We’re finally getting some rain, and hopefully, a cool spell will be behind it bringing a night or two when the temperature drops below freezing. That’s when the collards will truly be ready to eat. There’s something about a light frost that gives collard greens a slightly sweeter flavor, and they’re a bit more tender, too. Farmers claim that the frost “fixes” the plant’s sugars in the leaves, rather than the roots.
A member of the cabbage family, collards have a distinct place on the Southern table. Some claim that collards were just about the only vegetable that survived in Southern fields after Sherman’s siege at the end of the Civil War, but it is certain that this nutritious vegetable was a mainstay in the post-War diet. A vegetable that has grown on the European continent for millennia, African slaves are attributed with cooking collards the modern way: slowly boiled/braised with some flavoring meat until a rich broth, known as potlikker, forms at the bottom. (By the way, “potlikker” is one of the best words every coined. Go ahead and say it to someone — you’re sure to get some sort of response out of them.)
The typical way to eat collards is with a splash of vinegar, accompanied by cornbread. As is often the case with Southern foods, there is even a debate over the best way to eat the cornbread: one school dips the cornbread into the potlikker, whereas others will crumble it into their greens. Either way is mighty tasty to me. Often served with vinegar, collards are one of my all time favorite vegetables.
You really don’t need a recipe to cook collards. You sweat a diced onion, some pork product (hocks, bacon, ham, fatback), add spice to your liking, and some water and salt (but not if you’re using salted meat). Cover and cook slowly for a couple of hours until the greens are completely tender. Sure, this is going to stink a bit, but remember that it’s a member of the cabbage family, all of which are somewhat odoriferous! Serve with cornbread (and I’ll be writing about that before long), but biscuits would do in a pinch.
Heck, the Southern Foodways Alliance, my favorite food organization, will have two lectures about greens and cornbread at next week’s Symposium on the State of Southern Foods. That’s how important this is! I’ll be there and will be sure to report back.
Barbecue and collards from Bum’s in Ayden, NC