I am partial to Southern comfort foods, thanks to my mother who was raised on a farm in Arkansas. Though she raised me in the woodsy Pacific Northwest, with a cache of berries—raspberries, blackberries, strawberries—and the best mushrooms in the country growing at our backdoor, my mother returned to what she knew best in the kitchen: pots of simmering beans, slabs of fresh tomatoes served on home-made rustic bread with mayonnaise, and steaming cobbler made with fresh orchard fruit. The food was very simple, but simply had soul.
The more I learn about food traditions and culture, the more I value my mom’s simple approach to cooking. When you look around the world at traditional, indigenous diets, whether in Peru or Crete, they have one thing in common: the cuisine was based on simple, whole plant foods that could be grown or foraged in the region. The foods were not overly fussy or complicated; they were so good because the ingredients were grown locally and picked ripe and fresh. There’s really not much improvement one can make upon a perfect tomato, warmed by the sun and picked that morning, or a juicy summer peach ripened on a tree. The simpler the preparation style, the better.
As was the case with my mother, this style of eating was considered the “poor man’s diet”, because it cost very little. You grew or foraged almost everything on the table, and traded what you didn’t grow with your neighbors. In my mother’s childhood kitchen, pretty much everything on the table came from the farm or the forest. Now we know that the “poor man’s diet” is actually the healthiest, “richest” diet on the planet, so it’s no wonder my mother and father are still vibrant in their eighties, tending to their garden and canning summer vegetables for the winter.
A typical meal in my mother’s childhood home looked like this: a pot of beans (black-eyed peas were a favorite), a few different types of vegetables from the garden (you couldn’t let all of those vegetables go to waste!), and a dish of freshly baked cornbread. My mother’s job was to gather wild greens to cook for dinner. Doesn’t that sound like a meal made in heaven? I can imagine how a food writer would wax poetic over a menu like that, but at the time this style of eating was not celebrated. It was survival. And perhaps you could call this style of eating “survival” today, because it would certainly increase our survival rate by lowering our risk of chronic diseases, not to mention lowering our environmental impact on the planet.
One of my mother’s favorite dishes she brought to the Northwest from Arkansas was grits. She made savory versions of this classic corn dish and we loved them. This dish, which I included in my book Plant-Powered for Life, marries two Southern staples—grits and greens—into one easy, nutrient-packed casserole. I can’t help but think that this dish represents the “true grit” of Southern cooking, based on farming and foraging. The bitter greens and caramelized onions partner with the creamy grits beautifully. Add a side of stewed black-eyed peas and you’ve got a plant-powered match made in heaven. The hefty dose of greens puts this meal off the charts with bone-loving nutrients, such as calcium and vitamin C.
In a small covered pot over high heat, bring 3 cups of water to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium, add the grits and vegetable bouillon, and stir with a whisk until smooth. Cover the pot and cook for 6 minutes, stirring frequently with a whisk to prevent sticking or lumping. Stir in the plant-based milk, cook for approximately 2 minutes, cover, and remove the pot from the heat. Set aside.
While the grits are cooking, heat the olive oil in a very large skillet or sauté pan. Add the onion and sauté for 3 minutes. Add the garlic, cayenne, celery salt, and mustard, and sauté for an additional 3 minutes. Pile the sliced mustard greens into the pan and cook for an additional 4 to 5 minutes, until the greens are just wilted, tender, but bright green. Allow the greens to reduce in volume before you start stirring.
Pour the hot grits into a large casserole dish or serving dish. Cover with the cooked greens and sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds. Serve immediately.
*Look for whole grain grits (such as Bob’s Red Mill) made from whole corn, rather than degerminated corn. Some brands of grits call for different amounts of water; adjust the water as necessary according to package directions. Increase the amount of cayenne pepper if you like spice.
*Variations:Try wild greens, such as dandelion greens, lamb’s quarters, sorrel, or chickweed, in this recipe. You may require more or less cooking time in step 2, depending on the type of green.