Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Arkansas Greens - SoCal Style

I love greens. Better said, I love greens when they are prepared well.

I discovered greens in Arkansas. Who knows what I was doing there – some sort of business meetings. Deep in the heart of Arkansas. Not Little Rock (that’s another story – some day when I’m making steaks I’ll write about the greatest steak restaurant on the planet), but somewhere out in the countryside. Away from big towns.

Beautiful country. Spectacular. Hilly, with lakes, rivers, everything wildly green from the humidity and rain. Sort of the opposite of Southern California. And huge houses – with gigantic yards (another thing you don’t get in California or Europe for the most part).

And, for lack of a better description, country style lunch buffets.

With tables sagging from the weights of every sort of vegetable, fruit, bread, and bean you could imagine. And meat – hams, roast beef, fired chicken, grilled chicken, pork five different ways, and fish too. And potatoes – fried, boiled, in salads, croquettes. And then there were the desserts.

The tables went on for miles, it seemed. Your eyes became blurry trying to see to the end of it all. And this was just lunch!

To the best of my ability – I tried everything. And it was good! Not $100 a plate good – but really full of flavor and well prepared. These people really know how to cook!

Nestled in there amongst all the food were several kinds of greens. Mustard, beet, chard, kale, polk, dandelion, probably others I couldn’t identify. Alone, braised in their own pot likker, or incorporated into other dishes. With deep flavor that comes from long cooking and lots of fat. Not to mention a few secret seasonings.

I’d lived in New Orleans, but we never had greens that I can remember. I’d been to Tennessee and the Carolinas, and Georgia, but no greens.

My earlier experiences with greens, as I written about before, were grim. Primarily over boiled spinach that had come from the freezer in the form of a block.

To finally get to experience what everyone always talks about in the south was a great treat.

Naturally, I look bring greens into the menu on occasion. Sometimes cooked in their own likker (what they call the pot juices in the south), sometimes, like tonight, incorporated into a larger concept.

I must have gotten this recipe from somewhere, years ago, but I don’t recall where. And it has evolved a bit over time. But it is a favorite – especially good on a cold night, or when a good spicy broth is needed to beat back a cold (like tonight).

So tonight, Penne with Greens and Sausage. I usually make my own sausage from ground chicken for this recipe. It’s pretty easy, its not at all as gross as you might imagine, and I can increase the fennel and red pepper levels to what I want for this dish. Because everything is in fairly large pieces, it goes best with things like Orecchetti or Penne. I like it hot and spicy, but that is something you can adjust to personal taste.

For the greens, I tend to use Kale, Chard, and Beet Greens, because they’re easy to get here. I get the beet greens as I always buy beets with the greens still on. But you can use any combination you like. I add some cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg to the greens as they braise. The ‘secret’, I guess, and cook them in the sausage drippings. It gives everything a nice background nuance. Be sure to get enough greens as they wilt down to nothing when they cook. I use at least 5 full bunches, roughly chopped. I make it in a 10 quart pot, and they do not all fit in until they cook down a bit.

You get a wonderful broth, lots of vitamins, good protein and carbs, and it’s basically a one pot meal, so the cleanup is easy as well.

Penne with Greens and Sausage
Serves 6

1 lb Penne Pasta
3 - 4 lbs sausage (recipe follows)
5 bunches assorted greens, such as Kale, Chard, Beet, etc., chopped roughly
1 tbsp cinnamon
a big pinch of allspice
a big pinch of nutmeg
3 cloves garlic, peeled, chopped roughly
8 cups chicken broth
Olive Oil
Pecorino-Romano Cheese, grated, as a garnish

Heat olive oil in a large 10 quart pot until hot. Add sausage, and cook, stirring occasionally, until cooked through and browned. Don’t stir too often ,or the sausage will not brown well. Scoop the sausage out to a plate and reserve.

Drain all but 3-4 tablespoons of fat from the pot (or keep it all, like me!). Over medium high heat, add as many greens as possible, stirring. As the greens cook down, continue adding greens until all are in the pot. Add the spices and the garlic, and continue to cook, stirring.

When the greens have cooked down to ¼ of their original height or so, add the chicken broth and the sausage. Increase to the heat to high, and bring the mixture just to a boil. Reduce heat to lowest setting and keep warm.

Cook pasta in lots of boiling salted water until al dante. Drain. Put a portion of pasta in a bowl, and ladle some greens, sausage and broth over it. Garnish with grated cheese. Serve. Enjoy!

Italian Chicken Sausage

3-4 lbs ground chicken
2-3 tbsp fennel seeds, ground, or pounded with a hammer
1 cup pecorino-romano cheese, grated
1/2 cup Italian parsley, chopped
1-2 tbsp red pepper flakes (more or less, depending on taste and mood)
1 tsp black pepper
2 tbsp salt

Add all ingredients to a large bowl. Mix thoroughly with your fingers until all flavorings are evenly distributed. Best if is sits a few hours in the refrigerator.

You could pack this into casings if desired, but it is not necessary for this recipe.

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