June 3, 2012

Blog the Sixteenth: Greens ‘n Potato Mash

With a Side of Dry-Roasted Meat.

Like most addictive substances, greens are an acquired taste.  Remember the first time you tasted alcohol?  Didn’t it seem inconceivable to you at the time that anyone could like that taste?  And if you had known how much trouble it is to produce wine, beer, or spirits, wouldn’t a passion for it seem not only gross, but down right unnatural?  Such is the case with greens.  What tastes like dirt to others, to its lovers is earthy; where others taste metal, its lovers taste minerals.  Greens require lots of soaking because, well,  they’re dirty.  They sometimes need par-boiling because, well, they taste like iron.   After these preparatory purges of huge unwieldy heads of greens, you end up with a small pile of green mush.  What but addiction could explain anyone’s going to such lengths?

Well, poverty might could explain some of it.  No doubt my people’s knack for making greens delicious goes back to that mating of poverty with resourcefulness that gave birth to their cooking.  They were poor.  Greens are both easy to find in the byways and easy to grow in abundance.  The tender stuff, especially the hearts, can be eaten raw in salads.  But what to do with the tough, the bitter, the metallic?  That’s when ingenuity enters in, and cooking gets started.

Such culinary ingenuity should not be taken for granted.  It is yet another witness to human omnivorousness.  One might expect animal appetite to tend naturally toward the pleasant and away from the painful.  But human beings like the sour as well as the sweet; the fiery as well as the mellow; the bitter as well as the salty.  The human palate enjoys being pinched, bitten, burned, desiccated, and generally roughed up, now and again.  We can get interested in the full gamut of tastes and feels.  Why?  Because our senses are the mediums of our minds, and we like to perceive and contemplate all that there is.  We are omnivorous.

There are a lot of greens on the face of the earth.  In Genesis, that’s what God gave us along with the animals to eat at first, at the beginning of creation.  Eating the animals instead got started much later, after the Great Flood, Noah being the Bible’s promethean inventor of the first barbeque.  Some people today will eat their greens only in animal form—pre digested, as it were.  Others, attempting to recover a prelapsarian purity, try to subsist on greens alone.  I advise you, Gentle Reader, to avoid both extremes:  be neither carnivorous, nor herbivorous, but omnivorous.  Roast your meat, sauté your greens, and set them off with brightly colored vegetables.  This way, you will satisfy your nature’s every species of desire.

Speaking of roasted meats, sauteed greens are a must-have at my people’s barbeques.  At the first barbeque of the present season—an occasion for my family to celebrate not only the inauguration of summer, but my mother’s birthday and my [Irish] nephew’s graduation from college—my mother volunteered to bring to my sister’s barbeque sweet-and-sour red peppers and—thanks to me—what I will here call greens ‘n potato mash.  She was ready just to sauté her mix of sweet greens with garlic ‘n oil and spice it up with a bit of chopped anchovy or olive, but I prevailed upon her to instead make her greens ‘n potato mash, in order to stretch those greens with starchy substance for a large crowd of eaters, not a few of Irish persuasion.

Although my people cook greens a lot, they don’t cook lots of greens, and I’m less convinced than are my parents that our recipes are good for classic American greens, like collards or kale.  On the bitter side, we cook lots of broccoli di rape (a.k.a. rapini), and a fair amount of dandelion in season (yes, even the kind that grows in the road; one of your identity-defining moments as an Italian-American kid is when your father makes you help him pick unflowered dandelions from the side of the road in the Catskills, to bring back to the rented ski-cabin for your mother to cook, while your newly made American hick-friends look on in bewilderment).  On the sweet side, Swiss chard is much favored, along with escarole (i.e., flat leaf escarole).   In between and ambidextrous is chicory, a.k.a., endive, or curly endive, or curly escarole.  Yes, the nomenclature is very confusing—one farmer in Rome’s famous Campo de’ fiori, oldest farmer’s market in Europe, was willing to call three different species of greens he was offering cicoria, without any apparent sympathy for my bewilderment at three different things of nature having the same name, for sale, at the same time, without any violation of the law of non‑contradiction. 

The challenge of bitter greens is to tone them down, but the challenge of sweet greens is to help them out.  My mother’s recipe for Swiss chard with potatoes is universally delicious—I’ve never met anyone who didn’t love it.  It’s culinary genius at its simplest.  My mother thinks of this recipe as a distinctively rustic dish from her home town of Sacco, so I could well have called it alla Saccatara.  But wouldn’t such a name sound a false note of ‘gourmet’?  So I’m going to call it greens ‘n potato mash, to evoke the American south, closer kin than the revivalist Italophilic kitchens of Northeast chi-chi restaurants.

Here’s the idea in a nutshell:  fry up some potatoes, throwing in some garlic cloves, and when the potatoes are cooked through on the inside and crispy on the outside, mix in par-boiled but well-drained greens; once the moisture of the greens softens the potatoes, roughly mash some of the potatoes into the greens, and keep sauteeing till that greens ‘n potato mush looks bread-sopping delicious.

I like this dish best with chard; you can also do it with escarole, or endive/chicory, or a combination.  Most recently, to my skeptical amazement, my parents have been cooking the outer leaves of Romaine lettuce, and it’s amazingly pleasant, so throw that into the mix, if you have it—what the hell.  In short, any sweet greens will benefit from thus being married with potatoes, provided only that garlic, oil, and salt be the wedding party.

You Gentiles need to understand how easy you have it.  The greens available at your markets are remarkably clean.  I can’t even imagine the technology they’ve come up with to do this.  You need only once to be the beneficiary of my father’s largesse to take my point.  My father has a wonderful garden in a Jersey suburb, surrounded by a chain-link fence, sunk a couple of feet into the ground against rabbits, and rising several feet above against deer, where he grows farm fresh greens.  It’s just the sort of thing that widens the eye and whets the imagination of Gentile foodies.  But when once he gave a big bagful of his garden-fresh greens to my sister’s Gentile friend, her thankful delight turned to horror when from the bag broken open in her kitchen insects scurried forth onto the counter and thence into the crevices of her kitchen, leaving in their wake a miniature avalanche of fresh-garden dirt.

That bag had gotten past my mother.  My father is generous with his greens, albeit not undiscriminating, taking a pusher’s pride in turning a Gentile on to greens, or satisfaction in a connoisseur’s appreciation of home‑grown freshness, but in either case, he figures its excellence is precisely this: it’s straight-from-the-garden-fresh.   My mother’s sophistical acumen, in contrast, figures that my sister’s Gentile friends have no idea what it means to wash greens.  So, if she has the time, energy, and charitable feeling for it, she’ll vet those greens and give them at least a first rinse with a hose in the garage, and a soak in the kitchen sink; in a good mood, she’ll render them ready-to-boil; in a great mood, she’ll par-boiled and drain them for you too, ready-to-saute.

But not for you, Gentle Reader.  You have to wash your own greens, and wash them well, because gritty greens are gross.  No one wants grit in their molars.  The easiest way to get rid of the grit is to soak the greens in an abundant bath, allowing the grit time to settle out to the bottom of the sink or tub of water.   And even more than one such soaking may be necessary, depending on how garden fresh! your greens are. 

Begin by dismantling your head of greens, throwing away anything leathery tough, unsightly, or unsavory (which usually means outer leaves, or parts thereof).  Tear or cut the bigger leaves up into big, coarse pieces. Then fill the sink or big basin or bowl with water, and swish the greens around vigorously for a first rinse.  Empty the vessel, and refill with fresh water, dunk the greens a few times, and then leave them to float and soak.  

Meanwhile, fill up a big pot 2/3 the way with fresh water and a handful of salt, and put it to boil.  When it is near boiling, grab your greens from their bath with your hands and pile them up in a colander; then empty your vessel of water, making sure all the sedimented dirt goes down the drain with the bath-water, and refill it with fresh water for a final swish-and-dunk of the greens.

By now your salted water is boiling, and you can transfer your greens into the pot.  Boil your greens only until their stalks seem no longer fibrous but tender to the touch of finger or fork—perhaps as little as 5 minutes, and surely not more than 20—at which point, pull them out of the boiling water with a fork, spork, or tongs, spreading them out in as broad a colander as you have.  They will seem depressingly diminished.  Do not lose heart!  Be stalwart, and have faith!

I like to draw out excess water by spinning the greens in a salad‑spinner, which has the amazing ability of  drying them out without beating them up.  I think spinning much better than traditional methods of squeezing with hands or squashing under weights.  Because the greens are ultimately to be sauteed, you don’t want them wet; if they’re too wet, the final mash will come out steamed and so bland rather than sauteed and savory.

As for the potatoes, you want them only in moderation:  as my mother says, the dish is chard with potatoes, not potatoes with chard.  The potatoes are back-up or filler—one or two will do.  Also, I think you want flaky rough-skinned potatoes, like Idaho Russets, rather than soft‑skinned, waxy, boiling potatoes. I prefer the traditional way—my mother’s mother’s way—of boiling the potatoes whole first; I then peel them by hand and cut them up into big fat rounds.  I pre-heat a pool of either peanut oil or regular olive oil on medium‑high heat in a broad frying pan, and sauté the rounds on each side until their faces are golden-crusty and their edges gilded-crispy. My mother has a short-cut of cutting up raw potatoes into small wedges and toss-frying them until their edges are crispy—seems a bit Americanizata to me. 

Either way, half way to crispy, we introduce several whole garlic cloves, either cracked or slitted, so that by the time the potatoes are crispy, the garlic is golden and gilded rather than browned (if you get the timing wrong, then fish the garlic cloves out of the oil and lay them on top of the potatoes, to keep them from browning while the potatoes finish gilding).

When the potatoes are ready, pile on the par-boiled greens, distributing them over the potatoes.  After a bit, begin flipping the greens and potatoes over and over, to mix them.  Once the potatoes have been softened by the moisture of the greens, start cutting up some potatoes with your spatula and mash them into the greens.  Some of my Gentile friends who take on this recipe resist this smashing; they want to see integral potato pieces mixed in with greens.  That looks prettier, but doesn’t taste nearly as good.  That’s why I’m calling this dish greens ‘n potato mash, to forestall favoring the beautiful over the good.  The mashed potato absorbs and distributes the oil and flavors in a way chunks won't.  It’s the genius of the recipe.  Don’t be a dope before genius.  To invoke the authority of antiquity, know that my grandmother used to roughly mash the pre-boiled potatoes with a fork ahead of time, and sauté the garlic cloves to gilded before adding her pre‑mashed potatoes.  

Everything must be well salted.  All sweet vegetables need help (i.e., salt and oil), and sweet greens even more than others.  Keep sauteeing, and flipping, and salting, until the mash smells and tastes so delicious, you just have to take a piece of crusty Italian bread and dip in and pinch some mash in a three-fingered morsel of trifectal delight:  oily, garliky, and salty.  Potatoes never tasted so good, and neither have greens.  

 Savor with a side of dry-roasted meat.


Greens 'n Potato Mash with Garlic  

* Into a big pot of boiling water, well salted, add the white chard stems and thick potato rounds a hefty half-inch. (Prefer green Swiss Chard, but other sweet greens, like curly escarole, will do). Boil the stems and potato rounds 5 minutes before adding the chard leaves, trimmed and well rinsed in a few changes of water. Boil the green leaves just until they turn tender, well under 5 minutes. Fish the greens out first, and let the stems and potatoes finish out 10 minutes before removing them as well to the strainer to drain. Salt everything evenly all over still steaming.
* In a pool of regular olive oil over medium heat, fry the par-boiled potato rounds to crispy on one side; at the juncture when the first side is done and you flip the discs to their other side, add in several garlic cloves, either lightly crushed or scored.
* Once the potatoes are golden and crusty, lay the parboiled greens over the sizzling potatoes. Give the greens a few minutes to soften the potatoes before flipping all over to combine. Continue to sauté, and as you go, break up potatoes with your spatula and gently mash them into the greens After a while, taste and correct for salt
* Saute until delicious. Eat with crusty bread. Tomorrow, make a frittata out of leftovers for lunch.


Red Chard with Potato 'n Tomato 

* Into a big pot of boiling water, well salted, add the red chard stems and, optionally, potato rounds well shy of 1/2-inch, to boil 5 minutes. Then add the chard leaves, well rinsed twice over, and boil them with the stems and potatoes just until they turn tender, well under 5 minutes. Fish the leaves out of the boiling water, and let the stems and potatoes finish out 10 minutes total before likewise removing them the strainer to drain; salt them evenly all over still steaming.
* In a pool of regular olive oil over medium heat, saute a generous amount of finely sliced onion, salted, past translucent to blushing golden. Mix in two or three chopped pelati (whole peeled tomatoes, never not imported from Italy), and cook them into the onion for several minutes, just until they marry to form a chunky little onion sauce.
* Add in the red chard and potatoes. Flip and fold them into the oniony tomato sauce, to mix and marry. As they cook together, keep flipping and folding now and again, and break up the potatoes into small chunks, some of which break down into the mix.  
Cook until delicious. 
* Taste and correct for salt.  At then end, turn off the heat, and sprinkle with crumbs of Pecorino Romano or other hard cheese, and fold them in.