About two months ago, I was lying in bed on a Saturday morning peering at my phone and scrolling through Facebook (like you do). And among all the posts of Friday night outings and early-riser crowings, there was this one sponsored post with video titled “True Lowcountry Cuisine with Michael Twitty and BJ Dennis.” Now, I don’t know Lowcountry cookery all that well, but what I’ve had I like. I’d also previously read some of culinary historian Twitty’s work and enjoyed it, so I hit play. And the video that awaited… oh my goodness. Twitty and Charleston chef Dennis pal around in the kitchen in the five minute video, talking history and foodways and cultural perceptions, and at the end of the video they share a plate of the most delicious sounding greens: tender and hearty, and bathed in a coconutty, peanutty sauce fragrant with ginger, garlic, and red pepper. You should really just watch that video; I’ll wait here.
OK, now that you’re back, tell me: you want to eat those greens, don’t you? I know. Me too, but Chef Dennis doesn’t provide a recipe anywhere online. Fortunately, there are a lot of prep shots in the video, so you can get a pretty decent sense of how to go about it. That’s actually where this post started: I was just going to give a transcription/interpretation of the dish as prepared in the video, the better to let others share it, especially those who aren’t as comfortable making things up as I am.
And I’ll do that, I promise, but first, can we talk about Real Southern Food? Because this is absolutely it, bar none. And yet these leguminous, brightly-flavored greens don’t match the mental image that so many have of Southern food. There’s nothing fried here, the greens are well-cooked but not mushy, and there’s not a scrap of pork to be seen. In my day job, working for the writing programs at a large university, I’ve just recently been editing a section of a textbook that talks about language varieties: how everyone comes to the classroom with their own variety of English, and that’s what makes our language culture so rich. Food is the same.
The history of food in the South is a story of migration: voluntary on the part of white settlers, involuntary on the part of enslaved Africans. Throughout the early period of the US, and even to this day, white and black food cultures combine and commingle with each other and with American Indian ingredients and techniques, and they do so with an overwhelming variety. When we eat Southern food, we’re eating a map of travel and cultural contact (and often, conflict), if we know how to read it.
These greens come from the Gullah Geechee on the Sea Islands of the southeastern US Atlantic Coast. (You’ll see both ‘Gullah’ and ‘Geechee’ used alone, as well.) The Gullah are descendants of enslaved West Africans who were brought to the Lowcountry, and were relatively more isolated than some other African-American groups, so their food, like their language and culture, still preserves many of the markers of its origins. As Twitty puts it in a recent article for Eater, “these dishes did not start in 1619, with the arrival of enslaved people to North America […] These dishes and this culture go back thousands of years into West African history.”
So what does that mean for these greens? They’re a modern adaptation of the peanut stews common to West Africa and the Sea Islands. And I want to be clear (for anyone who didn’t click the video link) that I can’t take that credit; BJ Dennis, who’s well known in Charleston as a chef and as an ambassador for Gullah cuisine did that work; I’m just a scribe. The braise starts out with a quartet of seasonings — onion, garlic, ginger, and red pepper — that then combines with coconut milk and peanut butter to make a velvety sauce for the greens. The sweetness of the collards is the star, with the peanut butter beefing it up and the coconut giving a rich fattiness that doesn’t feel heavy or overbearing, just full and satisfying.
If you’re looking for more reading — maybe while you’re eating a hot plate of greens? — start here:
- BJ Dennis’s blog, which has more mouthwatering food pics than I can handle
- Michael Twitty’s blog, Afroculinaria
- Hillary Dixler’s piece for Eater, “How Gullah Cuisine Has Transformed Charleston Dining“
- Michael Twitty’s response to the intense criticism the Eater piece received
Collards with coconut and peanut butter
Soft, tender collard greens, braised in a flavorful sauce of coconut milk and peanut butter, served over warm white rice. If that doesn’t excite you, I’m not sure we speak the same culinary language.
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 tsp kosher salt
3 Tbsp chopped fresh ginger (from a roughly 3″ x 1″ piece)
2 Tbsp chopped garlic (from 4–5 cloves)
1 Tbsp coconut oil
1 can (13.5 oz.) coconut milk
3 Tbsp natural peanut butter (ideally just one ingredient: peanuts)
1 lb collard greens, chopped and rinsed (and stemmed if you like)
Cooked long-grain rice, to serve
Pepper vinegar or a vinegary hot sauce (Tabasco, Crystal, etc.), to serve
Dice the onion, and combine it with the crushed red pepper flakes and salt in a small bowl while you prep the other ingredients. (The ginger and garlic can go into this same bowl, but go ahead and mix the onion and red pepper first, to give the pepper time to rehydrate a bit.)
In a large pot over medium heat, cook the onion/garlic/ginger mixture in the coconut oil until the onions have softened and turned translucent, about 5 minutes.
Add the peanut butter and coconut milk and stir to combine. Cook until the sauce thickens, which will happen very quickly.
Add the collards all at once, and stir to coat them in the sauce. (The water clinging to the leaves should thin the sauce a bit, but if it seems terribly gloppy you can add up to 1/2 cup water.) Cover the pot and turn the heat to very low. Cook, stirring occasionally, under the greens are tender. If you have a lot of stem in there, don’t forget to make sure it’s softened too; that’ll take at least 20 minutes.
Serve over rice for a main dish, or as-is for a side. Either way, hot sauce is mandatory in my house, though you can do what you like.
If you’re looking for convenience, and/or if collards aren’t really in season where you are, you can buy one-pound bags of collards, pre-washed and pre-chopped. So handy! You can put these into the pot straight from the bag, adding 1/2 cup of water to the sauce.
Collards are beautiful here, but any hearty green will go well, or a mixture. Beet greens, turnip greens, kale… fair game.
I’ve only ever made this with peanut butter, but if you’re allergic to peanuts I see no reason this shouldn’t succeed with another nut or seed butter.
Compulsive garnisher? I see you with that bowl of crushed peanuts there. Go ahead.