Tackling the collards tradition, just in time for New Year’s Day

by | Dec 29, 2022

If you don’t cook greens – such as collards, cabbage or mustard greens – any other time of year, then New Year’s Day is THE DAY to give it a try. It’s a tradition to have greens on the first day of the new year in hopes that the green on your plate brings green to your bank account.

If the tradition of cooking greens scares you, put aside the pressure you may feel to get them “right.” There are different ways to tackle the job, and the following is a round-up of basic advice from folks connected to NCDA&CS.

Chad Blackwelder, marketing specialist and chef for the N.C. Department of Agriculture, says it’s not a bad idea to mix greens like he remembers his grandmother doing. She’d sometimes prepare collards and mustard greens or collards and cabbage. You could even cook all three together.

Collards are certainly the more popular green leafy plant to cook for New Year’s Day in the south. They happen to be one of the few things that are cold-hardy enough to be growing outside in North Carolina right now, which may explain why they’re often the go-to green this time of year.

The initial obstacles: cleaning, cutting and the cooking smell
One of the reasons many people avoid cooking collards is the strong smell they create while being cooked. Zane Hedgecock, the chief of staff for Commissioner Steve Troxler, adds one or two whole unshelled pecans to his pot of collards. He believes it reduces the unpleasant smell. His advanced recipe is below in the “master class” section.

“Finding an easy way to clean and cut collards can really get you past a lot of the intimidating part,” Blackwelder said.

For Heather Overton, the assistant director of public affairs, that’s the part that worries her the most, so she always buys collards already washed and cut. It’s her number one recommendation about cooking collards. Buying washed and cut collards makes it easier on her, and she worries less about getting sand out of the leaves. She’s found a recipe that she really likes, and you’ll find it below.

If you want to handle it yourself, Blackwelder says you can cut the large stem out of big leaves of collards, or you can just grab the surrounding leaf and strip the stem out by hand to save time. Grab the big end of the stem with one hand, and then use two fingers on your other hand to rip down the stem and strip off the leave on both sides of the stem. Whether cutting out the stem or stripping the leaves off, produce grower Geraldine Herring agrees it’s important. She, her husband and daughter operate Geraldine’s Peaches and Produce Roadside Market, and she has decades of experience cooking the produce they grow. (She is also this writer’s mother, so I admit I may be biased, but she makes good, easy-to-make collards, y’all!)

Washed and sliced collards are ready to be cooked. (Geraldine’s Peaches & Produce)

Herring said the big stems can be too bitter, but leave the smaller stems because they are a good source of flavor. Once the big stems are stripped or cut out, roll three or four leaves together and slice the roll to make strips of leaves in whatever width you like.

Basic guidelines
Once you have the leaves cut, it’s just a matter of a few more basic steps to make a simple pot of collards.

“If you can boil water, you can cook collards,” Herring said. “You just have to have some meat in there for flavoring, and add your collard leaves a little bit at a time.”

Her approach is so simple, there is no recipe – just a basic set of steps. She recommends putting a pot of water over heat on your stove before you start the cleaning and cutting. Just a medium sized pot should work for one large collard that serves four people. Estimate just enough water to cover your cooked-down collards, since you can always add more water later. Her suggestion is to also add any piece of pork with a bone. Allow the water to slowly heat to a high simmer or low boil over about 20 to 30 minutes. While the water and piece of meat are heating, you can clean and cut your collards. Once the water seems to have changed to a broth with the meat and bone, you can remove the bone and leave in the pot any pieces of meat that come off.

Add your cut collards one large handful at a time. Allow that bunch to wilt, then continuing adding handfuls as each bunch wilts. Stir/turn the collards over each time so that the fresher collards go to the bottom of the pot. Adjust the water if needed – just enough to cover your wilted collards.

Herring doesn’t like to cook her collards long – maybe about 20 minutes once added to the pot. This maintains the intrinsic flavor and nutrients of the collards.

“If you cook them too long, they will turn to mush,” she said.

Blackwelder says it’s all up to the cook. He encourages you to taste as you go until you get the texture you like while cooking collards.

Additional seasonings or spices are up to the cook too. Like Herring, he likes the taste of a little vinegar to finish off collards. He’s even used some type of acidic pickle such as chowchow or kimchi to go with his collards.

“When I’m cooking greens I try to keep sweet, salty, spicy and acidity in mind whenever I’m making my broth for my collards, which is pretty typical,” Blackwelder said.

So his preparation often includes onions, garlic, some chili flakes, a little vinegar and sugar and also some kind of smoked or cured pork product. Overton’s favorite recipe uses many of those elements too. Her father sent her a recipe once, and she found it both easy enough and tasty enough to continue following it. Here’s the recipe with some or her own adjustments.

Collard leaves in a bowl ready for slicing. (by Barbara Jackson from Pixabay )

1 package bacon
1 diced onion
4-5 cloves of garlic
4 cups chicken broth
About 3 pounds of collards
1 tsp of red pepper (or more if you like spicier)

Cook bacon until crispy and crumble. Use the grease from the bacon to cook one diced onion on medium high heat until soft in the bottom of your large pot. Add a little chicken broth (about a half cup) and then add 4-5 cloves of minced garlic and red pepper. Cook 1 to 2 minutes and then put heat on low. Add chopped and washed collard greens. Keep adding chicken broth and collard greens alternately until they all fit in your large pot. Cover and stir occasionally, for one hour. Uncover and add crumbled up bacon and cook until most of the liquid has cooked off (about 2 hours). The collards are now ready to serve. (Or you can remove from heat and let cool and then refrigerate to serve in the next day or so.)

A whole collard cut from the field and ready for sale at Geraldine’s Peaches & Produce Roadside Market in Lumberton.

“It was intimidating at first, but then I realized it’s really not that hard. I now offer to do collards for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. I usually don’t bring home many leftovers,” Overton said. “I’m thinking I want to try the same recipe using different greens – like turnips or cabbage.

A deep dive
Blackwelder said you could possibly substitute mushrooms if you wanted to try a totally vegetarian or vegan option without the pork for flavoring. Shitakes and other mushrooms could be cooked crispy like bacon, then sautéed in olive oil.

Another tip from Blackwelder is to avoid over-sweetening. Good fresh collards shouldn’t need much sweetening, but they’re still not a super sweet food. He hopes people will just embrace the flavor like Italians embrace the bite of radicchio and endive.

“If people embrace bitter a little bit more, I think that’s a good thing. I think that’s a big part of the palate – is bitter as well – that people forget about,” Blackwelder said.

Finally, he says it helps if you get the collards as fresh as possible and pick out what you think will work for you.

“I would encourage folks to go find your local growers and folks at the farmers market and get to know them and talk to them. Put eyes and hands on the produce,” Blackwelder said.

A master class recipe
Hedgecock has also been cooking collards and plenty of other fresh produce for decades. One of his favorite collards recipes takes a “good things come to those who wait” approach. He took a Martha Washington recipe and enhanced it.

It takes hours to complete, but the result is a flavor profile that may be a pleasant surprise for folks expecting standard collards.

“I’m trying to cook flavor into them,” Hedgecock explained. “I make a thin brown gravy and cook it down in the collards.”

He uses flour and seasoning of brown gravy with beef stock in a pot with the collards. Then he cooks the steam off, like cooking any liquid down, and the gravy is produced in the process. Here’s the recipe as adapted:

Martha Washington collards with brown gravy
Collard cut to bite size of choice
Mushrooms cut into quarters
Onions sliced and quartered
Beef stock
Salt and pepper
Brown beef seasoning
Unshelled pecan

Cook collard in water with pecan for ¾ hour (45 minutes) then drain water to 1/4 . Remove and discard pecan. Add beef stock, onions and mushrooms, and season with salt and pepper. Stock should cover to ¾ mixture. Cook on low heat for several hours. After mixture is well cooked, add flour, butter and beef stock to thicken gravy.