This past weekend I went to dinner in the cafeteria of a very prestigious art college in my city, and while the food, for the most part, was pretty good, the collard greens were truly awful. Why does this matter? Because, when correctly prepared, collard greens are a dish full of flavor, vitamins, fiber, minerals, and well, just plain wonderful! Speaking as a chef I believe I know what was going on there. The greens were one of their cooked vegetable selections and had been treated as if they were delicate spinach; they’d been stir-fried, apparently in an outrageous amount of oil (they were glistening with it and my lips felt slimy after one bite), and cooked quite lightly, just as spinach, or perhaps kale, would be. Also, they were bitter as hell, tough and chewy.
Okay, here’s what you gotta know about collards, and this is straight from a Southern girl who was raised on’em, as well as someone who has helped her grandpa plant and raise them in a home garden: collards should stay in the ground until at least the first frost. The chill weather produces a change in the leaves, makes them sweeter somehow, perhaps crystallizing the sugar in them (the cold also helps to tenderize the leaves somewhat); if you harvest collards too early they will inevitably be bitter and chewy. Even if you keep them in the ground a while longer, you will still need to add a pinch (up to ½ tsp) of sugar to the pot-not to make them sweet (God forbid!), but to cut the natural bitterness. Fresh collards are going to be naturally a little bitter, but collards removed from the earth before the first autumn frosts are excessively so.
Now let’s discuss cooking time. Most greens you get at the grocery store, well, you don’t really know how long ago they were harvested, and usually they are deep green and almost leathery. This is going to mean cooking for at least an hour–two, depending on the amount you make . This does not leave them mushy-they are too hardy for that-but it does render them softer and more edible. I love half-crunchy broccoli and cauliflower, but those are cruciferous vegetables; collard greens, while also classed as cruciferous, are a tough leaf and need to be cooked sufficiently to soften the fibers–a brief sauté just ain’t gonna do the job.
How do you season your greens properly? Well, you do not douse them in oil, that’s for certain! Down South we use things like smoked neckbone, ham hock or pig’s feet–it may sound peculiar to one unused to it, but the flavor blends well with the greens and these meats are not as fatty as you imagine. This was an upscale art college cafeteria so many kids are vegetarian, vegan, or at least very health conscious. I do understand that they may not want to use meat as seasoning–though if you only have objections to pork itself, smoked turkey drumsticks, wings or necks also work quite well. A product called Liquid Smoke is handy to have around to flavor your greens or any other thing you like a smoky flavor with (beans, soups, etc.).
Wash your collards thoroughly; take off the leaves, making sure you get any dirt or small rocks cleaned out. After washing, take each leaf by the end of the stem (where it was attached to the plant) and run a very sharp knife along both inside edges of the stem-throw the stem away; the leafy part is the ONLY part of the collards you’ll be cooking. If you prefer not to waste them chop the stems up, and use them for your mulch pile.
Stuff the leaves in a good-sized pot, mash them down a bit (there will be more room as they cook), then add your water until it covers the top of the greens. If you’re using smoked meats, put half of them in the middle of the pile, and the other half of the meat gets laid on top. Add your pinch of sugar and stir it into the water; next goes your salt, pepper and hot sauce (if desired), and I like to add Tony Chachere’s New Orlean’s Seasoning. Turn the heat on high and cover the pot. When it starts to boil, turn down to medium and set your timer for 1-2 hours–you’re cooking’em long and slow. About two thirds through your time, add a couple of chopped onions and cover again. There are some people who will tell you greens will cook in 30 minutes, but those collards must be young and tender; most of what you will find at the grocery store is a bit older, and yes, more tough, but this cooking method works best for them.
When your timer goes off, drain the ‘pot liquor’ off, chop with a metal spatula while they’re still in the pot, and serve in a sturdy bowl, with a side of crispy cornbread. A note about ‘pot liquor’: among the poor down South, in those times before vitamins were made widely available, the children were given the water from the cooked vegetables, like collards, because it was understood that much of the nutrients remained in the water (my mama remembers this herself).
What do you put on them before serving? Some folks like to sprinkle a little ‘peppah vinegah’ on collards to spice up the flavor (this is white vinegar in which small green or red hot peppers have been pickled for at least 3 months) or apple cider vinegar, even hot sauce. Tune the radio to a good country station and call’em in to dinner–that’s a fine Southern meal, full of flavor, vitamins and good for your health as well as your palate! Enjoy!