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In 'Turnip Greens And Tortillas,' Atlanta Chef Melds Southern And Mexican Fare


What's your New Year's tradition - fireworks, champagne, a midnight kiss perhaps? In Spain, it's considered good luck to stuff 12 grapes into your mouth come midnight. In Denmark, people break dishes over the doors of friends and family. In Ecuador, they burn paper scarecrows. In the South, we eat a carefully composed plate designed to bring good fortune in the coming year - black-eyes or some other type of field pea, greens, collards, turnips or cabbage and cornbread to sop up the pot liquor. The old saying is peas for pennies, greens for dollars and cornbread for gold. Usually, there is some pork on the plate as well, and my mother-in-law would always include a piece of fish to swim into the new year. This year, I'll be spicing it up a bit with recipes from Atlanta chef Eddie Hernandez, who has infused the fresh flavors of his native Monterrey, Mexico, with traditions of his adopted South. Hernandez calls himself a born-again Southern Mexican.

EDDIE HERNANDEZ: I became a citizen here in Georgia. I applied for my citizenship here, so I said, well, I guess now I'm a born-again Southern Mexican. And everybody thought it was pretty funny (laughter).

ELLIOTT: His book, "Turnip Greens & Tortillas," weaves memoir with the Southern dishes he's refashioned to reflect his heritage. Think greens with fresh tomatoes and chiles, refried black-eyed peas with chorizo or fried green tomatillos with peach habanero sauce. The fusion started when he was gifted a garbage bag full of backyard garden greens.

HERNANDEZ: Somebody brought me turnip greens (laughter). I didn't even know what to do with them.

ELLIOTT: His partner at the restaurant chain Taqueria del Sol, Mike Klank, took him to some of Atlanta's famous Southern cooking spots to sample what turnip greens should taste like.

HERNANDEZ: And I changed it - a little different. People didn't really like the idea that I was messing with their greens.

ELLIOTT: But his customers eventually came around, so Hernandez started exploring other Southern ingredients that were more familiar to him.

HERNANDEZ: And then I realized that we got so many things in common. It relates to corn and pork and barbecue. And every day, it's in our culture as well.

ELLIOTT: Hernandez came to Houston in the 1970s to start a rock band, but he says food has been part of his life since he was a boy.

HERNANDEZ: My grandma was the one that actually was doing things that I didn't get every day, you know, like, pickled skin and, you know, using a lot of fresh vegetables from - you know, she had a little land with chicken corn and some other stuff - about an acre, acre and a half. And I was able to see what she was doing. And eventually she just came to me and she said, you know, you need to learn how to cook.

ELLIOTT: His grandmother was a farmer and an entrepreneur. She ran bars and convenience stores in Monterrey. Hernandez started his first food business when he was just 15 - a sandwich stand.

HERNANDEZ: And I went and bought bread. I made a really good salsa and started selling tortas at a bus stop. Of course, everybody thought I was nuts. And my friends used to make a lot of fun of me - you know, no girl is going to like you because you sell food on the street. And I'd say, no, you're totally wrong. I said, I'm an entrepreneur (laughter). I have my own business.

ELLIOTT: Now he's executive chef and partner in the James Beard-nominated Taqueria del Sol, a counter-service chain in Georgia and Tennessee. In the kitchen of one of the Atlanta restaurants, he shows me how to make his turnip greens. It starts with a little butter and oil.

HERNANDEZ: We're going to build the sauce for greens. And you want to saute your garlic, a few onions, your pepper. In this case, we use the chile de arbol.

ELLIOTT: The chile de arbol pepper brings some heat. It sautes with the onion and garlic until the peppers start to release their oils.

HERNANDEZ: You want to cook them until you see a little red in the butter. It's changing.

ELLIOTT: Next - chopped tomatoes. Once the tomatoes get juicy, he tosses in the greens. They've already been boiled in plain water.

HERNANDEZ: If you look at the greens, they're not cooked to death. I want them to have a little bit of character, so we'll add the greens.

ELLIOTT: And finally - homemade chicken stock to finish out the sauce, which I call pot liquor.

HERNANDEZ: Everything is about the sauce. You create that flavor, then I can put collard greens in here. I can put any green I want 'cause the base is really, really good.

ELLIOTT: The dish has become a Friday staple at his restaurants.

HERNANDEZ: Can you be more Southern than turnip greens? No. But then you drop tortillas on it. Now we have Southern Mexican. And that’s what my food is all about.

ELLIOTT: Atlanta chef Eddie Hernandez - his cookbook is "Turnip Greens & Tortillas." Maybe his recipe will bring more dollars in the new year than my greens ever have. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.