Red, White and Collard Greens

Thursday, December 23, 2010

   Happy holidays, everyone! This is without a doubt one of my favorite times of year. It always seems to me that people become a little happier, a little more relaxed, just a touch more tolerant. Suddenly, it doesn't matter so much that you're stuck at work an extra hour or traffic seems slower that usual. After all, the house smells like pine and holiday cheer, there is wine in the kitchen, presents under the tree and a multitude of cookies begging to be made and devoured.

   I know the premise of this blog is food that brings health and wholeness, but as you can see from my previous post, I am no stranger to treats.  I think part of the key to an overall healthy way of life is taking part in those naughty things we sometimes desire. What fun is this life if we can't have that slice of birthday cake or not think twice about that delicious glass of fine red? I guess when you get down to it, I'm a believer in balance. I've never cut entire food groups out or drank vinegar concoctions to cleanse myself, but I also know when my body needs a rest and when I need a meal to bring myself back to a state of wellness.

   That being said, with all the sugar and excitement the holidays inevitably bring, I like to have a restorative recipe tucked in my back pocket. I usually have a different one each year but I've noticed that the theme generally revolves around a vegetable soup of some sort. I find a deep, fragrant bowl of belly soothing soup to be just the antidote to the over indulgence that the holiday season encourages. This year, I am proud to say, it is a dedidedly southern inspired brew!

   Since moving south I become more convinced every day that this is where I was meant to live. Having been born in the height of summer, I've always liked to say that I was simply put on this earth for sun and warmth. Living in the north until less than a year ago was an annual struggle for me. I will die a happy old woman if I never again have to wake up to trudge through knee deep snow, the frigid wind like razors in my face.

   One popular food of the south, which until recently I couldn't understand the hype over, is collard greens. I tried cooking them once when I was living in New York and, after a quick saute (which is how I usually treat my leafy greens) they were tough, stringy, and kind of bitter. Not pleasant.

   Once down south I bravely ordered them in a restaurant and was punished with a limp, over cooked, bacon fat slicked pile of brownish-green sludge... even more unpleasant.

   The third time really must be the charm, because collards are the star of my holiday soup this year. Apparently, gently simmered in a stock pot full of broth and vegetables and perhaps a bean or two, collards give up an earthy tenderness that I can't seem to get enough of. Cooked without animal fat, I was surprised to find that collards naturally have a slightly smoky sweet undertone- and I now see why the natural addition to recipes with collards is bacon fat. It is the only plant I've ever met that tastes a little like, well, smoked pig! I don't often cook with bacon, I find the flavor overwhelming, especially in vegetable dishes, but the subtle, smoky whisper that collards impart is just delightful.

   I hope this soup finds its way to your table this year; after that extra cookie or two, it is just what the doctor ordered.

Holiday Soup
Adapted from Terry Walters' 'Clean Start'

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 soft ball sized yellow onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 medium carrots, sliced 1/8 inch thick (about 2 1/2 cups)
2 large parsnips, peeled and sliced 1/8 inch thick (about 2 1/2 cups)
4 cups vegetable stock
1 bunch collard greens, stems sliced out
1 can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

Note: I try to leave vegetables unpeeled whenever possible, but I find the parsnip peel to be rather bitter. Carrots I always wash thoroughly and leave unpeeled- most vegetables concentrate their fiber and nutrients in their rind. 

In a large soup pot or dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and adjust heat to saute them until translucent and slightly browned around the edges- around 5 minutes. During this time, sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Add the garlic and sautee another 2 minutes. Add the stock and one cup water. Add thyme, carrots and parsnips. While that is coming to a simmer, slice the collards into 1 inch ribbons and add to the pot along with the kidney beans. Bring all of this to a simmer and taste the broth. Add salt and pepper to your liking. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Turn the heat off, stir the soup, replace the lid and allow to sit for 10 minutes.
   Enjoy on its own or with a crusty loaf of bread and a medium bodied red wine. Serves 4-6.

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