Who’s been messing with our mess of collards?
For a couple of hundred years in the South, cooks have been content with the same plan: Cut out the tough stems, cut up the big leaves, cook them for a long, long (long, long) time, until they’re falling apart and intensely collardy. Serve them up with a little pepper vinegar.
It was good enough for our grandmothers. But these days, a new generation of chefs and cooks are taking collards to places our grandmothers never imagined.
They’re grinding them into pesto. They’re putting raw collards into salads and slaws. They’re pickling the stems and turning the leaves into juice. And you know what? It’s all good. Really good.
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For an episode of her PBS show “A Chef’s Life,” about cooking in eastern North Carolina, Kinston chef Vivian Howard made collard dolmades, stuffed with sausage, cranberries and pecans, “kind of like Thanksgiving wrapped up in a collard.”
“There’s been this intense interest in kale,” Howard says. “We have this reaction, ‘well, collards are way better than kale.’ ”
In her cookbook on healthier Southern cooking, “Lighten Up, Y’all,” author Virginia Willis includes a vividly green collard pesto with a recipe for butternut squash and chickpea soup.
She doesn’t remember where she got the idea to blanch young collard leaves and grind them with pecans and orange juice. But she uses it in all kinds of ways – on sandwiches, as a pre-dinner spread on crackers.
“One of things I try to do is mash things up with Southern,” she says. When she’s developing recipes, she’ll ask herself, “What can I do to really celebrate Southern in not a typical fashion?”
Collards, chefs say, are starting to catch on around the country, but they still communicate a basic Southernness in your cooking style.
“Collards are so emblematic of the South,” says Howard. “If you cook with collards, it says, ‘I’m cooking Southern,’ and then you put a modern spin on it.”
At her Kinston restaurant, Chef & the Farmer, one best-seller is collard chips, a variation on kale chips. She cuts out the stems, slices the leaves into ribbons and drops them in a deep fryer for 10 seconds.
“It’s so simple,” she says. “I’ve heard it from so many people – ‘Boy, you really got me with those collards.’ ”
It is true that if you get collards while they’re young and still tender, rather than waiting until fall for the big “elephant ear” mature collards, you can do a lot of the things you’d do with kale. After all, they are in the same botanical family, along with cabbages, turnips and kohlrabi, all prized for high levels of vitamin C, selenium and fiber.
“I think there may be a little kale fatigue,” says Willis. “Or people are genuinely becoming aware of the benefits of other brassicas.”
Thinking that way is what led Atlanta chef Steven Satterfield to collard kimchi, in his new vegetable cookbook “Root to Leaf.” Kimchi, the fermented Korean relish, is often made with cabbage, which led him to think of collards.
“Chefs right now are really experimenting with vegetables,” he says. “We’re all trying to come up with new ways to make them fresh.”
Satterfield puts collard leaves through a cold-press juicer, then mixes the juice with carrot and ginger juices as a pan sauce for pork. He also makes collard slaw he serves with swordfish.
“People are like, ‘that’s kind of weird,’ but they take one bite and they’re sold.”
Messing with collards
One trick to doing different things with collards is to understand your collards. Things like collard pesto work better with younger, more tender collards. If you have a big bunch of collards, you can find more tender leaves further inside the bunch.
The biggest leaves may still need long-cooking, although you can get creative with them, too. Willis loves to top cooked collards with an egg for breakfast.
“That is the breakfast of champions,” she says, laughing. “They’ve got a great flavor.”
She does encounter some pushback for cooking collards differently. On one TV segment, she did a collard variation on a Brazilian-style chiffonade of quickly sautéed kale. After the show, one of her aunts said, “You took those out of the pan like they were done.”
She’s still experimenting, though. Instead of discarding the thick stems, she’s been slicing them thinly and sautéing them before she adds the leaves, sort of the way you’d cook Swiss chard.
People always experiment with what they have, says Howard. In eastern North Carolina, she’s been introduced to collard kraut, a very old tradition, and people in her area love cabbage collards, an heirloom-seed version that’s sweeter.
It’s all just adapting to the food of your place, she says. At a Thai restaurant in Greenville, N.C., Howard spotted a dish with a name that translates to “flavor bomb.” It’s a mix of dried shrimp, birds-eye chilies, dried coconut and a tiny wedge of lime rolled in a square of raw collard leaf.
The owner told her it’s common on Thailand, served with a different green. When they couldn’t find the same green, they improvised.
“Southern food isn’t just Southern food,” Howard says. “It’s our indigenous food.”
Collard green pesto
From “Lighten Up, Y'All,” by Virginia Willis (Ten Speed Press, ).
4 ounces (about 4 cups) stemmed, chopped collard greens
Juice of 1/2 orange
1/4 cup chopped pecans
2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Bring a small pot of water to boil. Add the collards, working in batches if needed, and cook just until bright green, about 2 minutes. Drain well.
Place blanched collards in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to grind. Add the orange juice, pecans, cheese and oil. Pulse to combine. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. (You can also chop the collards for a more rustic consistency.)
Refrigerate and serve at room temperature.
Makes about 1 cup
Collard Cobb salad
Adapted from “Southern Made Fresh,” by Tasia Malakasis (Oxmoor House, 2015).
2 bunches of collard greens, trimmed (about 6 cups)
2 cups cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
4 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and diced
2 ripe avocadoes, peeled and diced
1/2 cup pecan halves, toasted in a dry skillet
1/2 cup (about 6 slices) bacon, cooked and diced
2 ounces crumbled blue cheese
Creamy lemon dressing:
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (about 2 lemons)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/2 cup olive oil
Whisk together the lemon juice, garlic and mustard. Whisk in the olive oil. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Place the greens in a large salad bowl. Add the tomatoes, diced egg, avocado, pecan halves, bacon and blue cheese. Toss well to mix. Drizzle with enough dressing to moisten it all, then toss again. Serve with any extra dressing on the side.
Blue collard dip
This may be the perfect tailgate-season dip, and you can use it right through New Year’s. We adapted it from Edible Piedmont magazine, which got it from Mindy Ballou Fitzpatrick of The Friendly Market in Morehead City, N.C.
1 to 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 to 2 yellow onions, peeled and sliced
6 to 8 slices bacon
2 cups cooked, chopped, drained collards (see note below)
One 14.5-ounce can fire-roasted diced tomatoes, or 1 cup slow-roasted tomatoes, chopped
1/2 cup blue cheese crumbles
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/2 tablespoon freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon Texas Pete or other hot sauce
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
8 ounces softened cream cheese
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup sour cream
Warm the vegetable oil in a skillet with a lid and stir in the onion. Cover and cook slowly over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions are very soft and caramelized. (Can be made in advance and saved to finish the dip.)
Cook the bacon in a heavy skillet over medium heat until browned. Drain on a paper towel and chop.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the well-drained collards with the onions, bacon and all the remaining ingredients. Turn into a 1-quart baking dish or ovenproof pie plate.
Place in a 350-degree oven and bake about 20 minutes, until bubbly. Serve with crackers, pita chips or raw vegetables.
Note: To cook the collards, slice away and discard the stems. Stack the leaves and cut into strips. Bring 4 to 6 water or a mix of water and chicken broth to boil in a large pot. Stir in the collards. Cover, reduce heat to medium low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes to an hour, until very soft.
Makes 6 cups
From “Root to Leaf: A Southern Chef Cooks Through the Seasons,” by Steven Satterfield (Harper Wave, 2015).
1 bunch collards, about 1 1/2 pounds
1/4 cup kosher salt
1 small head garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1/4 cup fish sauce
2 teaspoons ground arbol chili
1 teaspoon honey
1 bunch green onions, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 medium purple-top turnip, peeled, thinly sliced and quartered
Separate the collard leaves from their stems. Chop the leaves into bite-size pieces and slice the stems into 1/2-inch pieces.
In a large bowl, whisk together 1 gallon water and 1/4 cup salt until the salt is dissolved. Put the collard greens and stems into the water and let sit for 2 hours. Place a weight on top to keep the greens submerged if necessary.
Combine the garlic, ginger, fish sauce, ground chili and honey in a large bowl. Add the green onions and turnip and toss.
Remove the collards from the salted water. Rinse and squeeze out excess water. Add the greens to the spice mixture and toss well. Put everything in a large glass or ceramic container with a tight lid. Store in a cool, dark place at room temperature for 2 to 3 days, opening the lid daily to let the gases escape and assess the flavor.
Store, covered and refrigerated, for up to 2 months.
Makes 2 quarts