Southern Collard Greens

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There are a lot to be said about collard greens, but these days the people speaking loudest are the type that like to makes lists of vitamins and various nutrients, and then use said lists to divide foods into hierarchies starting with "super" then descending quickly into antithetical hyperboles like "poisons."   Often the word "toxin" is used with a straight face.  The good news for collard greens is that they're often on top of these sorts of lists, generally hiding in the shadow of kale.  They're up on top because collards are, indisputably, healthy, packed full of all the requisite vitamins and minerals that deem a food such.  

Now, I could do a Google search on collards and then write up a very healthy sounding list here, and we would all "ooh" and "ahh" at how abundantly mineral'ed and vitamin'ed it was, but if we're honest for a moment—and I'm assuming that almost none of you have PHD's in nutrition—we would have absolutely no idea what we were talking about.  I mean seriously here, do any of you even know how minerals and vitamins work?  I sure as hell don't.  I honestly don't even know what constitutes a mineral, let alone why that is good for the insanely complicated inner workings of my body.  And yeah, I could Google search the health benefits of vitamin "x" and then Shia Lebeouf it right back to you here, but how does that help anyone?  It doesn't.  In fact, it's a huge distraction from the other, much more important thing to be said about collard greens: they're freaking delicious.  

The good news about something being freaking delicious is that not only am I completely qualified to tell you about it, you're more than capable of understanding.  So can we just stop pretending that we're all health experts and start admitting we'd rather just always eat something tasty?  Because once we do that we can focus on the important task at hand, to first recognize that pretty much everything has the potential to be delicious and then to figure out how to get there.  When it comes to collards, there are myriad ways to go about doing that.  

For example, collards are great raw.  Bitter, vegetal, and crunchy, raw collards can be used, for example, to make a delicious salad, but only as long as you think about ways to keep their texture in check and balance their bitterness.  A few ideas: cut the leaves smaller like how you slice cabbage for slaw; massage the leaves or let them sit in a dressing to soften; add other chewy/crunchy elements so that you're not left chewing on collards alone; combine with bolder flavors, high acidity and/or sweetness to keep the bitterness an asset and not a hindrance.  This is just the beginning of a very long list of potential ways to make this leaf taste great, all without me having to pretend I'm a doctor prescribing something.  The beauty of this approach is that once you put the delicious in front of the medicinal, you'll end up enjoying so-called "health food" much more and much more often, because the more you learn about and search for great flavors, the more you end up in the produce aisle.  

Though tasty raw, collards really shine when cooked.  They sauté well but braise even better, where longer cook times soften both their bite and bitterness.  There are a lot of different ways to go about braising collards, but why not first look to an American tradition that's been doing it for generations?  Southern collards (e.g. "greens") were my introduction to the leaf, and what a great place to start!  Being so sturdy, collards can hold up to richer flavors, allowing for smokey, unctuous pork broths, sweetness, and high acidity.  And god bless them for it.  Here's my take on an American classic, southern collard greens.

First, start with a broth.  You only need three things:

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1. Onion

2.Garlic

and...

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3. Smoked cured pork

I use both bacon and a smoked ham hock in my collards, but I add them at different times.  I use the hock as the primary flavorer of the broth, so I cook it much longer.  This also allows for its very tough meat to tenderize, which I then pick return to the final dish.  As for the bacon, I add it much later because I want chunks of bacon that taste strongly of themselves, and if I were to add them at the outset all their flavor would be diluted throughout the broth, which is already plenty smokey/porky thanks to the hock.

To make the broth, simply quarter the onion, peel the garlic, and add those with the ham hock to a pot.  Cover with cold water, bring to a simmer, then cook for a while.  An hour and a half would be great, but any amount of time will be better than no amount of time, and no amount of time isn't the end of the world.  I have the luxury of owning a pressure cooker, so I cook the broth at full pressure for 20-30 minutes, after which I remove the onion and garlic, who have done all they could do, but leave the hock be.  

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While the broth is brothing, prepare the collards.  Above is one bunch and it's roughly enough to feed two people assuming it's not all you're eating.  It's about half of what one bunch is at a farmers market, and the greens themselves are about half as impressive, but I too live in the real world where I can't always wait until Saturday to buy the best produce.  But it is by far superior produce, at the farmers market, so go if you can.

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Remove the stems and chop the leaves into something like two inch strips.  The stems are all sorts of edible so don't throw them out.  They take longer to cook than the leaves, so if you wanted to include them in this dish, peel and chop them then add at the outset with the ham hock.  But collard stems also make for great pickles or chopped up in a delicious winter vegetable relish.  They can also be diced and sautéed, treated as the celery component of a mirepoix.  Where I work the chefs have had great luck with fermenting the stems, pureeing them, and then using that as a condiment on charcuterie plates or an element in composed salads.  

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Before you get to braising the greens, it's worth it to stop and flavor the broth first.  It will still need to be balanced at the end of the cook time, the greens will have altered the taste dramatically, but you'll get a better end result if you do most of the work at the outset.  As for flavors, collards themselves are bitter, and bitter flavors can be balanced by acid and sweetness.  So add both.  In a batch with two supermarket bunches of greens and about 6 cups of broth, I use roughly:

  • 1 T each sherry, apple cider, and distilled white vinegars
  • 1 T mollasses
  • 2T brown sugar
  • and a splash both of fish and soy sauce

You can add only apple cider or white vinegars, but I like the complexity that comes from mixing a few varieties.  Balsamic also works here.  As does mustard.  Or pickling liquid from peppers or, well, any pickle.  

The same complexity argument goes for adding both brown sugar and molasses.  You could simply balance the acidity with white sugar if you want to keep the flavors simpler.  

The fish and soy sauce should be imperceptible except for the added umami beyond what the ham hock is contributing.  

Season with a healthy pinch of salt.

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Oh, and hot sauce of course.  These days I've been in love with extra hot Chrystal, and I think it works perfectly here.  Add your favorite hot sauce to taste.

Now, stir in the greens, bring to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes to an hour.  How long you cook them depends on preferences.  An hour is more traditional, but feel free to pull them sooner if you like a little more al dente texture.  Or pressure cook for 10 to 15 minutes.  

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But don't forget the bacon!  About 15 minutes before the greens are done, stir it in.  Feel free to sauté it first if you want crunchier, more caramelized pieces.  I mostly just dump it in and let it cook, warming through and softening a bit.  

When the greens are finished.  Taste them and the broth, and adjust the salt/acid/spice/sweetness to your taste.  Remove the ham hock, pick off any meat and add that back to the pot.  Discard the bone, gristle, and fat.  

Oh, and save the broth!  It's called potlikker and is useful in all sorts of delicious applications, which I plan on elaborating on in future posts.  

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And there you have it, a delicious pile of vitamins and minerals.  Enjoy it you crazy health nut, you.

Questions/comments?  Post below or send me an email to brett@fourchordkitchen.com.