Oct 15., 2016 / Recipes & Food
Collard or collard greens, if you prefer to call them that, were a prevalent dish in my home. The method of cooking here is the way my mother did it plus I have learned a few things about collards since her departure. She was an excellent cook and my daddy absolutely loved the collards she cooked, though she didn’t care for them herself. Go figure that one out…it is called love! Like most kids I grew up with no interest in greens of any type. However, at a point in time something clicked and greens went high on my culinary list and collards took the number one spot. In my estimation, the best compliment to collards is sweet potatoes. The variance in the two flavors work great together. I like to think of it as “country feng sui”.
Collards greens are a long time Southern tradition that require proper harvesting, cleaning, seasoning, cooking, and eating! Most Southerners drop the “greens” part of the name and just call them collards. Interestingly, they’ve become more popular in places outside of the South and are kind of “in vogue” in some finer restaurants though they are not necessarily cooked in a traditional Southern style. Even in the South there are some occasional twists. I had some in Florida that had stewed tomatoes added in with them. They were okay but nothing like what I enjoy most. There are also places even in the South where collards are not as well known. I have a daughter in Mississippi and it seems that turnip greens take precedence in the area where she lives. Some years ago I discovered that no one in the Tennessee foothills north of Knoxville were aware of collards. We took some to my first wife’s family and they loved them. We sent some seeds and in short order they had collards in their garden and their climate worked nicely for them. Up until then they only ate turnip greens or wild poke. If you see collards in East Tennessee, they migrated from North Carolina!
There are several varieties of collards but two types in particular stand out. One has a central stalk and the individual leaves grow outward. Often they are planted in the late Spring and grow until the winter weather gets so severe that it eventually kills them. The leaves are easy to break off so instead of harvesting the whole plant people will break or cut some off and the plant will continue growing and form new leaves. If planted in the Spring leaves will be ready to harvest during the summer. However, most Southerners agree that collards taste better once they have been frosted on in the Fall. There’s a sweetness that develops after frost that reduces the slight bitterness inherent in the vegetable. Some people don’t even plant collards until mid to late summer for Fall and Winter harvest. They are a hearty plant and tolerate both heat and cold well.
The other type of collard is a much larger plant and is harvested whole by cutting at the stalk just above the ground. They’re sometimes called cabbage collards, though they don’t form a hard head like cabbage. Generally, they are much larger and the leaves are layered fairly tight over one another. The leaves also have a tendency to drag the ground due to its size.
Making sure the plants are clean and free of any sand or dirt is the first priority. Nothing is worse than grit in a dish of collards, or any other food for that matter. Collards growing during the summer also generally require a good dose of sevin dust to keep the leaf eaters at bay so that is another reason for the washing. The individual leaf stems should be broken or cut at the stalks and washed in cold water as many times as it takes to assure they are free of sand. I’ve actually heard of people putting their collards in the washing machine on the gentle cycle to clean them. They just have to be removed before the spin cycle! Usually filling a bucket or sink with water and dousing them up and down numerous times will do the trick. Many supermarkets today have collards already washed and available in plastic bags. I’ve used these and they’re not bad if you cannot get them fresh from a grower or market. If I am unsure about whether they have been frosted on I trick them. I put the collards in a plastic bag, spray them with water, and stick them in the freezer until they get frosted. It works.
Once the collards are clean you want to pull the leaves off of the central stem that runs up through the leaf. This eliminates all the stems in your collards. Personally, I like having a little of the stem remaining for texture so I just cut the stems below the leaves and leave the rest as is. I also think there is some beneficial flavor in them but you can decide which you prefer. When my mother cooked collards there was always a little of the stem included, though not the thick, heavy stems that were attached to the main stalk. When cooked correctly they soften just like the leaves.
Some people cut their collards up before they cook them but I like to keep the leaves whole. I just think they absorb more flavor from the ham hocks plus they are going to get soft so they will be easy to cut later with either a knife or hand chopper. I have eaten collards that were chopped pretty extremely fine before serving but that is not my preference. I don’t think they carry as much flavor that way.
The first choice for seasoning is some type of smoked meat. For most Southern cooks ham hock is number one on the list for cooking collards. You can substitute a slice of country ham, smoked neck bones, and some people even used a smoked turkey leg. If you want to go another route then you can use chicken bullion but you will have to adjust it to your preference. Salt, sugar, and MSG are often the top three ingredients in bouillon.
Most often you see the hocks whole though occasionally you see them split. If you have a butcher (increasingly hard to find) who actually will split a hock for you, that’s great. I think the best flavor is from a split hock but its not a huge difference from those whole. Usually one large smoked hock is enough but if they are small, use two. The hock is basically the ankle of a pig. Put your hocks in a large pot, add water within one to two inches of the pot rim, and turn the heat on high. Stuff your collards in the pot. It does not matter if they are sticking well about the rim of the pot because they are going to cook way down. Usually when I cook a really large pot of collards I get 2-3 quarts max. If you have more than you can use initially put them in a container and freeze. They freeze well, lasting a long time, and still tasting fresh when thawed out and warmed.
Keep pushing the collards down with a utensil until they are consistently below the water line. At that point you can reduce your heat some, though you still want a hard simmer, not just a slight bubble. They will take two hours or so to cook. Do a little “quality control” along the way by tasting them. When done they are very soft and you can put a fork into them without any resistance plus any stems you include will be soft also. Keep an eye on your water level as they simmer and add more if necessary. Also, taste the water to see how it is seasoned. Though the ham hocks are smoked and well seasoned, I occasionally need to add a little salt. Also, after cooking them an hour or so if they seem excessively bitter you may want to add a little sugar….just a pinch or two. You can always add more if needed but you can never take away once your’ve added too much. Most times I don’t have to add sugar. Summer collards that have not been frosted on have the highest probability of being bitter. The point of the sugar is not to make the collards sweet but just to neutralize any real bitterness.
Collards create a distinct “aroma” as they cook and you can walk into a house and immediately smell it….and it will linger. Because of this some people like to cook them outside though I like the homey, traditional smell. The side burner of a gas grill or turkey fryer work well for cooking outside unless you want to go really traditional. Years ago people did a lot of outdoor cooking using big cast iron pots over a fire.
Once the collards are done they need to be removed from the pot with a fork, slotted spoon, or chinese spider strainer. You could also use a colander but I like for them to retain a little of the liquid. Once this is done you can chop them as much or little as you like. A condiment served with collards is a traditional hot pepper vinegar. You can buy this already prepared (Texas Pete has one – yellow peppers in a white vinegar) but I like making my own. Just fill a jar or or bottle with hot peppers and then pour in vinegar, either white or apple cider type, and sprinkle on your collards when you eat them. You can replenish the vinegar as your use it and keep doing so until the peppers either disintegrate or lose their potency. A bottle can last several years.
Usually after my mother had served collards once or twice and there were not enough to freeze, she had a little something she’d do with them that my daddy liked. She take her cast iron frying pan (that I still thankfully own) and put in a little oil. She would stir the collards around until they were all coated with the oil, sprinkle in some red pepper flakes, turn the heat on medium high, and “fry them up” a little. They’d sizzle and crackle and she’d continue stirring them for 2-3 minutes. With a baked sweet potato and some of my mama’s fine cornbread it made a great meal, with or without meat.
This is about all I know about collards. You may process or cook them differently or have some other tips. If so, I’d love to hear from you. Let’s keep these important Southern traditions alive.