I have a neighbor who is a kindred spirit: We both have roots in North Carolina. (An even deeper connection: We also both believe that barbecue comes from a hog and is properly dressed in a thin vinegar-based sauce.) Recently we were talking about North Carolina, and of course, the food. He told me he was planning to make turnip greens with dumplings, and a few days later he called me. “Hey, come over and get some dumplings!”
Keith and I have shared food back and forth in the years we’ve lived here in our downtown Southside condos. He’s invited me over for some great Italian sausage with tomato sauce; I’ve left him several batches of cookies and homemade chocolates. Once when I was ill he brought me a huge container of homemade soup. For building-wide parties, he makes a decent chili and a light cornbread studded with corn kernels… I could eat a pan full.
Keith grew up in Albemarle Sound and studied at NC State in Raleigh. He learned how to make greens with dumplings from his great-grandmother. “Oh, there’s no recipe, it’s all in the head,” Keith says. “I’ve asked my mother if she’d make it, and she says, ‘I can’t do that.'”
Keith told me the basic method—it’s very simple—but there are a few tricks. “You gotta have the right corn meal,” he says. “I’ve tried some of these other brands of corn meal, but they don’t work. The dumplings just fall apart. The only corn meal that works is from North Carolina.” He reaches in his fridge and pulls out a paper bag of Moss Corn Meal, which is water ground and made in Kitrell, North Carolina by Buffaloe Milling. “I have my mom send this,” he says. (For those of us without a mom in eastern North Carolina, you can order Moss Corn Meal from ShopWell.com, or you can email Buffaloe Milling at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
He starts by putting a ham hock in a large pot with enough water to cover the hock. He brings it to a full rolling boil and cooks the hock until the meat falls off the bone. He adds cleaned, cut greens and the peeled, quartered turnips with some salt and pepper. They continue boiling, and he starts to make his dumplings.
Here’s where his other secret comes in. “You make a paste with the corn meal, with water, salt, pepper, and a little sugar. And then you make the dumplings,” he says, cupping his hands together as he would if he were shaping corn meal paste between them. His dumplings are large, round, and flattened out a bit. “My little secret is, I microwave the dumplings for about 2 or 3 minutes, until they firm up. Then I put them in the greens.”
About ten or fifteen minutes later, Keith says, the dumplings should be cooked, the turnips tender, and the greens are ready. Ladle the greens in bowls and add a dumpling, a turnip piece, a bit of ham hock meat, and some of the potlikker to each serving. It’s almost instinctive to say ‘y’all come’ when you’ve got such rustic, belly-satisfying eats piping hot and ready on the stove.
Everyone needs a neighbor like this.