I just had a revelation. And, like most revelations it was borne of ideas, facts, concepts that have been swimming around in my head that have obvious connections. I woke up at 5:00 and began thinking about greens, specifically the efo I had recently at a Nigerian restaurant here in Chicago called B & Q Afro Root Cuisine while doing research for an upcoming Chicago Sun-Times feature on the food of the African Diaspora in Chicago. The owners are a wonderful couple named Briggs and Queen Imarhiagbe who have agreed to let me come and learn to cook in their kitchen (!) and the restaurant is welcoming and comfortable. The food was great and restored my shaken faith in African food, which is probably an unfair statement since I haven’t eaten lots of it and what I did eat was, heartbreakingly bad, for me at least. I do know enough to recognize that that I may have just been exposed to the work of some really bad cooks, but I can dissect that later, once I’ve gone through the healing process.
Anyway, efo, is finely shredded spinach cooked in a tomato/bell pepper/chili puree that, according to my research, can be flavored with meat, smoked fish, and dried, ground shrimp or crayfish (these last three ingredients are common seasonings in the West African kitchen). It can be served with chunks of the meat and smoked fish for what seems to be a real down home version.
What did all of this remind me of? The greens I grew up with, of course that were stewed with smoked or salted pork–neck bones, ham hocks, and sometimes chunks of salt pork–onions, and red pepper. Delicious. Spinach for African Americans does not fall into the category of greens. Spinach is spinach and generally reserved for steaming, sauteeing, or creaming. In my family, as is the case with most African Americans, greens meant a mix of kale, mustard and turnip.
In my house, the combination was prized for the balance of flavor and texture as turnip greens alone got a little bit too soft for us, and mustard greens were considered a bit too bitter. My father was just convinced that a mix of all offered the best flavor. The other standard option was a big pot of collards, always the perfect texture and flavor on their own, in my opinion. They are a bit more toothsome than the other varieties and I love that. Usually served with plates of deviled eggs, tomato slices and sprigs of green onion, there is nothing better!
It is an obvious connection and one that I actually made while sampling the efo. Now, in the context of all this I am considering my new favorite way to enjoy greens. Raw. I picked up the method during a short stint I spent learning to cook Brazilian food in a restaurant. This method, consists of cut collards into a very fine chiffonade and tossing them with thinly sliced red onions (I add a few other things–my secret). Et voilà, there you have it. The mixture is often sauteed or braised and then called couve mineira or couve à mineira but I love the raw version best. In either form, Brazilians often eat it as an accompaniment to feijoada completa.
I am now looking forward to the summer to try some of the things that my parents spoke of gathering and eating as children: poke salat (poke salad), dandelion greens, beet greens, etc. I’ve tried the beet and dandelion greens but I am on a quest to find poke salat. I’m betting I can find it at a farmer’s market somewhere or maybe it is growing right under my nose.