Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Collard Greens

Happy New Year! Did you behave like a good southerner and cook up a pot of 'greens' to usher in fortune for the new year?  Don't worry; there's still plenty of time to observe a time-honored culinary tradition to get the year off to an auspicious start. The idea: By cooking up 'money' (collard greens symbolize folded bills and their traditional partner black-eyed peas resemble coins), you can somehow usher in a more lush life with the incoming year.

A farfetched notion? Perhaps, but it beats the odds of a winning lottery ticket. 

Here's why you should cook up collard greens early and often: They are so nutritionally virtuous it's like putting money in the bank. If kale (its very close headless cabbage cousin - more on that in a minute) can make a comeback from highway ornamental to veggie sex kitten, collards can, too. I'm telling you, this is the next great thing, says the lady with the culinary crystal ball.

A Brief History

Most Americans have come to associate collard greens with the American south - where they are beloved - and with the African slave trade. Although the historical and cultural connections are deep, the story of collards predates the American south (and the Atlantic slave trade) by a few thousand years.

That's right, the story of collards goes waaaaaaay back.

According to Denver-based culinary historian Adrian Miller, collards are believed to have come on the scene around 5,000 BC in Asia Minor, the ancient region now home to the modern nation of Turkey. By the first century AD, collards had made their way to Europe, where they were cultivated (and revered) by Greeks and Romans.

The southern tradition of marrying pork with collards came from the south alright - but in another part of the world - ancient Rome, says Miller.

 "The Roman poet Ovid included a reference to a pot of collards and smoked pork in his "The Story of Baucis and Philemon," (Book VIII of Metamorphoses) written in 8 AD," Miller writes in an email. "Though Baucis and Philemon didn't know that they were entertaining Jupiter and Mercury (who were in disguise), collards and pork definitely got established as food for the gods."

Miller, author of the forthcoming Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine One Plate at a Time (University of North Carolina Press) also notes that collards were an important dietary staple during the harsh winters in western Europe in the Middle Ages as well as in colonial America.

And yes, collards did come to North America by way of west Africa and the slave trade, probably in the late 1600s, but Miller cites an even earlier harvest: In 1631, John Winthrop, the governor of Massachusetts Bay colony, bought colewort seeds for his garden.

Factual Nibbles

Although beloved throughout the American south, collards get extra love in the Carolinas:

Ayden, a small town in eastern North Carolina, has been home to an annual Collards Festival since 1975. Held the week after Labor Day, the festivities include a parade, collard eating contest and cook-off.

Collard greens are the state vegetable of South Carolina, thanks to a bill signed into law by Governor Nikki Haley in 2011. The bill cites South Carolina as number two in commercial collards production (New Jersey, better known as home to blueberries and tomatoes, is also a major haven for collards).

Collards have a global following: In Brazil, where they're known as couve, they figure into feijoada, the pork and bean stew that is the national dish. In Portugal, you might find them greening up a bowl of caldo verde, a potato and sausage soup, that country's national dish. They are also a culinary staple in the Kashmir state of India, where they are known as haakh, and in Ethiopia, where they are known as gomen and remain part of the Jewish culinary tradition, according to culinary scholar Gil Marks in his Olive Trees and Honey.


Botanically, collard greens are part of the brassica oleracea family, which makes them relatives of all things cabbage-y -  Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower, to name a few.  Unlike its cabbage kin, collards (and its close sibling, kale) are considered headless cultivars, earning them the acephala classification.

The name collard is derived from the Middle English word colewort, which means "cabbage plant."  (At last -  the mystery behind 'coleslaw' is solved!)


Although grown year round, collards' peak season is the first quarter of the year, so the time is now. Although uniquely tolerant of both cold and hot climates, collards (and kale) actually benefit from frost, which causes them to produce sweeter leaves.

Environmental Impact

Conventionally grown collards are a new cause for concern, according to The Environmental Working Group. Due to continued use of organophosphate on leafy greens, collards (and kale) received a "Dirty Dozen Plus" designation in last year's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce. A known hazard to the nervous system, organophosphate is being phased out but still has not been banned.

Whenever possible, buy organic, particularly at the supermarket, to avoid insecticides. When shopping at the farmers' market or farm stand, I recommend asking growers about their production methods. Often growers who can't afford organic certification are actually farming without chemicals. (See our vegetable rule of thumb*).


"Collards are so packed with nutrients that if they were a manufactured food, the FDA might insist that they undergo tests," wrote Mark Bittman in his 1995 book Leafy Greens (reissued in 2012).


Here are just some of its many virtues:

One cup of cooked collards contains 49 calories and 4 grams of protein. They are one of the best non-dairy sources of calcium, surpassing an 8-ounce serving of milk. (This is a tidbit worth posting on the refrigerator, especially for your lactose-intolerant loved ones.)

Collards boast a unique trifecta: Anti-inflammatories in the form of Omega-3 fatty acids (who knew?!) and Vitamin K; Antioxidants in the form of beta carotene, Vitamins C and E and manganese; and detoxifiers in the form of glucosinolates, compounds that are being studied for their abilities to ward off cancer as well as cardiovascular disease.

The only reason not to eat your collards is if you're taking blood thinners or you've got pre-existing gallbladder or kidney issues (collards are a considerable source of oxalates). Everyone else: Jump in that collard pool!

What to Look for/Storage

No yellowing, spots or wilted leaves, please. We want firm leaves and stems. Do not wash until ready to cook. Stored in a kitchen towel in the refrigerator (away from fruit that continue to ripen after picking), collards will keep for at least three days.

What to Do with It

I agree with cookbook author Nava Atlas that boiling or braising collards for a long time yields "semi-mushy, olive-drab results less than exciting." On the other hand, she writes in her 2012 book Wild About Greens, "quick-braised or better yet, stir-fried in narrow ribbons, this green is a standout, and its mild, sweet flavor is up there with the best of the leafy veggies."

The Lee Brothers - Ted and Matt - view this two-sided approach as universal: "When it comes to collards, there's a divide between the Ancients, who believe that collards have to be simmered for many hours in water to be digestible, and the Moderns, who claim to have invented braising collards lightly in a skillet," the sibling team writes in The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook. "The Ancients, the Moderns say, are wasting time, and cooking the life - and the nutrition - from their greens."

The next order of business: To stem or not to stem? I am of the stemmed camp. Even after long slow braising, the stems, in my opinion, are stringy and not my idea of a good time. I find many a stem lover perhaps more in love with nostalgia.

Pro Tip

Hate to waste? Make stock. Cook those stems with a whole quartered onion, a few whole cloves of garlic and some black peppercorns and in 45 minutes, you've got the foundations for soups, stews and other projects. Freeze into ice cubes and you're in business for weeks. 
To remove stem, trim with kitchen shears or a sharp knife, then thoroughly rinse under cold water. Collards tend to be silty, so do take care. Place all stemmed leaves in a mattress-like pile, fold up like a cigar and cut into thin ribbons. This makes cooking collards a weeknight snap, as you'll see in the recipe that follows.

Stretching Your Food Dollar through Preservation

Speaking of the freezer, you can pardon collards from a trip to the compost bin by blanching and freezing for later.  Wash and trim as described above, then dunk in boiling water for 15 seconds. With a slotted spoon, transfer to a bowl of ice water, then lay on a towel to blot dry and place in a zipper-style plastic bag and into the freezer.


Thai Curried Collards

Excerpted from "The Meat Lover's Meatless Celebrations" by Kim O'Donnel by arrangement with Da Capo Lifelong, a member of the Perseus Books Group.  Copyright 2012.


7 to 8 cups collard greens, washed thoroughly, trimmed of stems and middle ribs (about 2 bunches)

2 tablespoons oil

1⁄2 cup minced shallots (1 to 2 bulbs, depending on size)

1 tablespoon peeled and minced fresh ginger (about a 2 by 1-inch hunk)

2 to 3 tablespoons prepared Thai red curry paste, depending on how spicy you like things

1⁄2 to 1 teaspoon salt

1⁄2 lime

1 (13-ounce) can coconut milk

1⁄2 to 1 cup water

In small batches, stack the collards in a pile, roll up like a cigar, and cut into thin ribbonlike strips. (This technique is called a chiffonade.)

Over medium heat, heat the oil in a medium-size pot fitted with a lid. (A wok works great.) Add the shallots and ginger and allow them to dance in the oil and soften slightly, stirring frequently to prevent burning or sticking, about 3 minutes. Add the curry paste, stirring to blend everything together, about 1 minute.

In batches, add the collards, turning with tongs to coat with the aromatics. Collards need more time to shrink and wilt than do quick-cooking greens such as spinach and chard; it may take up to 10 minutes to turn and coat all of the greens. Season the greens with 1⁄2 teaspoon of the salt and a slight squeeze of the lime half.

Pour in the coconut milk plus 1⁄2 cup of the water; the level of liquid will be slightly lower than the vegetables. Increase the heat to medium-high, and bring the mixture up to a boil. Lower the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until the greens are as tender as you like them, 25 to 30 minutes. If you'd like a thinner sauce, add the remaining 1⁄2 cup of water while the greens simmer.

Taste for salt, and add more as needed, plus an additional squeeze of lime.

Serve in a bowl (with or without brown rice) so you can lap up some of the lip-smacking sauce.

Makes 6 servings

(*Vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them -- agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry's tendency toward large monocrops.)

This post was originally published January 2013.