Monday, November 15, 2010

A Whole Mess of Collards

Having a good greens recipe was one of the things that I tried to master early in my mild obsession with Southern cooking (which I first mentioned in my shrimp and grits post).   I ran through several experiments while living in Chicago, as inspired by a restaurant called Feed that had roasted chicken and various southern fixins, and eventually found a great way to make greens.  Moving to North Carolina gave me a chance to try to real thing and see how my greens stacked up, and I was honestly a little surprised to find that my greens are better than any restaurant greens that I have had to date.  I tell this to friends who are born and raised in the South, and generally I get laughed at.  I'm fine with that, because my goal is to show them all how good Yankees can make greens.. one bowl at a time.

The occasion for making this batch of greens is directly tied to a friendly test between myself and my neighbor, Mike.  Mike has an amazing garden in his back yard, during the summer you can see stalks of corn rising high above his already tall fence.  He grows a myriad of vegetables in a relatively small area, and it's really an inspirational testament to urban gardening.  Towards the end of last week, I walked over in order to ask if I could borrow a couple of tools.  While we were heading to his shed to get them, I saw that he was growing collards for the winter season and I commented on how much I liked them.  He was a little surprised to hear about a kid from Pittsburgh who was a collard afficionado, so I then mentioned that I felt like my collards were better than any collards that I have had in the South.  Of course, a statement like that can't come without backing it, so Mike said to me that he'd give me a bunch of collards in exchange for some of my Yank greens.  The deal was on.  He let me know that he was going to wait until the first frost of the year, which sweetens the collards and makes them ready for harvest.  The day after the first frost, Mike delivered to me a stack of greens that probably weighed in at 2 lb.  I would make them and then he would be the judge of whether they stacked up to good ole boy greens or not.

Mike's winter lot
Collard Greens
2 lb collard greens (they don't have to be collards... mustard, kale, chard, dandelion all work well too.  My absolute favorite is half collards half mustards)
6oz bacon
1 large-ish onion, diced
32oz chicken stock
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
apple cider vinegar to taste (probably 1/3 c or so)
salt to taste

Start by prepping the greens. Wash them first, then lay them out flat.  I cut the tough rib out of the middle just because I don't like to cook the greens for hours.  If they don't cook forever, the rib won't soften up, so I just remove it.

Lay it out flat

Remove the rib

After the rib is removed, tear the collards up into manageable pieces.  I'd call a manageable piece 2"x2" or so.  They will wilt and be bite sized.  I tear them with my fingers because of some hippie shit that I heard somewhere.  I don't know if it actually does anything, but I heard somewhere that cutting greens (this goes for everything -salad greens, cooking greens, etc) ruptures the cells and can cause the greens to not hold their shape.  Tearing them tears them along cell walls, keeping everything intact and leading to better texture.  I don't know if that's true or not and I don't own Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking to check for myself, but it makes sense to me and it looks nice and organic, so I do it.  Besides, it's more fun to tear them apart than just cut them.

Now that the greens are prepped, start by sauteeing your bacon in a big dutch oven or stock pot.  Render the bacon until it begins to get crispy and then remove to a paper towel to drain.  Leave all of that bacon fat in the pan and add your red pepper flakes and onions (this is Southern cooking:  live it, love it).  The red pepper flakes can be added to your preference - you can leave them out or add a lot to make them spicy.  I like it somewhere in the middle - let's call it piquant.  Saute the onions until they are translucent  but not colored.  Start adding the greens.  You will have to add them in batches.  The basic process works as follows:  add handfuls of greens, toss in onion/bacon fat, cover and let wilt, uncover and stir, repeat process.  Do that until all of the greens are added and mostly wilted.

Add chicken stock to the greens until they are mostly submerged.  One of the things I love about this recipe is how scalable it is.  The general rule of thumb is that you want to get the greens mostly submerged, so whether you're making 1 lb or 7.39 lb of greens, just follow that rule and you're set.  Add the bacon back to the pot, stir, and cover.  Simmer the greens for about 30 minutes over med-low heat.

While they're simmering, let's talk theory.  Apparently traditional Southern greens are made with smoked ham hocks.  I tried making greens with a ham hock once but I wasn't too happy with them.  The bacon fat is really what makes this recipe great - it lends both smoky flavor and a richness to the broth that was missing when I used the ham hock.  I haven't tried a combination of the two yet, but now that I think about it, I really should.  The gelatin from the ham hock combined with the bacon might make the broth extra rich.  Then again, 30 minutes might not be enough time for the gelatin to really break down in the ham hock (it has to get to 135 degrees for the connective tissue to break down - by the time it really gets going, the greens might be overcooked).  I wonder what would happen if I made a stock by simmering the ham hock in chicken broth for a while, then used that as the cooking stock for the greens...  I think I will have to try that next time.

After the 30 minutes, uncover and taste your greens.  They should not be mushy, they should still have a bite to them.  When they are finished, add a generous amount of salt and begin adding the vinegar.  The combination of the flavored cooking liquid and the vinegar makes these so addictive - I serve my greens in bowls almost like a soup because I absolutely love the broth that results from them.  Add vinegar until the broth has a tart taste to it.  I do it slowly and I don't measure the vinegar, just add, stir, taste.  Repeat as necessary.

Ready to go
After the greens were done, I filled up a container to deliver to Mike.  Tonight I will bring them over and get the final verdict, and I will report back with the results.

Served with roasted chicken and fall vegetables.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post, great photos on this one! It almost makes me want to make some greens. (I just cant get into them... I think its the texture) Definitely want to hear the verdict!