Collard greens are a staple of Southern cuisine – and barbecue culture – because they grow throughout the southeast United States. Today, however, you can find them well beyond the Mason-Dixon line. I chatted with Sheri Castle, author of The New Southern Garden Cookbook, to find out why people should consider substituting collards for their favorite greens.
Most often prepared as a side dish to serve alongside meat and poultry, well-cooked collard greens can also stand alone. “At my house, a good bowl of collards is dinner for my daughter and me,” Castle says.
If you’re new to collards, Castle suggests thinking of the leafy greens as kale. “What’s appealing about collard greens is their mineral quality,” she says. “They should have a flavor that’s distinct, but not overpowering. They key is to get them when they’re the right size, because the larger they are, the tougher they are, and they can become indelicate. Buy them when they’re the size of an outstretched hand.”
Young, immature collards can be sautéed or lightly wilted like any other greens, Castle says. Her Southern skillet greens (see recipe below) keep their toothsome texture and are simple to prepare. Older ones need a bit more care: traditionally they are slow-cooked in a brothy stew called potlikker, known for its deep, nuanced flavor and the velvety texture of the greens.
“The trick to potlikker is to make sure the cooking liquid is highly flavorful in its own right,” explains Castle, who makes a special stock from smoked chicken pieces for cooking the greens. “A lot of us grew up believing that involved pork, but what really matters is the smokiness. It’s about the minerality of the collards, the smokiness from the stock and some measure of hotness and sweetness.”
Castle offers fresh ideas for using collard greens:
- Creamed collard and country ham pot pie with cornmeal pastry (see recipe below). “I took the notion of cooking cornmeal dumplings in a pot of greens, but used pastry to give the effect of floating cornmeal to make it a traditional pot pie. When I need to make Southern food to impress big league people, that’s what I take.”
- Collard green pesto. “I wanted to do something with Hoppin’ John, so I made a risotto with beans and sausage, and the garnish on top is a collard green pesto.”
- Beans and greens bruschetta. “It’s grilled bread rubbed with garlic and collards and kale sautéed Southern skillet-style with nice, creamy slow-cooked beans and fresh herbs. I realized when I was in Tuscany that their bean bruschetta was the same old soup and greens I grew up with!”
1 1/2 lb. quick-cooking greens, tough stems removed and leaves thinly sliced
2 thick bacon slices, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch strips
1 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil, if needed
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
2 tsp. granulated sugar or firmly packed light brown sugar
1 small dried hot chili or 1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
Kosher salt and ground black pepper, to taste
Hot pepper vinegar, for serving
Fill a large bowl with ice water. Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Add 1/2 tsp. kosher salt per cup of water. Add the greens and cook until wilted, about 2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon or strainer to immediately transfer the greens into the ice water to stop the cooking and set the color. Drain well and squeeze out as much water as possible. Use the cooked greens soon or cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.
In a large skillet over medium heat, cook the bacon until it renders its fat and is crispy, stirring often, about 10 minutes. If the bacon does not render at least 2 Tbs. fat, stir in the olive oil. Stir in the onion and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic, sugar and chili and cook, stirring, until the garlic is fragrant, about 1 minute. (The whole chili will give mild heat and can be discarded before serving. Crushed flakes are a commitment to heat, but the amount can be adjusted to taste.)
Add the greens and cook, tossing with tongs, until glossy and warmed through, 3 to 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and serve warm with hot pepper vinegar on the side. Serves 4.
Creamed Collard and Country Ham Pot Pie with Cornmeal Pastry
For the filling:
4 thick bacon slices, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch strips
2 large onions, thinly sliced
4 cups chicken stock or a smoked stock
1 tsp. kosher salt, plus more to taste
1 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper, plus more to taste
1 small red pepper pod, a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes, or a pinch of cayenne pepper
3 lb. collard greens, stems and tough ribs removed, leaves cut into thin ribbons
1 cup half-and-half
4 oz. chopped country ham
4 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
3 Tbs. cornstarch
For the pastry:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup coarse stone-ground yellow cornmeal
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
4 Tbs. butter or lard, cut into small cubes and chilled
3/4 cup half-and-half
Instant flour or additional cornmeal, for rolling
2 Tbs. unsalted butter, melted
1/2 tsp. coarse salt or additional kosher salt
1/2 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper
For the filling: Cook the bacon in a large, heavy pot over medium heat, stirring often, until it renders its fat and is crispy, about 15 minutes. Transfer with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain, leaving the drippings in the pot.
Add the onions and a pinch of salt to the pot. Stir to coat with the drippings and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 8 minutes. Stir in the stock, salt, sugar, black pepper and red pepper and bring to a simmer. Add the collards a big handful at a time, stirring until they wilt before adding more. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot and simmer until tender, 30 to 45 minutes. Discard the pepper pod.
Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, stir together the half-and-half, ham and garlic. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, then remove the pan from the heat, cover and set aside to steep. When the collards are done, stir in the half-and-half mixture.
Place the cornstarch in a small bowl and whisk in enough cold water to make a smooth paste and then pour into the collards. Bring to a low boil and cook, stirring constantly, until the liquid thickens to the consistency of thin gravy. Stir in the reserved bacon. Season with salt and pepper. Keep the collards warm over low heat, stirring occasionally.
Preheat an oven to 375°F.
For the pastry: Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Use a pastry blender or your fingertips to work in the butter until the pieces are no larger than grains of rice. If you press a little against your thumb, it should cling like a small leaf. Slowly add the half-and-half and stir with a fork until the dough comes together. Pour the pastry onto a lightly floured surface and knead gently only until smooth and no longer sticky, 4 or 5 turns. Roll or pat the pastry into a rectangle that is about 1/3-inch thick. Use a sharp knife or pastry wheel to cut the pastry into long strips about 1 1/2 inches wide.
Spoon the warm collard filling into a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Arrange the strips of pastry over the filling, leaving only about 1/8 inch of space between the strips. Trim the ends of the pastry as needed to make them fit. You might have a little left over. Lightly brush the pastry with the melted butter and sprinkle with the coarse salt and pepper.
Bake until the pastry is golden brown and the collards are bubbling, 30 to 35 minutes. Let the cobbler sit for 15 minutes before serving hot. Serves 12.
Adapted from The New Southern Garden Cookbook: Enjoying the Best from Homegrown Gardens, Farmers’ Markets, Roadside Stands, and CSA Farm Boxes, by Sheri Castle (University of North Carolina Press, 2011). Photographs © 2011 by Stewart Waller. Recipes used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press. www.uncpress.unc.edu
Farmers’ market collard greens photo courtesy of Jackie Helvey.