Behold the lowly ham hock. The extreme end of a pig’s leg where it attaches to the ankle, the hock is fatty, thick-skinned, and full of tendons and gristle. It is not a cut of meat to toss on the grill with a little salt and pepper, but with a little thought and a lot of (unattended) time, you can use this inglorious cut of meat to make some spectacular food.
And let me tell you, ham hocks are cheap. If you buy meat, even infrequently, you know how expensive it is, especially these days with the rising cost of feed corn. But the big and meaty ham hock pictured above set me back about $3.50, and this week I’m going to show you how I used it to make two deeply flavorful dishes for dirt cheap. First up, Southern-style collard greens.
Southern food or soul food, which arose from the abhorrent tradition of slavery in our country, makes use of many foodstuffs that were once considered scraps – vegetable greens, meat trimmings, offal, etc. – to make some of this writer’s favorite foods of all time. And while there is no mitigating the horrors of slavery, it is a testament to the ingenuity and determination of those who suffered under it, that they gave America its greatest native cuisine.
And now, since there is no good transition from slavery to recipes, a jump.
Pork, greens, and time. That’s pretty much all this recipe requires. I’m talking about collards today and using a ham hock, but this technique works for turnip greens, , chard, dandelion greens, or even kale and could just as easily utilize a ham bone, fatback, bacon, or whatever other pork you’ve got in the fridge.
First, put your ham hock in a large pot, add water to cover, and bring to a boil. Some hocks come pre-seasoned or pre-smoked. If yours is, wait to add salt until later so that you can taste the greens and see if they need it. Pre-seasoned meat basically means pre-salted meat, so additional salt may not be necessary. Incidentally, if you don’t live in the South and don’t see hocks in the grocery store or at your butcher, just ask. They probably can get them. Pork shanks and pig’s knuckles are similar/identical cuts.
Once your pork boils, reduce the heat to simmer. Meanwhile, wash and cut your collards. Begin by removing about the most of the stems. Fancy-pants chefs will tell you to remove all of the stem, even up into the leaf, but given how long you’re going to boil these, that seems like a waste of food and time to me. Wash the collards well in several changes of water since, like all greens, the tend to hang onto a lot of dirt.
The easiest way to chop greens – and prepare yourselves for another cooking vocabulary lesson, kids – is to chiffonade them. Cookbooks will often tell you to prepare leafy herbs this way, and it is just a fancy (read French) word for rolling the leaves up before you cut them. To do this, stack the leaves after you wash them and roll them up like a cigar. Then chop across the roll so that you get 1/2 inch discs like this:
(A safety note: Since I was fiddling with the camera in my other hand, I wasn’t paying attention to how I was holding the greens in the picture. Whenever you are chopping or cutting anything, you should always curl your fingertips back to be even with or behind your first knuckle. It will feel a little strange at first, but you get used to it, and keeping your fingertips is worth the effort. No one thinks they’re going to cut the end of their finger off until they do. Alright, enough nagging.)
Since the leaves of the collards I had were so large, I went back across one time cutting these discs in half. They were so tender after cooking that this was probably not necessary. Do what you like. Add the chopped greens to the pork water, bring it back to a boil, and reduce to a simmer again. Cook for an hour to an hour-and-a-half. The long cooking time makes the greens incredibly tender and allows them to maximize their absorption of porky goodness.
I also added red pepper flakes to my cooking water, which is great if you like things a little spicy. Err on the moderate side though, as the flakes actually release more heat the longer you cook them. Cooked collards are often dressed with vinegar (apple cider is best), which I like, but is far from necessary. Most soul food restaurants in the South also have pepper vinegar on the table, which is just white vinegar with a lot of hot green peppers in it. It’s delicious, but tough to find north of the Mason-Dixon.
Most important of all: Do NOT throw away the cooking liquid. It is called pot likker (as in liquor, not licker) and should be used to dress the greens, dip cornbread, or for other purposes to be revealed on Wednesday.
After cooking, the ham hock should be cooked through and relatively tender. If you like, you can cut the meat off the bone and mix it in with the collards. A good idea, but I had bigger plans for this hock, so I stuck it and my pot likker in the fridge and dug into my collards.
They were, as Paula Deen would say, pretty good eatin’, ya’ll.