In recent months, I've heard several people say that 'collards are the new kale.' And while in my mind they are completely different in taste, texture and everyday use, I felt it necessary to make note that for many of us in the Lowcountry, collards aren't a new thing, and aren't just a New Year's thing. They've been a staple on Charleston tables for generations, and are easy to grow in this climate.
When our friends get together for a big meal, it is just expected that Andrew will be making the collards. Although he doesn't look like a grandma, he sure can cook like one. He has been kind enough to share his thoughts (and favorite recipe) on the subject:
A Guest Posting From My Go-To Collards Guy:
I'll start with two disclosures. First, I don't have "a Charleston accent." I'm not even from Charleston. I grew up in an unincorporated area of Anderson County. Folks from Charleston frequently tell me it shows. Second, I'm as skinny as a rail. I don't say that as a point-of-pride -- I'm a thirty-year-old guy, not a tween girl posing for a duck-lipped selfie. It just happens that I have a high metabolism. Or maybe a tapeworm.
Despite those handicaps, I've learned to cook a couple things that have pleased both native Charlestonians and those who believe skinny cooks aren't to be trusted. One of those things is collards. We of course make collards at our house every New Year's Day, along with hoppin' john, or black eyed peas, or Texas caviar, or whatever you call them. The folklore is that when Sherman marched to the sea (man, Ohioans really have been coming to our beaches for a while), the lowly collards and field peas were the only foods his troops didn't burn or take. After the war, the devastated South ate them in hopes of a prosperous future. Although I question the validity of that story because I have a hard time believing that any starving army that came upon fields of fresh vegetables would say, "Meh, no thanks." But that remains the story around here.
While the local food supply has had plenty of time to recover in the 150 years since Union troops may or may not have selectively destroyed it, every New Year's Day we participate in the ritual, eating plenty of each side dish to make sure that in the coming year, there's enough money to pay the bills and enough luck to keep my wife from realizing that she's not the one who married up.
But I don't just cook collards annually to perpetuate a ritual. We love eating them, and I try to cook them as long as they're in season. When it's cold out, there are few things that look better on a plate than a hot pile of shimmering greens. Especially if it's sitting next to some barbecue, okra, and mac n' cheese. And even more especially if there's a beer next to the plate.
And because it's one of the few things friends call on me to make for big meals, collards are the common denominator in many of my favorite moments in adult life. Paper-plate perlo dinners eaten by a fire in Williamsburg County before the Kingstree Horse Trials, a New Year's Eve oyster roast on Hobcaw Creek, football games in the foothills, Christmases on the coast. We even had collard-wrapped barbeque rolls at our wedding reception.
I've started this year in the thick of doing two things for the first time: growing my own collards, and learning to be a dad for our new daughter. I'll need plenty of money and even more luck to succeed at either one -- hopefully I ate enough collards and black eyed peas on New Year's Day.
Carolina Collard Greens
- 2 bunches of collards
- 1 pound bacon, preferably thick-cut and smoked
- 6 cups water
- 1/2 Tbsp red pepper flakes
- 1/2 Tbsp salt
- dash smoked paprika flakes (optional)
The night before you cook, strip the collard leaves from their stalks and rip the leaves into pieces about the size of tortilla chips. Soak them overnight. That will soften the leaves a bit and get off remaining bits of sand, dirt or pesticides.
Set a large stock pot or dutch oven over medium heat. Put the bacon pieces into the pot. Stir occasionally so that pieces brown and release their grease. Don't let it get too crispy, but give it enough time to get out as much of the grease as you can. That's your main flavor source.
After several minutes of grease release, add the salt, red pepper flakes, paprika and water. Stir. You now have your brine. Let it simmer on low for about 30 minutes.
When you're close to the 30-minute mark, turn the heat back up to medium. While the brine warms up, pull the collards out and rinse them. Start adding them by the handful, using a large spoon to immerse them in the brine. Once you've added all the collards, let them cook on medium heat until they turn kelly green, which looks like this:
Turn the heat back down to low and cover. Simmer for about 2 hours, stirring occasionally. When the collards get to the point where you can easily get a sample out of the pot by stabbing a leaf with a fork, they're done.
Serve with a slotted spoon, but let some of that brine make it to the plate. Drizzle some pepper vinegar over them. This year, we used jalapenos to make our own.