Collard Greens and Other Recipes from Below the Mason–Dixon Line

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Fresh collard greens can be found at your local farmers market year-round, but they are tastiest in the cooler, damper months. Usually quite cheap, this slightly bitter member of the cabbage family is classic  Southern comfort food. The dark green leaves have graced the dining tables of the South for many a generation.

In my kitchen, “collards” are a side dish on our menu. I cooked them for months as a part of my station prep. At work, cooking collard greens started with sautéed applewood smoked bacon and Spanish onions. Pork – and the flavor of it – is an integral ingredient in this dish; in fact, the pig and its by-products feature prominently in Southern cooking.

To this basic mirepoix of sorts, the greens are added and allowed to sweat until they eventually shrink about 1/3 in size.  Apple cider vinegar and chicken stock are added, and the greens are allowed to braise for an hour until tender. Season with salt and pepper; scoop them into a 4-inch hotel pan, label date and time with masking tape. Is it good? My chef says it’s an acquired taste, and I certainly agree with him. That’s  why I’m not posting the recipe from work.  I want you to cook collard greens and eat them and enjoy them as I did.

This post is about Grandma Davis’ recipe from New Orleans. I’m sharing her home cooking with you, as she showed me how to prepare it.

Buy three bundles of collard greens from the farmers market or supermarket. To prepare fresh collard greens, wash them thoroughly and remove the thick fibrous center stem of each leaf. Lay six to seven leaves flat on your cutting board and roll into a tight bundle, like a cigar. With a sharp knife cut into ¼ inch ribbons. Repeat until all the greens have been shredded like confetti.

It’s just as easy to pick up a pack of shredded greens from the produce or frozen food  section of your neighborhood supermarket.  I can assure you that the integrity of the dish will remain untarnished by this shortcut, and the finished product will be just as scrumptious. If the second option suits you, purchase at least a pound, which should be enough for 8-10 portions.

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Don’t leave the supermarket empty-handed. In the meat section, buy a half pound of salt pork. Grandma Davis uses salt pork for her collard greens, and you should too.  Don’t be afraid to use salt pork in cooking.    It’s easy as long as you follow these simple steps.

  1. Wash salt pork thoroughly to remove the excess salt.
  2. In  a quart of cold water, bring salt pork to a boil then drain water
  3. Bring to a boil a second time and  drain again
  4. It’s ready to be used for your collard greens.

Sounds like a lot, maybe, but this is what Southern cooking is all about: simple ingredients cooked with care and time to tempt the taste buds. This dish smacks of history. Pigs, low-maintenance and easy to raise, were an important food source in the South.  They were introduced to the region by early Spanish explorers, and became a staple of the traditional Southern diet.

Scraps of meat, oftentimes the unwanted portions from the butchered animal –  trotters, tail, ears, snout and entrails – were given to the slaves.  Usually there were many mouths to feed with this small ration of meat. Allowed to cultivate small gardens for food, the slaves learned to use their small ration of meat as a flavoring ingredient in their meals. This was the only way they could give a dish “meat flavor” without using much meat. This explains the prevalence of pork in southern vegetables and stews. Ponder this while perusing the shelves in the supermarket. Purchase a quart of chicken broth; look for Kitchen Basics or Swanson’s Chicken Stock. Add a Spanish onion to your cart and join the checkout line.

Great!!! You’ve brought all the goodies home, now it’s time to braise your way to some yummy delicious greens. First, wash, boil and drain the salt pork. That’s out of the way. Dice the Spanish onion. Put the salt pork and diced onions in a thick Dutch pot and add 4 cups chicken stock. Let simmer on low heat for 30 minutes; the pork should disintegrate in the broth at which point add the collard greens. Here’s a secret – add ¼ tsp of baking soda, which helps soften the greens and preserves the color. Add ½ tsp. brown sugar as well as 1tsp ground black pepper. Taste and let simmer for another 30 minutes. Minimal attention or stirring is required, just put it in the pot and let it go! Adjust seasoning if necessary.

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