The other night, a college-age friend asked me if collard greens were a pain to cook. They were thriving in her community garden plot, but she didn’t know what to do with them. She had heard that they took too long to wash, prepare, and cook. I decided to time myself from garden to table and see if the rumor was true.
I wanted to confront the collard slander for a few reasons. One, they grow really well here. You can pick the outside leaves, leaving the rest of the plant intact, and it will produce from October through April without bolting. And even temperatures down in the 20s this winter didn’t faze mine. The other reason is that they’re really good for you. Chock full of iron, calcium, and vitamins A and C, the lowly collard helped sustain the starving South during the Civil War. African slaves had long been preparing and eating the tough greens - collards, turnips and mustards - which were often fed to farm animals. Cooked with discarded meat scraps, they provided a one-pot meal, traditional in African culture. This inexpensive, nutritious dish became a staple for poor southern families - black and white. Today southerners feel about collards like we do about grits. They belong to us.
Now, I do remember my grandmother washing greens with a hose outside in a metal tub to get the sand off. But it has been many years since I've bitten down on a gritty green. When I grow my own, I mulch them like I do all our vegetables, and either the local farmers do that too, or they wash them well before bringing them to market. I find they only need a quick rinse.
Due to their size it's easier to rinse them after they're cut. Here's the procedure:
1) Remove stem from leaves, two or three at a time, 2) Stack 5 or 6 leaves, 3. Roll leaves, and 4) slice.
Rinse sliced greens a handful at a time by sloshing them in a bowl of water. Set aside without drying them.
Now my grandmother would have put these in a huge pot with a hambone and cooked the whole thing for hours - "cooking the dickens out of them." I use a different recipe:
Greens and Beans
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves
10 cups cut and washed greens
2 tablespoons vinegar (I used rice vinegar)
2 tablespoons honey
2 cups small red beans, cooked
Sauté chopped garlic in olive oil for a few minutes until golden. Add rinsed greens without drying them first; the water on the leaves will provide the moisture for cooking. Saute for a minute or so, then put the lid on, turn down the heat, and steam for 10 minutes or until tender. Check frequently and add water if necessary to keep from sticking. Add vinegar and honey. Then add salt and pepper to taste. Stir in red beans with a little bit of bean broth.
I admit I really like this with rice. But tonight we just had it as is - with a little peach/pepper hot jam from Graham Farms. A fancy (and beautiful) locavore-ish meal might include oven baked sweet potatoes with garlic aioli, and cornbread. In fact, I think I might try that later this week
It took about 30 minutes to get the greens from garden to table. I'm pretty fast, but I don’t think it would take anyone more time than driving to a nearby restaurant and ordering. And this is the kind of work that’s easy and pleasant to share. A little (southern) music, some good conversation… and before you know it - a mess o’ greens.