NOT-SO-SECRET INGREDIENT New Englanders can like collard greens!
My road to collard green enlightenment opened up, of all places, at the checkout at T.J. Maxx. The cashier's beauty was captivating. She was at least six feet tall, her skin the color of black-brown mascara, and her smile a shade of light unachievable by dental work. She was twenty-four and extremely nice. After my inquiring about the origins of her accent (South Sudan), and introducing my project (Immigrant Kitchens), she offered to teach me how to cook her favorite dish from home. A couple days later, I got a text. Nyatiem Lual: "Hey would you like to have a goat meat?" I felt like I'd just won a trip to Africa.
The appointed date turned out to be a snow day, so my two girls blustered through the blizzard with me from Freeport to South Portland toting their American Girl dolls into this woman's apartment. They played with the dolls that looked like them, while Naya and I went to work in the kitchen. She minced three onions and cooked them in a cup of vegetable oil, and added a half-teaspoon of an Ethiopian spice blend called berbere. She mashed four bouillon cubes into the onions. Then she trimmed the fat off bite-sized pieces of goat meat, which she'd gotten at the African Supermarket at 1037 Forest Avenue. "You can cook it with any meat: lamb, goat, or cow meat," she said. (I've since made the dish with lamb and my husband agreed it was great.) After the onions softened and the meat browned in the pot, she added enough water to almost cover the meat. While it cooked, she minced one and a half bunches of collard greens. She would add the collards and two blocks of frozen chopped spinach to the meat once it was tender. She added, "You can use fresh spinach, too."
Next, she did something I couldn't recreate in my own kitchen. It was akin to an Alvin Ailey dance number 20 minutes long. Indeed, after seeing her mother do this throughout her upbringing, Naya had practiced at least 20 times before she finally got it right. In preparation, the night before she had added water to yellow corn flour to make a paste and then left it covered on the counter. Now she put the paste in a mixing bowl and bounced the bowl in a such a way, adding alternating handfuls of dry corn flour and sprinkles of water, as to make the corn flour paste turn into what looked like Israeli couscous. When I said I wanted to try this at home, she offered to come help me. She called these little fermented corn balls kope. Then she cooked them in a fry pan, sprinkling water on them and flipping them intermittently.
When the meat and the kope were both cooked, she mixed the two together and served us bowls with spoons. I called the girls. Time to eat! My six-year-old ate the whole bowl. My eight-year-old, after an honest bite (good girl!), shook her head. This dish made my spirit feel satiated and happy. I'd been blinded for decades by collard greens' limitations — floppy texture and not-so-great stand-alone flavor. But now here they were. Collards! Nominated for best supporting vegetable in a meat dish. Collards! A Tour de France rider brilliantly making the most of the lead meat. ^
Visit immigrantkitchens.com for this recipe, live cooking classes, and author info.