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How To Cook Greens

We all pay a lot of lip service to the idea of "home." Images of well-made beds and flowers in vases. People eating together around a big table. But often, especially for people of my generation, home is fraught with complications.

I was lucky to grow up in a tight-knit family. We did in fact gather around a big table, and they all still do. This past Sunday I called my great-grandmother to wish her a happy 95th birthday, and four generations of my family were there. I'll try not to get sappy about it, but as my grandmother passed around the phone, I realized I am blessed beyond measure. I almost felt giddy for a moment.

But Home is not the place you grew up. You leave home and you try, more or less successfully, to create a new one. You can never go Home again--the unrelenting tides of time and experience pull you further and further away from cradle and hearth--but the longing for it persists in us.

I make no pretentions to having found my place in the world yet. This is one of many stops in a procession. But there are means of feeling the warm and expansive pull of Home. For me, cooking is a bridge not just between hunger and satiety, but also between memory and the present. It is a means of summoning my past, but it is constructive, not maudlin. Simply put, there are certain foods that make me feel at home.

One of the more elemental foods of my childhood--one that was served at nearly every family gathering--is a pot of greens. Southern cooks with large families don't mess around with greens. They use a big pot, and they cook those greens into a silky pile of goodness, always served with a decanter of vinegar.

My approach is perhaps more nuanced than theirs (that is not to say better, simply different), but the effect is similar. I prefer my greens with texture, so I don't cook them "to death" as is the standard Southern way. I also take the liberty of adding onion, garlic (because what isn't improved by onion and garlic?), and red pepper flakes or a chopped fresh chile. I also skip the decanter and just add vinegar to the pot.

I like the idea of flexible recipes. They work so well because you don't have to shop for the recipe. Ideally, you'll have the ingredients on hand and can alter the process to suit you. For instance, I have kale, red pepper flakes, onions, garlic, and an assortment of vinegars on hand right now. Greens waiting to happen. But you might start with beet greens or collards or turnip greens or mustard, and you'd be well on your way.

Some important things to keep in mind when buying, storing, and cooking greens: only buy greens that are bright and sprightly, never wilted or slimy. Many supermarkets have a shameful selection of greens, which tells you something about how long the produce was in transit or just wasting away on the shelves. I tend to find the best greens at farmer's markets, and if you can find beets or turnips with the greens attached, you are doubly vegetable-rich. Separate the greens from the roots immediately and cook them as soon as possible. If you need to store greens for a day or two, wrap them in paper towels or a dishcloth, then zip them into a plastic bag and keep in the crisper. Nothing is death to greens more than a refrigerator's harsh chill.

Greens are an ideal food for many reasons. They're healthy, cheap, and abundant, they cook up quickly, and they can be part of any meal. Try them topped with a fried egg for breakfast, with roasted vegetables and goat cheese for lunch, and as a side dish with dinner. They're at home anywhere.

Other articles you might enjoy: Spring Strata With Greens and Garlic Scapes, Portuguese Greens Soup, Stuffed Collard Leaves

Sautéed Greens
Serves 4 to 6

Note: If you want to add smoked meat for extra flavor, you may sauté chopped bacon or crumbled sausage, then let the onions cook in the grease instead of using olive oil. Or, add the meat from a cooked ham hock or leftover pork shoulder. Really, any smoky meat is wonderful in greens.

Remove the stems and midribs from:
           1 1/2 pounds chard, kale, beet greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, or collards
If using chard or beet greens, the stems may be reserved, finely chopped, and added with the onions.
Stack the leaves and cut them widthwise into 1/2-inch ribbons.
Heat in a large skillet over medium heat:
           2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
Add and sauté until translucent:
           1 medium onion, chopped
Add and sauté briefly, until fragrant, about 2 minutes:
           3 to 5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
            (1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes or one fresh chile--such as serrano, jalapeño, or Thai--minced)
Add the greens and cook, partially covered, until tender, about 10 to 20 minutes depending on the toughness or tenderness of your greens. Season with:
           1 1/2 tablespoons vinegar (white, apple cider, red wine, or even balsamic)
            Salt and pepper to taste

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In a Dutch oven over medium-high heat, brown:
     8 ounces Andouille sausage or Tasso ham, cut into ½-inch slices or chunks
Remove the sausage to a paper-towel-lined...