As a Carolina native, I am passionate about my collards.
My heart breaks for those unfortunate people who have never experienced collards.
It also breaks for those people who have tried collards, but collards that were poorly prepared – usually over-smoked and under-cooked.
So it’s time for me share a primer on cooking traditional Carolina Collards.
There are three important things you need to know about cooking collards:
- Collard greens can be “sandy,” so you must wash them well. A quick rinse under the faucet won’t work – you need to soak them, either whole leaves in a sink, or chopped leaves in a bowl. There’s nothing worse than taking a big forkful of tender, melt-in-your-mouth collard greens and sinking your teeth into grit.
- Collard greens aren’t quick. You don’t “saute” them for fifteen minutes – they aren’t spinach or kale. You don’t eat them “tender crisp.” You simmer them in a pot, on a stove, for at least 40 minutes. Often longer.
- Collard greens aren’t dry. I cringe when I read collard recipes that say, “cook until all moisture has evaporated,” or “pour off any remaining liquid.” As my Aunt Matilda would say, bless their foolish little hearts. Collards are cooked with plenty of liquid and that tasty liquid – “pot likker” is prized. Even those from the best of families will pick up their bowl and sip the pot likker. Those not from the best of families, have been known to slurp.
Those are the main points. If you follow those rules, you can make a tasty pot of collards from little more than fresh greens, salt, water, vinegar, and perhaps a splash of hot sauce. But there are all kinds of optional extras you can add:
Onion. You can’t go wrong with a small, diced onion, sauteed for a few minutes before you add your greens and water.
Garlic. Although I love super-garlicky Italian food, I think Southern food tastes better when garlic is used to enhance, not make a flavor statement. Two to four cloves should be plenty.
Something Hot. Carolina Collards are usually spicy, and you can get that heat through different means. A dried red pepper added while cooking. A spoonful of red pepper flakes. A chopped jalapeno – or two. Probably easiest is a bottle of hot sauce – such as Tobasco – passed around at the table so everyone can adjust the heat to their liking.
Something Smokey. Liquid Smoke, smoked salt, smoked paprika. This is almost always recommended for vegan collard greens to mimic the taste of bacon because, supposedly, “everyone” in the South adds fatback and bacon grease to their collards. This is a myth – many families never use pork in their collard greens at all! It depends on what part of the South you’re from and, possibly, your socioeconomic status – I can remember hearing as a child that adding pork to vegetables was “common.” So if you like that smoky flavor, go for it. But also feel free to skip it – you’ll still be eating traditional, “authentic” tasting greens.
True story: I had never eaten pork in vegetables until my late teens, when my mother remarried.
Her new husband, who was from a different part of the South, persuaded her to add fatback to collards, green beans, and pintos.
It took me several weeks to figure out why I suddenly went from a veggie lover to a veggie hater!
Salt: Salt is very necessary. I use plain sea salt (often the coarse kind) but some people use a seasoned salt, like Lawry’s.
Sugar. I never use sugar in my greens, but some people do. It’s fairly common and a personal preference. It can help if you have some older greens that are becoming a bit bitter. If you like sweet greens, remember that sweet pairs very well with smokey.
Tomatoes. If it’s summer and you have a ripe tomato sunning on the window sill or better yet growing in your garden – go ahead and dice it and throw it in near the end of cooking. If it’s winter you might want to add a can of finely diced tomatoes near the beginning of cooking. Keep in mind that you aren’t trying to create a “sauce” or even a tomato-y taste; just add a little color, flavor, and variety.
“Butter”: I don’t see this listed in recipes much, but my family always added a dollop of butter to greens near the end of cooking. Now, of course, I use Earth Balance. It makes a difference.
Vinegar: The finishing touch and a must. I grew up using just plain apple cider vinegar. Now I love a splash of balsamic vinegar. Don’t add vinegar to the pot; rather, add a splash once the collards have been dished into bowls. Have fun experimenting with different kinds and flavors of vinegar.
So how do you put it all together? You certainly don’t want to use every option at once. Mostly, it will depend on your mood and what’s in your kitchen. For inspiration, here’s how I recently cooked a pot of winter greens, step-by-step.
Ingredients for Carolina Collards:
1 Large Bunch Collard Greens (approx. 1 pound)
1 Small to Medium Onion, chopped
3 Cloves Garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon Olive or Canola Oil
1 10 oz. Can Rotel Tomatoes with Green Chilis
Sea Salt to taste (at least a teaspoon)
3 Cups Water
1 Tablespoon Earth Balance
Directions for Carolina Collards:
Start with a large bunch of collards, which is usually about a pound. Soak and wash the leaves. Cut the thick stem, which tends to be tough, from the center of each leaf. I find a smaller knife to be safer for this than my usual chef’s knife.
You don’t have to cut the stems from very small, tender leaves.
Stack the destemmed leaves …
then roll and slice into ribbons.
In a large stock pot, heat a tablespoon of oil. Add the onions and garlic, and saute for about five minutes. Don’t worry about the onions being absolutely cooked or trying to caramelize them.
Add the chopped collards to the pot and toss gently to mix with the onions, garlic, and oil. Keep stirring until the collards have wilted slightly.
Add three cups of water (yes, THREE, most of it will boil away and we want some pot likker left, don’t we?) Don’t use vegetable broth as this can introduce some odd flavors.
I added a can of Rotel tomatoes since it’s winter (and also saved me the step of sauteing hot peppers with the onions). I also threw in a palmful of salt. (If you use sugar in your collards, now’s when you would add a spoonful. Now is also when you would add a dash of hot pepper flakes, if that’s the pepper route you are choosing.)
Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook for at least 40 minutes, stirring occasionally.
You see what a vibrant green the leaves are in the above picture? That means the collards are nowhere near done! They will become a dark, dullish green when done. Maybe not as pretty, but much more tender and tasty! After 40 minutes, taste to see if they are tender – if not, cook longer. Don’t worry, it is almost impossible to overcook collards! Also, start stirring more frequently after the 40-minute mark. (If you’re using liquid smoke, the 40-minute mark is when you’ll want to add it. A little goes a long way, and until the greens start becoming tender it’s hard to judge how much to use.)
When the greens are tender, melt in a spoonful of Earth Balance. Taste and add more salt if needed.
Ladle into small bowls (be sure to include a little pot likker) and serve with a splash of vinegar.
You can also buy pre-washed, pre-cut collards. These are a bit more expensive, but it can be worth it sometimes if you just don’t feel up to soaking and washing.
Can’t find fresh collards? You can also use frozen collards. They’re not as good as fresh, but they are good and by Jove they are convenient! Prepare as you would fresh collards, EXCEPT after sauteing your onion and garlic, go ahead and carefully add three cups of water. Use the lid as a shield or let the oil cool down first. then add the frozen greens. (It’s very dangerous to add frozen greens directly to hot oil – the oil will splatter like crazy!) Let the greens cook 5-10 minutes before adding anything else. (Actually, when I use frozen collards I’m usually going for convenience and skip any ingredients that need to be sauteed, depending instead on ingredients I can just add to the pot – red pepper flakes or hot sauce, liquid smoke, etc.)