If you're not from the South, collard greens may be one of those green bushels in the supermarket that you skip over on your way to the arugula or kale. But overlooking collards is a mistake: These greens are versatile, delicious, and packed with vitamin C and fiber. Think of them as kale's less expensive, more underground cousin.
Below the Mason-Dixon, the leafy green is most often stewed with bacon or ham hock and served with cornbread to mop up the juices, or "pot liquor" In Louisiana, collards are one of the key ingredients in Gumbo Z’Herbes, or green gumbo, usually dished up on Good Friday. (On January 1, it’s traditional to serve collards and black-eyed peas for luck in the New Year.)
A member of the cabbage family, collards originated in the eastern Mediterranean, cooked in ancient Greece and Rome. There's some dispute over whether collards came to the states along with the slave trade or were there previously, but the Southern style of cooking the greens certainly comes from African cuisine. (Collards are a popular ingredient for Sukuma wiki, a dish made of braised greens and tomatoes that’s ubiquitous in Tanzania and Kenya.) In the South, collards have become symbolic of the African-American community — the Latibah Collard Green Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, showcases black art and culture, and named itself after the vegetable because of its ability to thrive in harsh conditions.
As for preparing the greens themselves, you’ll want to look for collards with dark green leaves. "Avoid wilty leaves, and remember that the smaller the leaf, the more tender they will be," says Aja Hazelhoff, a chef at Il Posto Café in New Orleans. "The bigger leaves are better for long-term cooking."
Remember to wash them well before using them — dirt and sand tend to get trapped in the leaves. (When serving a large amount of collards, some Southerners have been known to use the washing machine on the cold rinse cycle, but your kitchen sink should do just fine.)
Once they're clean, the options for preparing them are endless. "People assume that collards have to be cooked to until they're a side you can eat with no teeth," Hazelhoff said. "But there should be texture to them. You can give collards the same treatment as kale or cabbage. As long as you remove the rib and chop them, you don’t have to cook them much at all."
One option that Hazelhoff recommends? A collard green stir-fry. That's healthier than the traditional preparation. "Just take some olive oil and sauté some onions and garlic," Hazelhoff said. "Wilt your de-stemmed collards down, and season them. I use ginger, apple cider vinegar, and honey, but you could also use red pepper flakes or lemon."
Collards are too bitter and fibrous to be eaten raw, but if you blanch them (just boil in salted water for a couple minutes and shock with ice water), they can make an excellent base for a salad. "Throw it in the food processor or shred the leaves and mix them with toasted pecans, apple, and Parmesan cheese, and any vinaigrette you like," Hazelhoff said.
But the best method, Hazelhoff agrees, is the traditional one: "Low and slow. People have been cooking them like that hundreds of years, and there’s a good reason. It’s delicious."
Chef Rusty Tucker, who runs Rusty’s BBQ in Leeds, Alabama, agrees, and happens to have whipped up some of the finest traditional collard greens this Alabamian has ever tasted. Here's his recipe.
Traditional Alabama Collard Greens (Rusty Tucker, Rusty’s BBQ in Leeds, Alabama)
- ½ lb (8 oz) unsalted butter
- ½ cup (4 oz) yellow onion, medium diced
- 2 cloves fresh garlic, crushed
- 1 tbsp (½ oz) kosher salt
- 1 tbsp (½ oz) Black Pepper, ground
- 1 tsp Red Pepper Flake
- 1 tsp Tabasco
- 2 bunches (32 oz) of Fresh Collards, de-stemmed, cut into ½ inch chiffonade (or 2 lbs frozen, chopped collards)
- 1 lb (16 oz) Conecuh smoked sausage , cut ½ inch rounds
- 3 (96 oz) Quarts chicken stock
- ½ cup (4 oz) white vinegar
Mise En Place
Locate and measure all ingredients. Wash and de-stem collard greens. Place leaves on top of one another and roll tightly, then using a sharp chef's knife slice lengthwise down the middle of the leaves once, then across into ½ inch ribbons (chiffonade). Dice one large yellow onion ¼" dice (macédoine); crush two cloves of fresh garlic; cut Conecuh smoked sausage into ½ inch rondelles. Prepare or purchase 3 quarts of chicken stock.
In a large stock pot, melt butter over medium heat. Sweat onions and garlic in the butter over medium-low heat until softened. Add sausage and dried spices into the pot, increase heat to medium-high flame and render sausage until slightly browned. Add chopped collard greens to pot and allow to wilt in the fat, continuously stirring for 2 minutes, then add chicken stock and all remaining ingredients to the pot. Cover pot and bring to a boil. Allow to boil for 5 minutes and then reduce heat and let simmer for approximately two hours, until greens are tender. Enjoy with homemade cornbread.