Even more than dinosaur kale, collard greens look like they’d be perfectly home in Jurassic Park. Leathery and hued a calm, deep blue-green, collards are perceived by many to be the quintessential green of the U.S. south, and a staple of the great cuisine invented by enslaved African-American cooks. In fact, when Warren Beatty as Jay Bulworth visits Halle Berry’s family in that movie, he automatically assumes that the big pot of greens is collards, which he says he “loves.” (It’s fairly obvious that’s he’s never eaten collards in his life.)
“That’s kale,” says Ms. Berry’s grandma Mama Doll, the marvelous Helen Martin. She rolls her eyes.
While, from a cooking standpoint, collard greens can interchange easily with kale or chard, they look quite different and have their own virtues, as well as unique flavor and texture. They are an old world plant, mentioned by ancient Greeks and Romans. Their lovely large leaves thrive in gardens braising under the big summer sun right up to very cold snaps. Their play between crunch and chewiness, bitter and sweet, gets enhanced depending on your cooking technique. Some options follow.
Collard Greens: Raw
You can mix finely chopped raw collard greens into a salad, but they do require a fairly vigorous chew. Rubbing with salt and oil doesn’t transform them the way it does kale, as you can see in this post. So skip that in favor of a truly genius use for a big collard leaf: as a super-healthy, mildly-spicy, fiber and flavor-rich gluten-free wrap for basically filling as you would normally drop in a tortilla.
To execute this, you do need to get out your trusty paring knife and shave down the stem. Then, simply add your ingredients in a narrowish strip down the center of the leaf.
Tuck in the sides, then fold up. Ish. Obviously, my collard green wrap folding skills have some evolving to do. This was a messy meal, but a tasty one.
I’ve found that, for a while now, I’ve been ripping away considerable swaths of tortilla, because I can’t for the life of me discover a reason to eat all that flour. So now, I get virtue points for noshing away on more greens, which nicely complement the starch in the burrito. The collard green wrap proved particularly wonderful with this refried black-eyed pea and sauteed greens interior, inspired by the glorious Isa Chandra Moskowitz. Topped with watermelon salsa, it earned a big yum.
Collard Greens: Sautéed
Collard greens sauté up beautifully, using the same formula you’d use for many of the vegetables I’ve previously cited. These include kale, but also green beans. Follow the same rules: Heat some fat, start with some type of chopped onion, add the greens, and add a little water or broth. Cover and steam. Test after 5 minutes, then 10. Collards are sturdy; make sure you’ve got the chew consistency where you want it.
Additionally, skimp on the salt—though I don’t like to skip it altogether. The deep lustrous greens feature fairly high sodium content. I’m all for judicious salt, with the caveat that it is very easy to oversalt your greens. The key is tasting. Here’s a step-by-step and recipe in case you like that sort of things.
Collard Greens: Boiled or Otherwise Slow-cooked
The classic southern prep of collard greens, by the way, is to boil the hell out of them with a ham hock. This creates pot liquor, often spelled “likker,” the leftover cooking water shaded an electric green and featuring a thin (and to my palate, gross) film of fat. Not something I really want to eat, but I’ve met many a southerner whose eyes get downright misty when describing the stuff. It’s reputed to be a fine hangover cure. So….there’s that.
For that very reason, however, collard greens go the distance in a crockpot. Just cut them fine, either in squares or a chiffonade. You can stir them into whatever you’re slow cooking and all those vitamins will cook into the stew without the greens turning to mush.
Collard Greens: Perfect Partners
Black-eyed peas, yams, corn on the cob, watermelon on the side, peanuts, bbq anything: All marry happily to collards. But don’t limit them to your ideas of classic southern U.S. cuisine—which is, by the way, very similar to the cuisines of Western Africa because, well, read your history if you haven’t already. Collards’ sturdiness renders them gorgeous in many Asian cuisines, including the many regional variations of southeastern, Chinese, Indian, and Korean—collard greens and gochujang may make you squeal in delicious pleasure. They can hold their own throughout western, central, and northern Europe as well. Simply cut into bite-sized pieces, and fold them right into your dish. And finally, and perhaps surprisingly, they co-exist beautifully with eggs. This quinoa-crust quiche used a mix of chopped broccoli, leeks, and kale, but collards will work just as well, on their own or mixed with whatever greens you want to put to good use.
They’ll add a huge hit of vitamins. Most importantly, they’ll make your taste buds and innards equally happy. Chow down.