Any time (my dad) gets to eat greens — of any kind — two days in a row, he considers himself extremely lucky, and he is not alone. In 1984, at the annual Collard Festival in Ayden, N.C., a man named C. Mort Horst set a world record by eating seven and a half pounds of collard greens in 30 minutes. (However, it was reported that he kept them down just long enough to claim his prize.) A year later, a woman named Colleen Bunting contributed to an anthology devoted to collards called ”Leaves of Greens: The Collard Poems.” In one the poems, she addresses (a common) prejudice: “Some say collards don’t smell so nice,/ But eat them once, and you’ll eat them twice.”
— from Green Party by Julia Reed, New York Times
Some of you grew up with these broad-leaved beauties, but I’m sure there are others among you who have arrived home with your shares in recent weeks and thought, “Ummm … this is as big as my head. What on earth is it?”
These are collard greens, and they’re delicious, and they’re good for far more than playing peek-a-boo with your baby — although I highly recommend that as well.
You’ve probably been told to eat yer greens and they certainly are nutritional powerhouses. Collards are probably the best vegetable source of calcium, on par with milk cup for cup. They’re also very high in Vitamins A and C, iron, potassium, niacin, and protein.
So, short of gnawing on the raw leaves, how do you get all that good stuff in your body?
Traditionally, collard greens are simmered for a looooong time with a ham hock or a hunk of slab bacon or salt pork until they’re silky soft. They’re quite good like this, although the sour smell of this long cooking is unpleasant to some people.
They’re quite versatile though. You can chiffonade them and sauté them with garlic in olive oil. This takes less than five minutes and the greens taste bright and fresh. These short-cut collard greens resemble traditional collards, but you microwave the greens for about 5 minutes first, which cuts the cooking time significantly, and you add chopped bacon at the end instead of cooking the greens with the pork. Of course, simmering collards in a pork-based stock gives them great flavor; mushroom stock is a great vegetarian option. And if you’re open to trying them raw, how about collard wraps? This recipe is a great jumping-off point — you could fill collard wraps with all kinds of things! If raw collards are too strong for you, you can blanch the greens for a minute or two first to mellow the flavor. And of course, hoppin’ John and collard greens is a traditional Southern New Year’s Day meal for good luck!
Our very favorite way to eat collards comes from the quite irresistible The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook: Stories and Recipes for Southerners and Would-be Southerners, via our friend Eunice. Eunice is a tireless cook with an impeccable palate and I am doing all I can do bring her to the farm for a week next year as a chef-in-residence. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? A gal can dream. But right now, what we’ve got are her delicious collards.
They’re so called because they have a wonderful spicy smoky flavor, but they’re cooked without pork. They’ve got no animal products in them at all, actually, so this is a great vegan dish. Don’t let that deter the meat-lovers among you, though. This is a fine, fine meal. In fact, we’re having it for dinner tonight, so I’d better give you the recipe right now so that I can get cookin’!
We love to spoon a heap of sneaky collards over a big wedge of custard corn bread in a soup bowl. It’s fall in a bowl. We’re ready.
adapted from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook by Matt Lee and Ted Lee
8 cups water
3 dried chiles or 1 Tbsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 Tbsp plus 1 tsp kosher salt, plus more to taste
3 3/4 pounds collard greens, ribbed, washed, and cut into 1-inch ribbons
1 large onion, trimmed, peeled, and quartered
1 large tomato, cored and quartered, or 1 large can whole tomatoes (1 can diced tomatoes works in a pinch!)
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar, sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
1 tsp Spanish smoked paprika (pimenton) or Hungarian paprika
3 cloves garlic, unpeeled
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
In a very large stockpot, bring water to a boil over high heat. Add the chiles and 1 Tbsp salt, and reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until the stock has a nice salty spiciness, about 10 minutes.
Add a few handfuls of greens to the pot. They will float on the surface, so stir them frequently, submerging with the spoon, until they have turned a bright kelly green, 3 to 5 minutes. They will become floppy and more compact, so you can add more handfuls of greens. Continue adding handfuls of greens, stirring and submerging them until all the collards are in the pot (6 to 10 minutes). Turn the heat down to the gentlest simmer and note your time at this point.
While the greens simmer, place the onion and tomato in a small bowl. Drizzle olive oil and vinegar over them, add 1 tsp salt, the paprika, and the pepper, and toss to coat. Transfer the vegetables to a medium cast iron skillet (a cookie sheet or casserole dish works too) and add the garlic. Place the skillet under a hot broiler, about 3 inches from the flame or heating element, until the vegetables are nicely charred, 6 to 8 minutes. Set them on the stovetop to cool.
When the garlic is cool enough to touch, peel the cloves and discard the charred skins. Transfer the broiled onion, tomato, and garlic to a blender or food processor and blend at high speed until the mixture is completely smooth, about 3 minutes. You should have close to 1 1/2 cups of purée.
With a ladle, remove most of the stock from the collards pot and discard or save for soup. (Traditionally, you dip corn bread into this pot liquor left over after the greens are done. It’s delicious for sure, and has lots of the vitamins and minerals that leach out of the greens when you cook them for a long time.) Add the purée and continue to simmer the greens, for a total of 1 hour from the point at which you noted the time. The greens will be a very dark matte green and completely tender, bathed in pale red gravy.
Cut a generous wedge of buttermilk skillet corn bread and put it in the bottom of a soup bowl. Ladle the collards on top. Sometimes we also add an egg over easy. Dig in!
Buttermilk Skillet Corn Bread
adapted ever so slightly from our trusty Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison
You can make this corn bread without the cream if you like, and it’s still delicious. But the cream, added just before you slide the skillet into the oven, magically transforms into a custardy layer just under the surface. Vegan folks might like to give this recipe a spin.
3 tbsp butter
1 cup flour
1 cup stone-ground yellow or white cornmeal
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 eggs, beaten
2 Tbsp sugar or honey
2 cups buttermilk (or 2 cups milk plus 2 or so Tbsp lemon juice or vinegar, left to sit for about 10 minutes to curdle)
1 cup cream
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Put the butter in a 10-inch cast iron skillet (a cake pan or a deep dish pie pan will work if you don’t have a cast iron skillet) and place in the oven while you get everything else together. Sift the dry ingredients in one bowl and mix the eggs, sugar, and buttermilk in another. Remove the pan from the oven, brush the butter over the sides, then (carefully — the skillet is still hot!) pour the rest into the wet ingredients. Combine the wet and dry ingredients, and stir long enough to make a smooth batter. Pour the batter into the hot pan. Gently pour the cream over the batter — don’t stir! Gently slide the skillet back into the oven and bake until lightly browned and springy to the touch, 50-60 minutes.
Leftovers make an excellent breakfast! We’re particularly partial to eating it with a fried egg and maple syrup on top. Try it!