Encountering Collard Greens
I have for many years been aware that collard greens are a staple food here in the south. Even when we lived in St. Louis we had friends who swore chitterlings (or as they pronounced it, “chitlins”) and collard greens were the food of the gods, and invited us over to try some on several occasions. I knew what chitterlings were and had no desire to eat them – despite the fact that I do enjoy natural casing sausages. Somehow there was, at least in my mind, a world of difference between a kielbasa and a pile of guts on a plate. I assumed that collard greens were similar to chard, kale or beet tops: all of which I have grown, cooked and enjoyed.
While having our monthly Dinner on the Ground (indoors) Feast and Fellowship at church this past weekend, a fellow gardener was commenting how his collard greens had just gone crazy this year: They were still growing strong despite it being November and us having already had one hard frost. He didn’t know what to do with them all. He looked at us with hope and expectation in his eyes, “Would we like some?”
Marie said, “Sure: we like greens, we eat them all the time.”
“Great! I’ll go get you some,” and he ran for the door.
I called after him, trying to say that he didn’t need to do it NOW … but he was already out of range. The man was obviously desperate!
Since I don’t have permission to use his name, we’ll just call this generous fellow ‘Mr. Farmer.’ His wife, Mrs. Farmer, was still standing next to us, smiling after him, “It’s OK, we don’t live far from here, he’ll be back in just a couple of minutes. He’s not about to miss out on this dinner.”
Never actually having cooked collard greens, we asked Mrs. Farmer how she prepares hers, and she related what we had heard before: Sauté them in a big frying pan with some bacon until they’re tender and season to taste. She said she’s been busy putting theirs up: She cooks them fully then packs them into quart freezer bags and tosses them into the freezer. That makes them a warm-n-eat side dish. That sounded easy enough.
Mr. Farmer returned just as the dinner line was forming, and told us he’d get them out of his SUV when we were ready to leave.
The meal was wonderful, so much great food that genuine self-control was impossible and I was contemplating just sitting there for a few hours before trying to move again. But that wasn’t practical, so I waddled past the kitchen to express my thanks and collect the remnants of the cake we’d brought to share. Mr. Farmer sidled up as we started for the door. Marie took the cake to our truck, I went with Mr. Farmer.
As he opened the back of his vehicle I was taken aback by what was in there. I expected a bag or box with something similar to spinach, beet tops, or the other greens I knew of. These things were HUGE!
Each plant and been cut off at ground level. I later came to surmise that he’d used a machete or hatchet because those central stalks turned out to be tough! They looked like demented cabbage plants: all leaves no heads, and the lower leaves were larger than dinner plates! He gave me two plants, the other two were for the preacher. I expected two would be plenty!
As I carried these plants to my truck and hoisted them into the bed, I was reminded of seeing tobacco farmers slinging similar bundles of leafy stalks onto trucks for transport to a tobacco barn. That, of course, was before the government started paying farmers to not grow tobacco.
Monday morning I processed the collard greens. Since I found, long ago, that proceeding into much of anything armed only with assumptions is dangerous, I decided to do a little homework to get details on how to properly cook collard greens. I found several recipes; all called for a slab of bacon, a ham hock or a hunk of smoked ham. I had a little bit of real bacon on hand, but not nearly enough, and no ham hock or hunk-a-ham.
I also found that collard greens take quite a while to cook, if you want them tender: anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour for the recipe below. I decided to simply blanch and freeze these greens then I could get the supplies needed and do it up proper at a later time.
First I ran a sink full of water as I cut the leaves from the central stalk. I tossed the leaves in the sink as I went. Mr. Farmer’s plants were exceptionally clean and bug free, but I was watching.
Once all were hacked loose of the central stalk I began removing the large vein in each leaf. Some of these were as large as my finger and quite tough. Out they came.
When I’d veined several leaves, folding and stacking them as I went, I’d take a stack and cut it in half lengthwise. Then I cross cut the strips so I ended up with pieces approximately 2 to 3 inches square. These went into a large bowl.
While doing this I had a stock pot half full of water heating on the stove. When that came to a full boil, I started stuffing chopped collard greens into the stock pot. Like most greens they wither up quickly in hot water, so stuff a bunch of them in there to make each batch count. These need to boil for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally, to blanch them. Most greens only need two minutes, but these are thicker and tougher than most.
While one batch was blanching, I chopped some more, trying to keep a ready supply going. Once blanched, I fished the greens out with a slotted spoon into another bowl then moved them to a colander where I ran cold water on them. It is always recommended that one use ice water to arrest the cooking process, but our water comes from 400 feet down, and it’s November. Our tap water is close enough to ice water to do the trick just fine.
After all the leaves were chopped and blanched and cooled, I ended up with a colander full of semi-cooked greens: I figure it was about a gallon all total. I packed the lot into two large zippered freezer bags, squeezed out all the air and tossed them into the freezer. Each bag will give us enough to make a meal for the two of us with leftovers or for us and a couple of guests.
I tucked away this recipe as being one I want to try with our bounty of collard greens.
Southern Style Collard Greens Recipe
- Prep time: 10 minutes
- Cook time: 2 hours
- Yield: Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish.
If you make this recipe with chard, kale, turnip or mustard greens, they cook much more quickly than collards; cut the final cooking time to 30 minutes.
- 2 tablespoons bacon fat or lard
- 1 medium onion, sliced from root to tip
- 1 ham hock
- 2 garlic cloves, smashed
- 1 quart chicken broth
- 1 to 2 cups water
- 8 to 10 cups chopped collard greens (about 2 pounds)
- Vinegar and hot sauce to taste
1 Heat the bacon fat in a large pot over medium-high heat. Saute the onion in the bacon fat, stirring often, until the edges begin to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the ham hock, smashed garlic, chicken broth and water. Bring to a simmer. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 1 hour.
2 Add the collard greens to the pot and cook until tender, another 45 minutes to an hour.
3 Remove the ham hock, pull the meat off the bones and chop it. Mix the meat back in with the greens. Serve with vinegar and hot sauce at the table.
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The secret to cooking collards is the pot liquor: the richly flavored, smoky soup at the bottom of the collard pot. Hank Shaw of Hunter Angler Gardener Cook says that’s where all the vitamins go after you stew the heck out of the greens. Some people reuse the pot liquor for their next batch of collards. Others add beans and more pork to make it a soup. Whatever you do, don’t throw it away!
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