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Recipes and Stories

2 April 2012: Poke Sallet

Poke Sallet sauteed with Spring Onions and Bacon Lardons, served here as Mrs. Bryan would have done, with poached eggs

Under the deep-green shade of the old camellias in my back yard, one of the quiet miracles of spring is unfolding: a thick, luxurious stand of new-green poke shoots. This lovely wild green, once a defining element of spring’s table for country folk all across the South, is a real piece of Southern lore, and has been turned by popular culture into an object of derision, a symbol of ignorance and raw poverty.

It is none of those things to me.

Poke sallet, phytolacca americana, is also prosaically called pokeweed because it literally grows wild, flourishing just about anywhere and everywhere in the South. (It has turned up not only in my backyard, but last year in a flowerpot right on my front steps.) Once it was respected and relished as a plentiful spring vegetable. The name “sallet” is a lingering reminder of the respect it was given by early English settlers, who used the word for all leafy table greens.

Lettice Bryan, author of The Kentucky Housewife (1839), reported that it was actively cultivated in kitchen gardens during her day, and treated the lovely young shoots and greens with care and refinement.

However, when I see poke sallet sprouting each spring, I don’t see history on a stem, a piece of Southern lore, the butt of derisive songs and jokes, or even one of Mrs. Bryan’s delicate and refined recipes served up in a china dish. What I see is my maternal grandmother.

MaMa loved greens of any kind, but she loved poke sallet best. Among my happiest and earliest memories were the late spring and early summer mornings that we spent together, driving down country roads in her old Chevrolet with our eyes fixed on the shoulder, looking for stands of tender young poke. Even when the trip wasn’t a forage for greens, we’d throw a couple of paper grocery sacks in the back seat—just in case.

We’d bring it home, wash it well, and blanch it in a big pot of boiling water, then she’d slice up some spring onions from the garden while I rendered the fat from a couple of pieces of dry-salt cured side meat, and then we’d sauté the greens and onions together in that salty fat until they were meltingly tender but still a bright fresh green.

Now as I gather the leaves, carefully wash, blanch, and sauté them, I can still feel MaMa near me. And when at last they’re on my plate, each bite brings back a little of the fresh innocence of childhood, and of summers spent in a sunny yellow kitchen with a grandmother who knew how to turn the daily chore of cooking into an adventure.

MaMa’s Poke Sallet with Spring Onions

Nowadays, I wouldn’t gather poke from a roadside unless I knew for certain that the shoulders haven’t been treated with pesticides and other chemicals, which is why those plants in my yard are such a blessing. If you go foraging, avoid roadsides and unfamiliar fields, and remember that poke is a seasonal vegetable, partly because only the new spring shoots and young leaves are tender enough to eat, and partly because it’s the only time they’re thought to be edible. Mature poke reportedly contains a mild toxin that becomes more concentrated as ages, but its flavor also gets stronger, developing a sharp, bitter bite. Once the stalk and leaf stems become tinged with red, the season for gathering them is over.

Following Mrs. Bryan’s example, I often enhance this with a couple of poached eggs.

Serves 4

2 pounds tender poke sallet leaves
4 slices thick-sliced bacon cut crosswise into ¼-inch-wide lardons
4-6 spring onions, washed, trimmed, and sliced
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
Pepper Vinegar (recipe follows), optional

1. Wash the sallet in at least 2 changes of water, making sure there is no lingering grit or dirt. Trim off any tough stems.

2. Bring 4 quarts water to a boil in a large, heavy-bottomed stockpot over high heat, Add the poke leaves by handfuls, pressing them below the surface of the water with a spoon. When they are all in the pot and wilted, but still bright green, drain them quickly and rinse under cold running water. Press gently to remove the excess liquid.

3. Put the bacon in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet that will comfortably hold all the greens at once. Turn on the heat to medium and sauté, stirring often, until browned and crisp. Remove it with a slotted spoon to drain on absorbent paper to drain. Spoon off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat.

4. Add the onions and sauté until wilted and translucent, but not colored, about 2 minutes. Add the greens and a pinch or so of salt. Sauté, stirring frequently, until tender and nearly dry, about 4-to-5 minutes. Taste and correct the salt and season well to taste with pepper. Transfer the greens to a warm serving bowl, top with the bacon lardons, and serve immediately, if liked, passing Pepper Vinegar separately.

Pepper Vinegar
Makes 1 cup

¾ cup small hot peppers, with stems attached.
About 1 cup cider or other vinegar (see notes)

1. Rinse the peppers well in cold water, drain, and trim the stems leaving a little bit of stem attached. Pack them into a clean pint canning jar or bottle.

2. Bring enough vinegar to completely cover the peppers to just barely to the boil and pour it over them. Seal and let steep for at least 2 weeks in a cool, dark cupboard before using.

A note on the vinegar: cider vinegar is the most traditional, but cooks of the past used whatever they had on hand. Each type lends a different flavor; sherry and some white wine vinegars make a sweeter and more fragrant condiment than cider or distilled white vinegar. Experiment with them all until you find the one you like best.

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