Seven years ago, I was single, unattached, and elbow-deep in preparations for an 18-week apprentice at the Rome Sustainable Food Project. I was ready to absorb as much as I could about the gastronomic heritage of Italy. In the process, I became enamored with the simple beauty of cucina povera (kitchen of the poor), the way peasants cooked what was in their gardens, rivers, and coops with equal parts economy and élan. Ever since then, I promised myself to make my food embody the faculty of simplicity over showiness.
Fast forward to today, married with two children. I’ve kept that promise to keep my cooking simple—partly due to the maddening preferences of finicky, pint-sized eaters, but largely due to my locale in this corner of the American South. As a Trinidadian, my attachment to Raleigh, N.C., is an improbable romance. There are no similarities in the natural landscape between my formative island home and my adopted home. The closest similarity, in fact, deals with a dark shared history of slavery.
When I first stumbled upon potlikker—the invigorating, nutrient-dense, residual broth that's present after the cooking of collard, mustard and turnip greens—I was rapt. What hubris this unlikely cooking liquid has, I thought. Then I did some reading. In his book The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, John T. Edge writes, "Like great provincial dishes around the world, potlikker is salvage food." Slaveholders ate the greens, and their enslaved cooks saved the potlikker for their families. The smoky liquid was a sustaining force on the plantation.
In the American South, it is equal parts historical icon, cure-all tonic, and robust flavor inducer. (Note: The term is often used interchangeably with collard greens.) Southern Blacks—through restaurants and plenty of home cooked meals alike—repurposed this cooking liquid into relevancy. After moving to Raleigh, my commitment to the concept of cucina povera suddenly felt more relevant and more poignant to me, a Black cookbook author living in the South, raising an African-American family.
Today, in luncheonettes and white tablecloth establishments alike, potlikker is used in ways too many to number; it can be made into a thick, lacquer-like reduction, or thinned out in a soup. But perhaps my perennial, most well-loved preparation is to tangle it with thick Tuscan pappardelle, for reasons of deep sentimentally that will never wane.
This potlikker pappardelle costs less than $10, yet it blunts every stereotype that frugal country cooking is a sad endeavor. I see it as the opposite—a triumph.
- 6 strips thick-cut, high-quality bacon, chopped
- 4 shallots (two large bulbs and two smaller), thinly sliced
- 7 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1/4 cup white wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon hot sauce
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 tablespoon Kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1 quart chicken stock, vegetable stock, or water
- 2 bunches collard greens, stems chopped and leaves cut into ribbons
- 1 pound pappardelle
- 2 teaspoons chili flakes
- 1/4 cup Parmigiano Reggiano, grated