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Practicing the basics: collard greens

Few would say that tough leafy greens, like collard greens, are delicious on their own. Without dispute they are very healthy, but actually eating them (let alone getting your kids to eat them) is another thing altogether.

The time-tested approach to cooking collard greens can best be summed up in four words: “Drown them in flavor.” We’re going to employ multiple flavor-generating techniques to make a dish so packed with delicious flavor that you will completely forget that you’re eating healthy green stuff.

In particular, we’re going to use:

  • smoky meats;
  • aromatic vegetables (onion and garlic);
  • browning; and
  • spices.

On the spectrum of toughness of various types of leafy greens, collard greens are pretty far over on the “tough” end; this means that not only will we want to soften them up, but we can simmer them for a long time before they completely wilt and lose all texture. We’re going to use that to our advantage by simmering them in a super-flavorful broth.

Suggested reading:

Makes about 4 servings. Preparation time: about 2 hours.

Ingredients:

  • 4 to 6 leaves collard greens
  • 1 tbsp. neutral-flavored oil such as canola.
  • 1/2 lb. sausage, or 1/2 lb. tougher-cut meats such as or ham or boneless chicken thighs into small pieces plus 4 strips thick-cut bacon, cut into 1/2-inch squares.
  • 1 large yellow or white onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 2 cups water

Wash greens in cold water and shake or pat dry. Cut off the thick part of the stem, extending about an inch into the leaves. Stack the leaves on top of each other and then roll them up into a cylinder along the long side (with the stem running along the length of the cylinder). Slice across the cylinder to make strips, about 1 inch wide. Set aside. Chefs would call this technique “chiffenade,” though it’s a very big, wide chiffenade.

Pour the oil into a 4-quart or larger pot and heat over medium-high heat. Add the meat. Brown on both sides (about 3-4 minutes per side). Remove meat from pan and set aside. This is the first kind of flavor we’re adding: browning protein. The stuff stuck to the bottom of the pot is called the “fond” and will serve us well. Also, the bacon fat, once rendered, will give us some extra fat for sauteing the rest of the ingredients. Don’t worry if the meat isn’t cooked through at this point; it will get plenty of time to cook later.

Add the onion to the pan and saute until just starting to soften, about 4-5 minutes. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes, and saute for another 30 seconds until fragrant. Stir in the flour and allow to cook for 1 minute. This is the second, third, and fourth kinds of flavor. We saute aromatic vegetables. Then we “bloom” the spices, then we mix in some flour and let it cook for a minute to create a “brown roux” — more browned protein, plus just a bit of thickening agent for the water we’re about to add.

Add the water to the pan and bring to a boil. Stir in the greens, a handful at a time, until they are all incorporated. Return the meat to the pot. At this point we basically have a stew. Using tougher-cut meats like chicken thighs is preferably because they will withstand the long simmer well, and they will have a “fall off the bone” kind of soft texture in the end.

Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and simmer until the greens are sufficiently softened, 60-90 minutes. Collard greens, unlike many leafy greens, are incredibly hardy and can withstand over an hour of cooking. If you substitute other types of greens you will need to adjust the simmering time. Test along the way so that you know how quickly they are softening, and how the flavors are developing.

Remove from heat, and season to taste.

Serve immediately, in a bowl or over rice. Make sure you serve it with some of the liquid from the pot; that’s where most of the flavor resides. In the South, it’s called “potlikker,” and most people will tell you it’s the best part of a pot of collard greens. Rice will soak it up and taste amazing.

Tips and suggestions:

  • You can use this recipe with other greens, such as turnip, mustard, radish, or kale. You may need to reduce the simmering time, however, as some of these other greens are not as thick and tough as collard greens. Kale might be ready in as little as 30 minutes.
  • There are plenty of other options for ways to drown collard greens in flavor. You can try an assortment of other spices (smoky paprika is one of my favorites), or substitute chili peppers for the red pepper flakes. You can also use a bit of Liquid Smoke if you don’t have “smoky” meats handy to include.