Cooking with Collards

To those in the know, collard greens are simply "collards." I'm in the know; I grew up with them. One of my earliest culinary memories is the seemingly ever-present pot of greens on my grandmother's stove. I loved collards then and I love them now.

This member of the cabbage family was cultivated by the ancient Greeks and Romans and was first mentioned in the U.S. near the end of the 1600's. Upon arrival in the U.S., slaves from Africa quickly incorporated the prolifically growing collards into their repertoire for "making do" with whatever they could get. A true Southern staple, collards are finally catching on with cooks beyond the South, with chefs everywhere now proudly showcasing them on menus.

Collards are a sturdy vegetable with broad, darkish blue-green leaves. Many Southern-style cooks simmer the greens for hours, oftentimes with a ham hock floating away in the pot. The "pot likker," i.e. the juices in the bottom of the pot, is traditionally sipped, sprinkled with crumbled cornbread, or dunked with cornbread. The best method for capturing greens' nectar is so personal that it actually sparked the Pot Likker and Cornpone Debate of 1931 that began between an editor and a lawmaker and took on national status. There was no loser here since regardless of your chosen method, scores of nutrients including Potassium and Vitamins A, B, and C hang out in that deliciously soothing broth.

Collards are jam-packed with nutrients and power. They're insanely high in fiber, Vitamin A, and Vitamin K - a natural blood-thinner. Collards are also very, very strong in Vitamin C, Manganese, Potassium, Folate, and Calcium. The list goes on and on, including help in ushering unhealthy cholesterol from our bodies and some potential anti-cancer properties. It's simple. Collards are just plain good for you.

Available year round, collards are sweeter when grown in cool weather. Look for firm, deeply-colored leaves without any yellow or brown around the edges. Holes in the leaves are just a sign that an insect has passed that way. To store for a day or two, refrigerate in a plastic bag, pushing out as much air as possible. Prep for cooking by peeling the leaves from the stem with your fingers or holding them by the stem and cutting the leaves off with a sharp paring knife.

Yes, I love that collards are so good for me. But truth be told, I eat them because I love their rich, almost smoky flavor and their tender-tough texture. I also love what I can do with them - cook them all day in my slow cooker for a southern-style dish that's waiting for me, turn them into a quick stir fry for a lighter side, or pair them with chicken for a main dish with African roots.