Driving through the Southern country side in the winter: black trees, bare and sharp against a pearly sky like Japanese ink paintings, maybe the lucky surprise flash of a scarlet cardinal; tawny fields with folds and furrows like the creased hide of a sleeping lion. It’s beautiful and restful in its monotony of winter-softened color, nothing to jar the eye but the occasional murder of black crows, or the pounce of a rusty hawk on some unwary rodent-until late Winter when the forsythia and quince suddenly explode like firecrackers and take your breath away for a second.
Even the winter gardens sitting lonely beside older homes have a subtlety, an unkempt bed-head look to them; mostly left to their own devices while their gardeners stay in the warm indoors, they are patches of root vegetables and earthy greens that burnish and sweeten with a little frost. Collards, with their dusty chalkboard-green leaves like well-worn old leather are the beauties of the bunch. They are Brassica like cabbages and broccoli; the leaves are braised, traditionally with smoked meat seasoning, until they are meltingly tender. Scott likes them with apple cider vinegar mixed into the pot liquor in his bowl; I like them with sriracha sauce (yes, green top, rooster- that one).
Since most of the work of cooking collard greens is in the preparation, I always make a big potful and freeze the leftovers for a busy day. I fill the kitchen sink with enough water to float all of the leaves so that any dirt or grit can sink to the bottom and then swish and wash the leaves really well, checking for ugly leaves and little creatures that may have tucked themselves into the bunches (this is probably more critical if you are growing them yourself- we found plenty of little caterpillars on the greens we brought in from our garden last year). I usually slice out the fibrous stems, cut the leaves in half long ways and stack them up like bundle of dollar bills to cut them across into wide ribbons.
Meanwhile, in a big stock pot, I bring about a quart of water to a simmer. I don’t always use the same meat, but something with a little fat and some deep smoky flavor – diced bacon, smoked ham hock, a ham bone, or smoked turkey legs. While I’m cleaning and cutting up the leaves, I let the meat simmer in the water, covered with a lid, to start infusing the broth. Because I love their smoky heat, I usually throw in a dried chipotle or two. I add the greens and a little salt, clap the lid on again and let them collapse in the heat, with an occasional stir, checking they don’t steam out of liquid, slowly braising them to tenderness.
I usually like my vegetables on the crisp side- not the stereotypical “boiled to death” green beans and carrots and peas and spinach that give vegetables a bad name. But collards are an exception: like a tough, lean veal shank reaches its apotheosis as osso bucco after a long gentle braise, so the relatively fibrous collard leaves become rich and tender and flavorful. I don’t mean boiled though, a low simmer really, and I use a minimal amount of water so the flavor of the greens isn’t diluted too much. If I’m using anything but bacon, I’ll get tongs and pluck the bone out of the pot toward the end and shred the meat off to add back into the greens.
We’re still sort of in that “mud season” between winter and spring up north; the Union Square Greenmarket stalls carry parsnips and turnips and cold storage apples (and I got sleet burn on my face last time I was there). I’m beginning to crave something sharp and fresh and green but for now I’m taking advantage of the last of the gifts of the winter and making a pot of collard greens. It’s especially good with beans and cornbread.
what I put in the pot
2 bunches of collard greens (or more, if they are stingy bunches)
about a quart of water
3 slices of bacon, diced, or
2 small smoked ham hocks, or
1 meaty ham bone, or
1 nice big smoked turkey leg
salt, to taste (start with 1 1/2 teaspoons of flaky Kosher or sea salt)
1 or 2 dried chipotles
Braise over gentle heat for at least 45 minutes for a big pot, until the leaves are tender, but are not so cooked as to disintegrate when stirred.