Friday, February 22, 2008

Collards(!) : Tastiest and most nutritous vegetable

Knowing that I have some blog readers in Boston, I wonder how many have tuned this article out already. Collards are certainly Southern, and maybe in the North limited to "soul food", but they are truly a fabulous vegetable, and are probably my favorite green. At least if cooked properly. And that doesn't mean stewed to a greasy gray-green pulp with smoked hog jowl. Despite their association with the US South, collards (earlier called 'colewort', meaning cabbage plant in Old English) go back to antiquity in the Mediterranean. Julius Caesar was said to eat them frequently.

This hearty leaf, whose leading variety to my delight is named 'Georgia', can really be stunning, almost a meal in itself. And I mean without ham hock or smoked turkey leg to season it. Even better, it is one of the most nutritious of vegetables, loaded with calcium, manganese, vitamins A and K, plus fiber. In Southern tradition, eating collards on New Year's Day brings money in the new year. (The accompanying blackeye peas bring luck.) A few years back when Anna was in the Peace Corps in a Bariba village in northern Benin, West Africa, 'Georgia' collards, for which I sent her seeds, were the favorite of the vegetables she introduced.

We fix collards two ways at Donderos' Kitchen in Athens, and both sell well. One is American style, but vegetarian, served with meatloaf or mac and cheese, and accompanied by home-baked beans. The other is in the Ethiopian manner, also vegetarian, known as 'gomen'. Those go with spicy lentils and the spongy flat bread known as injera.

Below is my recipe for collards in the Southern style, modified somewhat over the years of making them. The recipe serves six as a vegetable for a tasty dinner. Drinks to go with this would depend on what the meat or cheese dish is they accompany. Traditionally, hot sauce or hot chili-infused vinegar is the condiment for sprinkling on collards.

Collards Tim

1 large bunch (2 to 3 plants worth) collards, the younger the better
1 small onion, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
Water as needed
1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon (or more) crushed dry red pepper
1/4 teapoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt, plus to taste
2 tablespoons cider vinegar

Cut the collard leaves with their stems off the central stalk, and discard the stalk. Rinse the leaves well. Cut them crosswise 1/2-inch wide, a few leaves at a time, through the stems and the leaves. With the knife, cut a few times through the leaves, so the pieces are not too long. Set collards aside.

Fry the minced onion briefly in a the oil in a large pot, stirring and frying until just beginning to turn golden. Add the cut collards, 1/2 cup of water, the garlic, and the red and black pepper. Stir, cover and simmer the collards to basically steam, stirring from time to time until nearly tender (20 to 30 minutes, depending on the collards). Check the bottom of the pan occasionally, and add a little water to keep it from drying. As the stems are becoming tender add the salt, and from time to time taste a leaf and add salt as needed. When the stems are tender, stir in the vinegar. Cook for two minutes, stirring frequently to combine the flavors.

The collards can be served now, or can be refrigerated and reheated in the microwave, for even better flavor. Accompany with hot sauce such as Tobasco or Crystal, or with vinegar that has been seasoned with lots of hot chilies, a piece of garlic, and a little salt.

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