Getting back to our green roots with potlikker soup
(Photos by April McGreger)
Recently I was one of more than 1,000 Southern farmers, chefs, and co-producers attending the Georgia Organics Conference in Athens, Ga. The theme of the conference was “Reclaiming Agriculture,” with the spotlight on “culture.” The keynote speaker, Slow Food International founder Carlo Petrini, gave an inspiring speech calling on all there to remember that Slow Food‘s mission is not simply to support local food, but to preserve local, cultural food practices. He suggested that if we can reconnect food to culture, we can restore a healthy relationship with food. He stressed that we must get back to the place where food is sacred, with important ties to both family and religion, just as animals were sacred to the hunter gatherers thousands of years ago.
One of the greatest problems with our current industrialized food system, Petrini argued, is that we have become so preoccupied with price that we have forgotten all about value. He suggested that we combat the higher price of good, clean, and fair food by valuing it more and wasting less. Currently 22,000 tons of food are wasted daily in the United States. No wonder we insist on it being cheap; we are buying twice as much as we need.
Petrini challenged us to take a hard look into our refrigerators, where we were sure to find “parsley begging for mercy,” and encouraged us to be less wasteful cooks. He called on chefs and home cooks alike to bring back the art of recycling leftovers, invoking the great Italian peasant soup ribollita, which is made from yesterday’s leftover beans, greens, and bread. He also praised Georgia’s collard greens, which he called “a monument to Georgia.” The greens are resilient and easy to grow, cooked in a rich pork broth made of less desirable cuts of pork or various pork scraps, and served with simple, aromatic corn bread for a satisfying meal.
“Who is the 3-star Michelin chef who invented this dish?” Petrini teased, encouraging us to recognize the wisdom and resourcefulness of the traditional culture from which the dish arose. “I want to travel the world and speak of your collard greens,” he exclaimed to a laughing — but proud — Georgia audience.
Petrini’s words struck a chord with me. I have long been troubled by how the environmental and good-food movements in the U.S. largely ignore traditional food knowledge and culture. So today I offer you a recipe for soup that is delicious, nutritious, economical, resourceful, recycled, and an ingenious product of my traditional food culture.
The basis of the soup is what we in the South refer to as potlikker, a mineral-rich broth leftover from cooking a pot of greens that was born out of privation. It is said to have its origins amongst slaves who had to feed their own families with the leftovers from the big house. Little did the well-to-do masters know, they were tossing out the most nutritious part of their pot of greens.
Regardless of its origins, potlikker and greens are an important and beloved dish for all Southerners, regardless of class or race. Those nutritionists who scold us for boiling all the nutrients out of our food do not understand the way we eat. We know well the value of the potlikker, and we relish it ladled over a wedge of crispy cornbread. We save it for the makings of tomorrow’s soup. We’re even known to sip it in a juice glass alongside our supper. We use it to make cornmeal dumplings (see recipe below), also known as Indian dumplings, as they were one of the first foods English settlers in coastal Virginia and North Carolina learned to make from Indians. This dish has persevered for 400 years (though admittedly gets scarcer every year) and is most commonly found on top of a pot of greens.
Here, with these historic Southern dishes, I proudly salute the American Indians, slave cooks, and homesteaders with whom these dishes originated, as well as my grandparents and my parents who made sure to pass the love and value of these foods on to me. I for one am happier eating potlikker soup with corn dumplings at my Mama’s house than eating in the finest Michelin-starred restaurants in France.
Potlikker Soup with Greens, Turnips, and Corn Dumplings
The cooking liquid from yesterday’s mess (the Southern term to designate a potful of greens), is often recycled as a base for soup (along with any leftover greens). Here, however, we start from scratch.
1 bunch of greens: collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, kale, or chard
1 medium to large turnip or rutabaga
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 bay leaf
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper
~ 1 teaspoon salt, depending on the saltiness of your pork stock
Rich Pork Stock, recipe below (you may substitute a stock made from simmering a several parmesan rinds, a smoked turkey wing stock, or a rich chicken stock)
Corn Dumplings, recipe below
Bring the pork stock to a simmer in a large soup pot. Wash your greens well. Remove tough stems and cut large leaves in half lengthwise. Julienne the greens so that you have thin strips about 3 inches long and 1/8-inch wide. Add greens to the pork stock.
Peel and dice the turnip and add it to the stock along with the chopped onion, garlic, bay leaf, crushed red pepper, and salt to the stock. Cover and simmer the soup about 1 hour and 15 minutes. You may need to add a bit more water if your soup looks too thick. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and black pepper as needed.
Make dumpling batter (see below). Drop the batter by the teaspoonful into the simmering broth. Cover the pot and cook until the dumplings are firm and cooked through, about 12-15 minutes. Serve with pepper sauce (pepper-spiked vinegar) or hot sauce.
Rich Pork Stock
3 smoked ham hocks or 6 pieces of bacon or a ham bone and a few ham scraps
10 cups water
In a soup pot, place the ham hocks and cover with the water. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Cover and simmer for about 2 to 2.5 hours. Strain the broth and discard the hocks or other seasoning meats. You should have about 8 cups of stock.
Makes about 20 dumplings
1 cup of white or yellow, fine or medium cornmeal
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon of salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup hot potlikker
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/4 cup chopped scallions or onion (optional)
Mix the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, salt, and pepper in a bowl. Stir in potlikker, a little at a time, to make smooth batter that is stiff enough to hold together. Vigorously stir in the egg, then fold in the scallions or onions. Let the batter rest for a few minutes.