cooking collards, southern style

Sunday, February 27th, 2005 2:35 pm by Neal

Yesterday, before the rain arrived, I pulled up the last of my row of Fall/Winter collard plants. For about one dollars worth of seed, I grew eighty feet of these hardy and tasty plants, and my family and friends have enjoyed the succulent leaves continuously since October. Even with temperatures in the mid-teen’s, these plants have thrived and continued to put out new leaves to replace the ones that wound up in my cooking pot.

Collards and turnips are the great, Southern greens. While much of the country enjoys the more widely-known Kale (by the way, collards are a type of kale), collards, turnips and mustard greens are predominantly foods grown and eaten in the South. This is a real shame as these greens are affordable, healthy and delicious. As a side vegetable dish, collard greens can accompany almost any meal.

There are numerous ways to cook collard greens, but the recipe that I use is a traditional, Southern method made vegetarian by excluding any animal fat such as pork lard (fatback), hamhocks, or bacon. Here’s how it’s done:

Start with “a mess” of raw greens. If you buy the greens at the supermarket, a mess is the whole, big bunch normally bound by a rubber band. If you pick your own, a mess is enough leaves to fill one to two plastic supermarket bags when packed in very tightly. Next, wash, stem and chop the leaves. This is the bulk of the work in preparing collards: separate the leaves and put in a large sink full of water. Thrash them to remove any dirt; remove the leaves from the water, and drain. Repeat at least once, possibly more until no more dirt appears in the sink. To remove the stems, use your hands, not a knife. With one hand, fold the leaf in half down the middle and hold while you rip the stem out with the other hand. With a little practice, you can stem a mess of collards in ten minutes or so. An easy and quick way to chop the leaves is to stack a pile of leaves about two inches high, roll them up like a cigar, and chop into strips. Then, chop the strips into smaller pieces.

Fill a large pot one-quarter to one-third full of water and bring to a boil. Add the chopped collards as you chop them. Even if it seems that there will be way to many collards for the pot, don’t worry: collards, like spinach, cook down. A mess will easily fit into a six quart pot, for example. Seasoning the collards offers a variety of subtle flavors, and many recipes are closely-guarded, family secrets. For a mess in a big pot, here’s the basic seasoning that you will want to use:

  • 1-2 Tablespoons of vegetable oil
  • 2 Tablespoons of salt (or more, to taste)
  • 1 Tablespoon sugar (helps with any bitterness)
  • 1/4 cup (or more) vinegar (red cider is fine)

Additionally, you can jazz up the collards by adding some or all of these ingredients:

  • several (5 or more) whole cloves of garlic
  • 1 – 2 (or more) Tablespoons of red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 cup (or more) nutritional yeast flakes

Boil the collards on medium for at least 45 minutes, or until they are very soft. The leaves will become quite limp and change color from bright green to a darker, more pale green. Serve hot, in a bowl with broth, or drained on a plate. Most southerners sprinkle “pepper vinegar” (hot peppers marinated in a jar of vinegar) onto their greens for added flavor and bite.

Cooked collards keep in the refrigerator for several days, and they can be frozen for months (in a freezer bag) without losing any taste. Just thaw the frozen block of greens in a pot for a quick, delicious vegetable accompaniment or a meal in itself.

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