Get Your Greens
With a recipe for Braised Greens Mac and Cheese from Wisteria Restaurant.
by Beth McKibben
New Year’s Day in the South means two things: food and football. But it’s the former that takes center stage on this day. The South has a rich history filled with food and, to many, it’s the tradition behind why we eat certain dishes on New Year’s that keeps us eating them year after year.
The origins of serving black-eyed peas, collards and cornbread dates back to the days following the Civil War. The South had been left an economic wasteland by Union forces. Much of the land had been picked clean by pillaging soldiers who left behind what they felt were undesirable foods, mainly the humble black-eyed peas or cow peas eaten by both livestock and the slaves. But after the Civil War ended, these items became a major source of nutrition for many families. Today, the traditions have evolved. Peas are said to bring luck or prosperity to those who consume them, representing coins. The collards represent paper money and must be eaten with the peas in order for the good luck charm to work properly. Cornbread had a more useful purpose but soon evolved as well. The delicious sweet bread was used to soak up the pot liquor (potlikker) from the greens and later was associated with gold.
It’s said for the best luck all year, you must eat 365 black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day. Some people take the tradition a bit further, placing a shiny new dime in the pot of peas before serving. The person who receives the dime in their bowl is said to receive the best luck.
Everyone seems to cook this staple New Year’s Day meal differently, each claiming their recipe is the best. Some choose not to stray from their humble origins, sticking to simpler recipes with bacon and broths, which only enhance the natural flavors. Others find more elaborate ways to dress up the lowly ingredients.
Chef Jason Hill of Atlanta’s Wisteria Restaurant in Inman Park serves up traditional Southern foods with a twist. The two most requested items on his menu are Black-Eyed Pea Hummus and Braised Greens Mac and Cheese. “Our Braised Greens Mac and Cheese is one of our best-selling side dishes,” says Hill. “People request it all the time for parties, especially during the holidays.” Wisteria uses broccoli rabe in its recipe, but collard, mustard or turnip greens easily translate into the dish.
“I came up with the idea about eight years ago when I was messing around in my kitchen trying to come up with new dishes for the restaurant,” Hill continues. “Someone said, ‘why not mac and cheese?’ I started making a roux and used New York sharp cheddar. The sharpness of the cheddar with the bite of greens and the sweetness of the pasta just makes it all work.”
Wisteria bakes the dish in a large pan the day before serving. Once it’s out of the oven, the mac ‘n cheese is cut into squares or rounds and placed in the refrigerator overnight. The next day it’s baked again. Chef Hill explains: “It really is better twice-baked, and you have to cut it up before it is baked again. We never leave it in the pan as is. It just doesn’t taste as good when left in the pan uncut and not twice-baked.”
Asked if he practices Southern New Year’s Day traditions in his own family, Chef Hill had this to say: “Traditions need to stay alive.”
He’s been known to give Wisteria patrons a to-go box with black eyed peas and greens on New Year’s Eve, but if you’re not in the Atlanta area, Chef Hill graciously shared his mac and cheese recipe below.
Happy New Year and happy eating!
Wisteria’s Braised Greens Mac and Cheese
2 cups dried elbow macaroni
1 pound collard, mustard or turnip greens
7 T unsalted butter, divided, additional for the baking dish
3/4 tsp. finely chopped garlic
2 T all-purpose flour
2 cups heavy cream
2 tsp. finely chopped fresh parsley
2 tsp. finely chopped thyme
1 tsp. finely chopped fresh sage
1/2 tsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground pepper
1/2 pound grated New York sharp cheddar cheese
1/3 cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 2 1/2-quart, deep casserole dish and set aside. Fill a large pot with water. Bring to a boil, add 1 teaspoon salt and the macaroni, reduce heat to a low boil and cook al dente (until if offers a slight resistance when bitten into), about 9 minutes. Empty the macaroni into a colander to drain.
Rinse and remove tough stems from the greens. Pat dry and cut into strips. Heat the Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add 2 tablespoons butter and garlic and heat until butter is melted and garlic is fragrant, about 1 minute. Add greens and cook and gently stir until wilted, about 4 minutes. Add cooked greens to the macaroni in the colander and drain. In the same Dutch oven, heat 4 tablespoons butter with flour over medium heat and stir for 3 minutes. Gradually add the cream and stir until thickened.
Mix the parsley, thyme, sage and rosemary in a small bowl. Stir the cayenne, salt and pepper and half the herb mixture into the cream sauce. Mix the collards and macaroni into the cream sauce in the Dutch oven. Spread a layer of greens and pour herb mix in the casserole, layer with cheese, repeating the layers with remaining ingredients until casserole is full. Top with the panko and remaining herbs. Dot the top with remaining butter.
Bake until bubbly and golden brown, about 45 minutes.
Let us know if you try this recipe at home. We’d love to see pics!
Beth McKibben is a freelance writer based in Atlanta, Georgia. She got engaged at Wisteria Restaurant and recently celebrated her anniversary by having dinner there. She enjoys telling a good story and day tripping with her husband and two kids. To find out more about Beth, see her full bio in our “Contributors” section.