Collards: A True Southern Delight with Pork of Course!
Southerners love their greens. A time-honored tradition in southern kitchens, greens have held an important place on the table for well over a century, and there is no other vegetable that is quite so unique to the region. Greens are any sort of cabbage in which the green leaves do not form a compact head. They are mostly kale, collards, turnip, spinach, and mustard greens. Collard greens are vegetables that are members of the cabbage family, but are also close relatives to kale. Although they are available year-round, they are at their best from January through April.
In the Southern states, a large quantity of greens to serve a family is commonly referred to as a “mess o’ greens.” The exact quantity that constitutes a “mess” varies with the size of the family.
The traditional way to cook greens is to boil or simmer slowly with a piece of salt pork or ham hock for a long time (this tempers their tough texture and smoothes out their bitter flavor) until they are very soft. Typically, greens are served with freshly baked corn bread to dip into the pot-likker.
Pot likker is the highly concentrated, vitamin-filled broth that results from the long boil of the greens. It is, in other words, the “liquor” left in the pot.It is said by southern grandmothers that “Pot likker will cure what ails you and if nothing ailing you, it will give you a good cleaning out.”
In spite of what some consider their unpleasant smell, reaction to the smell of cooking greens separates true southern eaters from wannabes.
According to folklore, collards served with black-eyed peas and hog jowl on New Year’s Day promises a year of good luck and financial reward, hanging a fresh leaf over your door will ward off evil spirits, and a fresh leaf placed on the forehead promises to cure a headache.
Collard greens are a type of large, leafy green vegetable common in southern U.S. cooking but are found in recipes around the world. They’re often cooked using moist heat because it helps soften their toughness and reduce their bitterness, but collards can be used in more ways than you might think.
Collards have dark green, fanlike leaves with tough stems. They’re a member of the same group of plants that includes kale, turnips, and mustard greens. Likewise, they share many of the same characteristics and are often prepared interchangeably or in the same ways (at least in the southern U.S., where they’re most popular) and with similar ingredients. Collards do well in dishes that require low, slow cooking such as simmering, braising, or steaming, with ham, beans, okra, and so forth.
They aren’t hard to work with, they just require a little TLC, before and during cooking, to get them to their optimal texture.
The plant is commercially cultivated for its thick, slightly bitter, edible leaves. They are available year-round, but are tastier and more nutritious in the cold months, after the first frost. For best texture, the leaves are picked before they reach their maximum size, at which stage they are thicker and are cooked differently from the new leaves. Age does not affect flavor.
Flavor and texture also depend on the cultivar; the couve manteiga and couve tronchuda are especially appreciated in Brazil and Portugal. The large number of varieties grown in the USA decreased as people moved to towns after the Second World War, leaving only five varieties commonly in cultivation. However, seeds of many varieties remained in use by individual farmers, growers and seed savers as well as within US government seed collections. In the Appalachian region of the Southern United States, cabbage collards, characterized by yellow-green leaves and a partially heading structure are more popular than the dark-green non-heading types in the coastal South. There have been projects from the early 2000s to both preserve seeds of uncommon varieties and also enable more varieties to return to cultivation.
History of Collard Greens:
Collard greens date back to prehistoric times, and are one of the oldest members of the cabbage family. The ancient Greeks grew kale and collards, although they made no distinction between them. Well before the Christian era, the Romans grew several kinds including those with large leaves and stalks and a mild flavor; broad-leaved forms like collards; and others with curled leaves. The Romans may have taken the coles to Britain and France or the Celts may have introduced them to these countries. They reached into the British Isles in the 4th century B.C.
According to the book, The Backcountry Housewife – A Study of Eighteenth-Century Foods, by Kay Moss and Kathryn Hoffman:
The 17th century Lowland Scots had greens or potherbs “from the yard” along with their oat cakes or oatmeal. The switch to corn cakes or mush along with their greens in 18th century American was most likely not too difficult a transition for these folk.
John Lawson remarked on the many green herbs, wild and cultivated, growing in Carolina in the early 1700’s. These greens included lamb’s1quarters, plantain, nettles, rhubarb (dock rather than garden rhubarb), comfrey among “abundance more than I could name.” The “abundance” most likely adds dandelion, sorrel, spinach, cabbage, lettuce, endive, cresses, and purslane to the list.
Collard greens have been cooked and used for centuries. The Southern style of cooking of greens came with the arrival of African slaves to the southern colonies and the need to satisfy their hunger and provide food for their families. Though greens did not originate in Africa, the habit of eating greens that have been cooked down into a low gravy, and drinking the juices from the greens (known as “pot likker”) is of African origin. The slaves of the plantations were given the leftover food from the plantation kitchen. Some of this food consisted of the tops of turnips and other greens. Ham hocks and pig’s feet were also given to the slaves. Forced to create meals from these leftovers, they created the famous southern greens. The slave diet began to evolve and spread when slaves entered the plantation houses as cooks. Their African dishes, using the foods available in the region they lived in, began to evolve into present-day Southern cooking.
2011: Collard greens became the official vegetable of South Carolina when Governor Nikki Haley signed Senate Bill No. 823 (S823) into Law on June 2, 2011. The proposal to name collard greens the official state vegetable was prompted by a letter from Mary Grace Wingard, a 9-year-old Rocky Creek Elementary School student. Mary Grace said that she was inspired by a talk given by Governor Haley during a field trip her class made to the Statehouse.
A BILL TO AMEND THE CODE OF LAWS OF SOUTH CAROLINA, 1976, BY ADDING SECTION 1-1-681 SO AS TO DESIGNATE COLLARD GREENS AS THE OFFICIAL STATE VEGETABLE. Whereas, the State of South Carolina ranks second in the nation for collard green production; and Whereas, Lexington County ranks first among counties in South Carolina for collard green production; and Whereas, collard greens are a healthy addition to any Southern meal. Now, therefore, Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina: SECTION 1. Article 9, Chapter 1, Title 1 of the 1976 Code is amended by adding:”Section 1-1-681. Collard greens are the official vegetable of the State.” SECTION 2. This act takes effect upon approval by the Governor.
Collard greens are known as sukuma in Swahilli and are one of the most common vegetables in East Africa. Sukuma is mainly lightly sautéed in oil until tender, flavored with onions and seasoned with salt, and served either as the main accompaniment or as a side dish with meat or fish. In Congo, Tanzania and Kenya (East Africa), thinly sliced collard greens are the main accompaniments of a popular dish known as sima or ugali (a maize flour cake).
Southern and Eastern Europe
Collards have been cultivated in Europe for thousands of years with references to the Greeks and Romans back to the 1st Century. In Montenegro, Dalmatia and Herzegovina, collard greens, locally known as raštika or raštan, were traditionally one of the staple vegetables. It is particularly popular in the winter, stewed with smoked mutton (kaštradina) or cured pork, root vegetables and potatoes. Known in Turkey as kara lahana (“dark cabbage”), it is a staple in the Black Sea area.
The term collard has been used to include many non-heading Brassica oleracea crops. While American collards are best placed in the Viridis crop group, the Acephala cultivar group is also used (“without a head” in Greek) referring to a lack of close-knit core of leaves (a “head”) like cabbage does, making collards more tolerant of high humidity levels and less susceptible to fungal diseases. The plant is a biennial where winter frost occurs; some varieties may be perennial in warmer regions. It has an upright stalk, often growing over two feet tall and up to six feet for the Portuguese cultivars. Popular cultivars of collard greens include ‘Georgia Southern’, ‘Vates’, ‘Morris Heading’, ‘Blue Max’, ‘Top Bunch’, ‘Butter Collard’ (couve manteiga), couve tronchuda, and Groninger Blauw. In Africa it is commonly known as sukuma (East Africa), muriwo or umBhida (Southern Africa).
Southern United States
Collard greens are a staple vegetable in Southern U.S. cuisine. They are often prepared with other similar green leaf vegetables, such as spinach, kale, turnip greens, and mustard greens in the dish called “mixed greens”. Typically used in combination with collard greens are smoked and salted meats (ham hocks, smoked turkey drumsticks, smoked turkey necks, pork neckbones, fatback or other fatty meat), diced onions, vinegar, salt, and black pepper, white pepper, or crushed red pepper, and some cooks add a small amount of sugar. Traditionally, collards are eaten on New Year’s Day, along with black-eyed peas or field peas and cornbread, to ensure wealth in the coming year. Cornbread is used to soak up the “pot liquor”, a nutrient-rich collard broth. Collard greens may also be thinly sliced and fermented to make a collard sauerkraut that is often cooked with flat dumplings. Landrace collard in-situ genetic diversity and ethnobotany are subjects of research for citizen-science groups.
Brazil and Portugal
In Portuguese and Brazilian cuisine, collard greens (or couve) are a common accompaniment to fish and meat dishes. They make up a standard side dish for feijoada, a popular pork and beans-style stew. These Brazilian and Portuguese cultivars are likely members of a distinct non-heading cultivar group of Brassica oleracea, specifically the Tronchuda Group.
Thinly-sliced collard greens are also a main ingredient of a popular Portuguese soup, the caldo verde (“green broth”). For this broth, the leaves are sliced into strips, 2–3 mm (3⁄32–1⁄8 in) wide (sometimes by a grocer or market vendor using a special hand-cranked slicer) and added to the other ingredients 15 minutes before it is served.
In Kashmir, collard greens (haakh) are included in most meals. Leaves are harvested by pinching in early spring when the dormant buds sprout and give out tender leaves known as kaanyil haakh. When the extending stem bears alternate leaves in quick succession during the growing season, older leaves are harvested periodically. In late autumn, the apical portion of the stem is removed along with the whorled leaves. There are several dishes made with haakh. A common dish eaten with rice is haak rus, a soup of whole collard leaves cooked simply with water, oil, salt, green chilies and spices.
In United States culture
In the United States, collard greens symbolize Southern culture and African-American culture and identity. For example, jazz composer and pianist, Thelonious Monk, sported a collard leaf in his lapel to represent his African-American heritage. In President Barack Obama’s first state dinner, collard greens were included on the menu. Novelist and poet, Alice Walker used collards to reference the intersection of African-American heritage and black women. There have been many collard festivals that celebrate African-American identity, including those in Port Wentworth, Georgia (since 1997), East Palo Alto, California (since 1998), Columbus, Ohio (since 2010), and Atlanta, Georgia (since 2011). In 2010, the Latibah Collard Greens Museum opened in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Many explorers in the late nineteenth century have written about the pervasiveness of collards in Southern cooking particularly among black Americans. In 1869, Hyacinth, a traveler during the civil war, for example, observed that collards could be found anywhere in the south. In 1972, another observer, Stearns, echoed that sentiment claiming that collards were present in every southern negro garden. In 1883, Smith, a writer commented on the fact that there is no word or dish more popular among poorer whites and negroes than collard greens
How to Cook With Collard GreensThese greens need to be washed thoroughly before cooking them, as they can carry a lot of grit. But you don’t typically eat the stems, so remove those first.
Simply fold the leaves in half lengthwise and trim the stems off with a knife. Or just tear the leaves away from the stems. Then fill up the sink with cold water and add the leaves. Swish them around a bit to loosen the dirt, which will settle on the bottom of the sink. Drain the sink, refill, and repeat as necessary until no more grit is visible in the sink. Pat the leaves dry with a clean cloth or paper towel.
Many recipes, especially traditional Southern ones, will call for cooking this veggie in moist heat, such as braising with ham or turkey. You can also sauté, steam, or blanch them.
When you’re cooking them, save the flavorful liquid. Known as pot liquor, it’s highly prized and is especially wonderful when sopped up with homemade cornbread.
What Do They Taste Like?
On their own, collards are pretty bitter and the texture is tough. But once you add some moist heat, their flavor softens and becomes milder the longer you cook them.
Yes, they’re popular in the southern U.S., but think beyond geography. Anywhere you’d use a dark, leafy bitter green, you can use collards. Toss chopped collards into a soup, slice the leaves into ribbons for pasta, or sauté them with a cruciferous cousin such as kale—it’s all good. If you massage the raw leaves to soften them, they’re a surprisingly good addition to salads.
You can also use them as you would a wrap, for a gluten-free sandwich stuffed with hummus, tofu, shredded veggies, beans, and so forth.
Where to Buy Collard Greens
Collards are not usually hard to come by, as they’re available all year round in most grocery stores or in markets that serve African-American populations. They’re stocked in bunches in the produce section, chilled, near the kale, Swiss chard, and other leafy green veggies. The leaves are so big, they’re hard to miss.
You can also buy collards at farmers markets, but regardless of your source, look for firm stalks and crisp green leaves that are large and sturdy, almost as if you could use them as a fan to cool yourself off in the summer. Steer clear of anything yellowing and/or wilting, as they’re already past their prime.
Collard greens are best kept in the fridge in a plastic bag, unwashed, to help preserve their crispness. You don’t want to wash them and then put them in the fridge, as introducing excessive moisture will accelerate the spoiling process.
Collards will keep for up to five days, depending on how fresh they were when you bought them. Anything you buy locally from a farmers market will often keep for twice that length of time.
To freeze, blanch them first, which sounds fancy but just means you simply plunge the greens into boiling water for 3 minutes. Then, transfer them to ice-cold water to stop the cooking process. Drain and pat dry. Chop and store the greens in a resealable plastic bag in the freezer for up to 12 months.
Nothing’s stopping you from freezing raw collards, but blanching will preserve the quality and nutrition of the veggie; it halts the enzymes that could potentially lead to spoilage, once frozen.
Collard Greens Recipe:
This is a family recipe from my Great Aunt who said “It is difficult to measure weight and size for each serving. I buy a grocery bag full and can serve four with that. Collard greens are available eight months out of the year in the South. I do not include June through September because the greens are much better after they have a ‘good hard frost.’ That’s not to say you cannot get them in the other months (June-September), but the taste is much better after the frost.”
Collard greens (whole collard heads or leaves)*
2 to 3 ham hocks
Salt to taste
Salsa or Chow Chow if desired (hot or mild)
Small whole tomatoes
Wash greens thoroughly approximately 3 or 4 times) to ensure they are clean and free of insects. It is best if you rinse each leaf individually.
To prepared the greens, tear each leaf from its thick center stems; discard stems. Remove the stems that run down the center by holding the leaf in your left hand and stripping the leaf down with your right hand. The tender young leaves in the heart of the collard greens do not need to be stripped. Discard all stems. Set collard greens aside until ready to cook.
Place ham hocks in an extra-large pot with enough water to completely cover them. Add salt and cook ham hocks 30 to 60 minutes before adding the collards greens. You want the ham hocks to be falling apart before you add the collard greens.
Add prepared collard greens, large leaves first (let the water start boiling first), then add remainder of greens. Note that young collard greens will cook up rather quickly. and the older greens may take upwards of 45 minutes to tenderize. Cook 45 minutes to 1 hour, stirring once about midway to ensure thorough cooking. Throughout the cooking process, check the water level and add more as needed to replace what’s lost through evaporation. Test for tenderness at 45 minutes by piercing with a sharp knife. Cook additional time if necessary.
Remove from heat and drain in a colander, reserving the juice (pot likker).
Chop collards with a collard chopper or a knife, leaving no large leaves or pieces. Add some of the juice (pot likker) if the greens are too dry. Salt to taste.
Serve hot or at room temperature with your choice of toppings.
* When buying collards, make sure to choose dark green leaves with no wilting or yellowness. Remember collard greens cook down, so purchase enough for your family. Fresh collard greens may be stored in a plastic bag in your refrigerator for up to 5 days.