatoes, pineapple, habanero in the pot with the onions and stir them around for four or five minutes. You’re looking for the peppers to fade in color and the tomatoes to soften.
Now add the collards and stir to moisten. I didn’t put a quantity for greens in the ingredients list because it’s up to you. Wilting takes a lot and makes it a little so start with a couple of handfuls of greens, cook them down and add another. Repeat or not until you are happy.
When the greens to stuff ratio satisfies add a few dashes of soy and apple cider vinegar, stir, taste, and adjust.
If you serve this to friends you don’t just have a great side dish, you have a conversation starting compliment magnet on a plate. Tell them you made it up. It’s not an unheard of dish, but it’s not commonly found either. No one will know.
Hope you enjoy it.