Southerners sure love their greens. In fact, a big pot of collards or kale is what’s known as a ‘mess o’ greens’ at the Southern table.
Collards, non-heading, loose-leafed greens, are one of the oldest members of the cabbage family. The name comes from the word colewort, meaning cabbage plant. It has an upright stalk, often growing up to two feet tall. Collards are a cool-season plant, and a standard winter green in home gardens of the South. Collards do not thrive well in hot weather as the heat imparts a strong bitter flavor to the plant. Cool weather and light autumn frosts actually sweeten their flavor.
Collards are available year-round but their peak season is from January to April. Collards are extremely nutritious and are an excellent source of iron, calcium, and vitamins A, C, and K.
When African slaves were brought from their homeland to the South to work on plantations, greens were just one of a few select vegetables they were allowed to grow and harvest. They learned to make satisfying meals with humble ingredients to provide food for their families. Ham hocks or pig’s feet were added to collards or other greens and slowly cooked. This method of cooking resulted in a rich and flavorful broth which is known as ‘pot-likker. Though collards did not originate in Africa, according to Jessica B. Harris, author of the cookbook Iron Pots & Wooden Spoons: Africa’s Gift to New World Cooking, “It’s the drinking of the potlikker that is African in origin.” Pot likker is delicious and full of nutrients. It is often spooned over wedges of cornbread or dumplings and is what makes this dish the ultimate in comfort food.
On New Year’s Day, Southerner’s serve up collards with black-eyed peas and ham hocks to bring them good luck throughout the year. And since cooked green leaves resemble folded money, they are thought to be a symbol of financial reward.
Collards descended from wild cabbages – and while historians are unsure of the exact origin, they are thought to have originated in the eastern Mediterranean. Agriculture in the South didn’t take off until the arrival of African slaves. With them, they brought seeds of collard greens as well as other seeds including okra, peas, yams, peanuts, and watermelons. Their farming techniques were the same as they learned in Africa, which resulted in a surplus of crops. Thus, the genus of traditional Southern cooking had begun.
Look for collards that are deep green in color and with plump fresh leaves. Avoid leaves that are yellow, wilted, or brown around the edges.
Wrap unwashed greens in a damp paper towel and place in a large food storage bag. They will keep in the refrigerator for up to one week. Before using, collards must be rinsed thoroughly to remove any dirt and grit. To do this, fill the sink with lukewarm water. Coarsely chop the collards and add them to the sink. Let stand, without stirring, to allow any grit to fall to the bottom. Gently lift the collards from the water and drain.
To freeze collards, blanch them in boiling water for a few minutes then drain and blot dry with paper towels. Place them in freezer bags and freeze for up to 6 months.
One pound chopped collard leaves will yield about 6 – 7 cups raw and about 1 1/2 cups cooked.
Kale, mustard greens, turnip greens and spinach
Most Common Varieties:
Two main collard varieties are Vates and Georgia. The Vates varieties are more resistant to bolting (over growth) and insect damage during the winter. Vates varieties can be identified by their wavy leaves. The Georgia variety has flat leaves and white stems.
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