Collard greens belong to the same species that produce cabbage or broccoli.
Collard greens have large dark green leafs, similar to kale or spring greens although this is a different vegetable.
When you think Southern cooking, you can't think too long before considering collard greens. This staple of the Southern diet has a long history and many fans who have perfected cooking their "collards" for generations. They are a staple of the American South. The smell of them is like coming home again. Collard greens are a good source of vitamins and minerals in the everyday diet. But, what makes this particular green so special? Let's take a little closer look at what makes these leafy greens unique.
All Greens are Not Created Equal. At any farmer’s market, you can find collard greens along with other varieties of greens most times of the year. Some people see kale or mustard greens and mistake them for collards. Mustard greens are darker than collards. Kale has about the same coloring but the leaves are curly. The leaves of collard greens are ribbed like cabbage with a good portion of the stem sticking out from the bottom.
Collards belong to the cabbage family of leafy vegetables which, depending on the climate, can be a perennial or biennial plant. The edible leaves have a slightly bitter taste, and are best when picked small and before they are fully mature.
Collard greens may have originally come from somewhere in the Middle East, but they have found a home in America. A main staple in the diet of slaves in the southern states, they have long been a part of any special meal. Collard greens have a milder taste than mustard greens or kale and were served with fried portions of bacon and fatty meat.
Ancient Romans and Greeks grew and ate collard greens as early as the 4th century B.C. The American use of collards began when African slaves brought their knowledge of creating meals from the green tops of vegetables to the colonies. Often forced to use whatever leftovers they could find after the meal was made for the "big house," these slaves learned to boil up the tossed-aside green tops of the vegetables they prepared. Slow cooking with a mixture of greens, pig's feet, or ham hocks yielded a much needed meal. The juice left from cooking greens, sometimes called pot likker, or pot liquor depending on your region, was also consumed.
As these recipes started to make their way out of the slave quarters and into the plantation kitchens, the recipes were expanded and shared in what now has become a solid Southern tradition of "soul food." But this leafy green is just as well known in Brazil, Portugal, and the Kashmir region and is so nourishing that it is considered a mainstay in these areas just as it is in America's South.
The state of South Carolina, the second largest producer of collards, attempted to pass a bill to make collards the official Leafy Green of the state. Many people who enjoy "soul food" along with the heritage that comes along with this African-American tradition, appreciate the idea of levitating this common green to higher status. The word "collards" is derived from the word "colewort" or "cabbage plant."
In the Southern states, when a family cooks up a big pot of greens of any variety, it is lovingly referred to as a "mess of greens." The actual distinction between a pot of greens and a mess of greens all depends on the size and tradition of the family. A New Year's tradition calls for the consumption of collards and black-eyed peas to bring good luck and a prosperous year. You might also use collard greens to do everything from curing headaches to warding off evil spirits.
Preparation and cooking
Before fixing them, please wash each leaf thoroughly. Collards grow on the ground like other greens. It is always possible that in being transported from the garden to the store, that a few travelers made the trip as well. Washing gets rid of all dirt and many legged travelers. My grandmother would soak the leaves in water that had a drop of bleach in it. Afterwards, the leaves were thoroughly rinsed several times until they were as clean as could be.
The leaves are then chopped or ripped up and boiled down in water and seasoned to taste. A long standing tradition was to boil them with smoked meats to enhance the flavor. They can also be fried in a skillet with smoked meats or bacon. On the healthier side, cooking them on the stove in a pot of chicken or vegetable broth still adds flavor.
Traditionally, collards are boiled or simmered with ham, pork, or bacon, or any salty or cured meat, and often served with cornbread to complete a true Southern-style dish. Often you'll find a jar of hot sauce or pepper sauce alongside for those who feel adventurous.
The greens make a great addition to brown rice, white rice, potatoes, pasta and quinoa. Using a flavored stock with these combinations will add a richness to the dish. Collards can also be sautéed with onions and oil or bacon grease. You may like to add a bit of brown sugar or even apple cider vinegar to kick up the flavor.
In Portugal, a popular soup called Caldo Verde (green broth) is served made with collards or kale along with potatoes and onions. This soup is often served during weddings and other celebrations.
Collards are an important part of American heritage, but also around the world, and the ancient civilizations that enjoyed them are a testament to their longevity in our culinary history. These simple greens have dressed-up tables and warmed-up bellies for generations of families who learned that cooking sometimes meant inventing delicious filling dishes from what we gathered, foraged, and cultivated.