Kickass Whiskey-Braised Collards

After a mere 30 years living in the South, I finally learned how to make collard greens, one of the staple foods of the region. It happened quite serendipitously, as I described in my original recipe for “Just Collards.” Since that fateful day, and the quick walk-through given to me by a kind stranger, I have made collards many times, using the same basic recipe. My husband and I enjoy them with everything from fried chicken that I pick up at the deli counter, pulled pork that he makes on the smoker, and even occasionally just on the side with some homemade mac and cheese.

Collard greens, in case you don’t already know, are one of nature’s “superfoods,” and they can be eaten raw, but most often you’ll find them braised in liquid. Collards are so packed with nutrients (including vitamin C, calcium, immune-supportive B vitamins and magnesium), that even the resulting cooking juices are considered to be sustaining. They are a very hardy crop, easy to grow in nearly every climate, and they are widely revered here in the South.

Until now, I have followed the same basic recipe—cook up some chopped bacon with onions, add chopped collards to the grease, splash in vinegar and broth and let them simmer until tender. Easy enough, and always delicious. I can’t quite explain what happened last week that inspired me to put a hot and spicy, bold and boozy twist on them—maybe a burst of Black History Month energy—but, mercy, was it ever good!

The salty bacon, smoky pepper heat and the bite of whiskey have transformed my usual collards into something extra flavorful!

I amped up these collards with fresh garlic and a few extra shakes of a specialty pepper mix we love, which includes smoky chipotle, fruity ancho and fiery habanero. The combination of hot pepper flavors sent these collards over the top into kick-ass territory. The real kicker, though, was the shot of whiskey I splashed into them. And not just any whiskey, but the only brand I happened to have on hand when my imagination started running—Uncle Nearest 1856. If you have not yet heard of this whiskey, I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read about it. Uncle Nearest is a Black-owned brand, built on the legacy of Nathan “Nearest” Green, an enslaved man who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey. If you’re thinking, “how can that be?” well, this is why we have Black History Month, so we can fill in the gaps of what we thought we knew.

Braising in the whiskey turned out to be a great decision.

Uncle Nearest 1856 was the basis for the Long Time Coming red cocktail I created in honor of Juneteenth last year, and at 100 proof, it’s pretty sturdy. The charred oak barrel notes of the spirit imparted additional smokiness to these collards, which cooked up in about half the time as my regular, go-to recipe. That might have been the whiskey, or it could just be that I served them up earlier than usual, because they smelled so darn good.


Ingredients

3 slices uncured bacon, cut into 1/2″ pieces

1/2 large yellow or sweet onion, chopped

3 cloves fresh garlic, chopped or minced

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Several shakes Dark and Smoky red pepper blend (or any crushed red pepper you like)

1 large bunch fresh collard leaves, washed and trimmed of heavy stems

1 shot glass whiskey (about 3 tablespoons)

1 cup low-sodium vegetable broth


Instructions


In a large skillet or pot, cook the bacon and onion over medium heat until the bacon has crispy edges and the onion is softened. Add the garlic, season with a bit of salt and pepper, and cook another minute or two.

Clear a space in the center of the pan and add about a teaspoon of olive oil. Shake the red pepper flakes into the oil to activate the flavors, and then toss the bacon-onion mixture to spread it around. Add the collards, a handful at a time until wilted, and toss to cook. When the collards have softened and collapsed into the pan, add the whiskey and vegetable broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until collards are tender. This will take anywhere from 25-50 minutes, depending on your simmer level and preference. Adjust salt and pepper to taste before serving.



Long Time Coming (a Juneteenth cocktail)

On Juneteenth, my mind is littered with so many emotions I find it difficult to put my thoughts down. I am thrilled for the modern Black community, for whom Juneteenth has always been woven into the fabric of life. I am embarrassed to realize that the meaning of this occasion escaped me until last year, when the U.S. entered a long-overdue season of racial reckoning after the horrifying death of George Floyd. Most of all, I am disappointed and angry that the significance of Juneteenth was not spelled out in the history books of my small, lily-white upstate N.Y. town. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

Along with so many others in my age group, I grew up learning about the greatness of the men whose tremendous business skills built this great nation, including the forefathers and later the business and industrial magnates—Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt—you know, all the rich, white guys. But we did not hear the whole story, and that means we never got the real story. There is so much more to be said and taught about our nation’s history, but a great deal of resistance to teaching it, and I’m flat-out puzzled and pissed off about that.

Truth.

Juneteenth, in case you have completely avoided all news outlets recently, marks a celebration for the last of the slaves being freed following President Abraham Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation. The news that slavery had become illegal spread throughout the land, but not exactly like wildfire. It was not until 2½ years later, when federal soldiers rode into Galveston, Texas, to read the edict out loud, that the enslaved African-Americans there even realized they were free. I suspect the delay of this information had a lot to do with the fact that the slaveholders had more to gain by keeping the joyous news on the down low.

Fast forward 156 years, and Juneteenth has at last become a federal holiday, under the pen of President Joe Biden, and it’s been a long time coming. We still have a lot of work to do to recognize full equality and taking the first step feels a little intimidating. Rather than assume what kind of celebration is respectful, I have done some research into the significant themes around Juneteenth, and I am responding with this bright red cocktail, created in honor of those for whom respect has been a long time coming.

It’s lively, refreshing and suited to this occasion.

Red drinks have always played a major role in celebration of Juneteenth, as the color symbolizes both the bloodshed of Black peoples’ ancestors and the courage and resilience that brings them to this point in history. Hibiscus, a deeply-hued flower, is a significant ingredient in red drinks for Juneteenth, as it was one of many favored foods that enslaved Africans brought with them to this land. Hibiscus has a delightfully tart flavor and somewhat astringent effect—not particularly sweet on its own, almost like cranberry, but with hints of floral. I first tasted hibiscus as a tea, and that is a very traditional way to enjoy it on Juneteenth, but I wanted to mix it into a cocktail for one specific reason: this whiskey.

You can visit the Uncle Nearest distillery along the Tennessee Whiskey Trail.

As part of my own “first steps” toward racial equity, I have made a personal commitment to seek out and support Black-owned businesses, and Uncle Nearest is one, founded a few years ago by a Black woman named Fawn Weaver. The story behind this new whiskey brand is rich and complex, just like the spirit in the bottle. There is so much to know about it—more than I can say here in this post—but the kicker of this true story is that Nathan “Nearest” Green, an enslaved man in Lynchburg, Tenn., taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey. Yes, that Jack Daniel. This startling real story began to circulate a few years ago, and I think you’ll find the story linked here a fascinating read. I was elated this week to find that Uncle Nearest whiskey is already available in our local liquor store.

I’ve paired the Uncle Nearest 1856 premium whiskey with a couple of other ingredients that seemed right to me—hibiscus simple syrup, spicy ginger beer and a few drops of aromatic bitters, courtesy of Hella Cocktail Co., another Black-owned business. Finally, a subtle accent of vanilla, a flavor that seems so utterly common today, yet most of us would never have known it without the discovery and effort of an enslaved 12-year-old boy named Edmond Albius. I only learned about him last year when I went searching for the most popular flavors in America.

A cocktail will not fix the problems of racial inequity, but every little bit of awareness leads me into the light, and this is my small way of paying that forward. The drink is somewhat bittersweet—much like the story that inspires it—but refreshing and invigorating, nuanced with spice and freshness. It tastes exactly how I feel, now that I am finally beginning to understand the real story.

I’ve paired the Uncle Nearest whiskey with hibiscus syrup and ginger beer, plus aromatic bitters and a touch of fresh lime.

Ingredients

1.5 oz. Uncle Nearest 1856

0.5 oz. hibiscus-vanilla simple syrup* (see notes)

2 or 3 drops Hella aromatic bitters

Quick squeeze of fresh lime

About 2 oz. spicy ginger beer*

Lime wheel to garnish


*Notes

A simple syrup is made with water and sugar, and in our house, that means fair trade-certified sugar because I learned the real, true story about slave labor in the sugar industry several years ago. Profit-driven exploitation of human beings must stop, and as consumers, we have the power influence companies to do the right thing. Is it more expensive? The answer depends on who you ask.

Here’s how I made the hibiscus-vanilla simple syrup:


If spicy is not your thing, any ginger beer or ginger ale will lend a nice little zip to this cocktail. I chose the Q brand “hibiscus ginger beer,” obviously for the hibiscus twist but also because it also includes spices that are celebrated in African-American cuisine. I stumbled onto this ginger beer by accident, and it turned out to be perfect in this drink.


Instructions

Combine Uncle Nearest 1856, simple syrup and bitters in a cocktail mixing glass. Add 1 cup of ice and stir until the outside of the glass becomes frosty. Strain over new ice in a double rocks glass. Squeeze in lime juice and top with ginger beer. Garnish with a lime wheel.



You may be wondering if I’m a paid endorser for the brands and products I spotlight on Comfort du Jour, and the answer is “no.” I do not receive money or merchandise for my recommendations, and what that means for you is that you can count on me to give an honest opinion. If something changes, I will update my disclosures. Either way, you can still count on me to be honest in my recommendations, as I will only stand behind services and products I believe in. Fair enough? 😀

Terrie

My Dad’s Homemade Irish Creme

The Christmas season doesn’t feel real in our house until the refrigerator holds a bottle of this luxurious libation. My father has made this homemade version of Irish creme (his spelling) for years, and whenever I visited his house during the holidays, I knew I could count on him to have a beige Tupperware pitcher of it in the fridge. It is rich and decadent, far creamier than the shelf-stable stuff you can buy at the liquor store. When I first asked for his recipe, I was surprised to realize that it has both coffee and chocolate in it—I never tasted either of them in the Irish cream, but when I’ve reduced or omitted either, I found that it just wasn’t the same.

For sure, double the recipe, even if there aren’t a lot of folks.

My father’s original recipe suggests using heavy cream and whole milk, but I have fiddled with the recipe and found that light cream and half & half makes it every bit as creamy, without the clumping that sometimes occurs with chilled heavy cream. Increase the Irish whiskey if you like (my dad does), but I think the ratios are perfect just as they are.

This homemade Irish cream is perfect for gift-giving, and it’s so darn easy to make that you’ll find yourself asking “Bailey who?”

Enjoy this straight, on ice or as a decadent flavor addition to your Christmas morning coffee or hot cocoa.

Homemade Irish Cream is a wonderful gift, too!

Ingredients

4 oz. (1/2 cup) light cream* (see notes)

2 tsp. espresso powder (or instant coffee)*

1 Tbsp. chocolate syrup (I use an all-natural brand with no high fructose corn syrup)

1 14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk

8 oz. (1 cup) half & half*

6 oz. (3/4 cup) Irish whiskey

The original recipe calls for heavy cream and whole milk, but I’ve substituted similarly rich products with no clumping.

*Notes

Light cream is 20% milkfat, compared to nearly 40% milkfat in heavy cream. For readers abroad, the term “half & half” may not make sense, given that the European market does not have a product labeled this way. According to this article I found, half & half checks in at 12% milkfat. If you combine equal parts light cream with whole milk, you’ll strike a similar balance to the fat in half & half.

If my suggested ingredients are not available where you are, go with my dad’s original suggestion for 4 oz. heavy cream and 8 oz. whole milk, and perhaps use a blender to mix the Irish cream to help avoid the clumps that occur with cold heavy cream.

Espresso powder is available in the baking aisle of many well-stocked supermarkets or online from King Arthur Baking Company. You may substitute a high-quality instant coffee, such as Starbucks Via brand. I’ve used Starbucks “dark French roast” instant coffee with very good results.


Instructions

  1. Place a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat. Warm the light cream, espresso powder and chocolate syrup until the mixture steams and the espresso powder is completely dissolved. Remove from heat and cool completely.
  2. Use a whisk to blend the coffee-infused cream, condensed milk and half & half.
  3. Stir in Irish whiskey. Give it a taste and adjust any ingredient as desired.
  4. Divide Irish cream into sealable bottles and refrigerate.

Recipe makes about 4 cups.

Enjoy within three weeks. At our house, it is usually gone within three hours. 😉

Now, it feels like Christmas.

Want to make this recipe?