Have You Met… Collard Greens

This post is part of the series Have you met… meant to spotlight ingredients, providing nutritional background, a little culinary inspiration, and perhaps encourage you to take an adventure into new markets and cuisines.

Have you met… collard greens?

Cultivated around the globe for more than 2,000 years, collards are nothing new. And yet, this hardy cruciferous vegetable is often overshadowed by trendier greens like kale and rainbow-stemmed Swiss chard.

Hailing from the northern Midwest, it wasn’t until we moved to North Carolina that we experimented with and eventually embraced collards. Now they rank among our go-to veg. Edible from leaf to stalk, we love them for their robust flavor and versatility in the kitchen. In the cooler months finding massive bunches grown by a regional farmer isn’t difficult. In the summer and autumn, we’re all about sweet, tender home-grown!

Here’s hoping I can help give another of the dark leafies the attention it rightfully deserves…

Collard greens bunch

What’s so great about them?

A member of the brassica family of vegetables, collard greens are often referred to as cole crops or crucifers — a group that also includes other dark, leafy greens like kale, mustard and turnip greens, as well as broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and radishes.

At only about 49 calories per 1 cup [190 grams (g); cooked], collard greens provide virtually no fat or cholesterol, about 4 g of protein, 5 g fiber, 9 g total carbohydrate, and only 30 mg sodium. Collards are excellent sources of folate and vitamin C, good sources of vitamin B6, iron and magnesium, and contain smaller amounts of vitamin E and potassium. Their richness in calcium — almost 30% of your DV per serving — is beneficial for anyone with lactose intolerance or following a vegan diet.

Each serving provides more than 1,000% and 300% of your daily needs of vitamins K* and A, respectively. Among the vitamin A compounds, collards rank in the top five foods richest in lutein and zeaxanthin, and highly for beta-carotene as well. Newer studies provide evidence that eating green leafy vegetables and other foods rich in these particular nutrients can protect against loss of memory and other cognitive abilities as we age.

Crucifers like collards, cabbage and kale are excellent sources of a unique group of phytochemicals called glucosinolates that, when broken down either by chopping or chewing, produce isothiocyanate compounds with anti-carcinogenic properties. In fact, decades of research consistently links regular consumption of cruciferous veg to decreased risk of infection, inflammation, and certain cancers.

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Where can I find them // What do I look for?

Though available year-round at most large markets, the family of dark leafy greens, including collards, taste sweeter and are tenderer during the cooler months. Always look for bunches with stiff ribs and firm, spreading green leaves with no brown or yellow spots. Leaf shape and size will vary by type.

Because of their hardiness, collards store better and longer than most other greens. If the bunch has any large clumps of dirt still clinging to outer leaves, gently shake or lightly brush off with a paper towel. (You’ll wash more thoroughly just before using.) Wrap collards loosely in slightly damp paper towels, then place into a large zipper-top plastic bag (or back into the produce bag) and keep cool in the main portion of the refrigerator. Stored this way collards will last 1-2 weeks.

When ready to cook, you may have to contend with a good bit of grit and sand still clinging to the inner leaves. My cleaning method is to hand-wash each leaf separately under cool, running water, and find it to be quick and effective. Another method is to fill a large stockpot, small plastic tub or a very clean sink with water, swish around the separated collard leaves, and walk away for a minute or two. When you remove the collards there will likely be a layer of sand and grit at the bottom. Replace the dirty water with new water, and repeat the process until the bottom remains clear.

Bumper crop? Blanched collards freeze well. Wash your greens thoroughly, and cut off woody stems and/or any thicker portions of rib. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, and prepare a bowl of ice cubes and water. Add the greens and blanch, uncovered, for three minutes, quickly followed by a plunge into the ice bath. Drain or squeeze off excess liquid, package in sealing containers or zipper-top freezer bags either kept whole or roughly chopped. Freeze immediately.

Alternatively, collards are easy to grow in a garden or large patio pot at home. If you’re in a northern clime, take heart — these powerhouse plants prefer cool weather. Collards can be harvested as small-leaved salad ingredients to eat raw, or as the more traditional large leaves for braising, roasting, sauteing, or raw as wraps.

Collards in the garden

How do I use them?

Collard stems are tough and fibrous, but still good to eat (see tips below). Regardless of whether you plan to eat them, it’s best to remove the stems first. Fold one leaf in half and cut parallel down the stem, or simply strip off the leaves by hand. Stack several leaf portions and roll up from either direction, depending on desired length — rolling from the narrow side will yield long ribbons and rolling from the wide side will yield short ribbons. Slice the roll into 1/4- to 3/4-inch strips, again depending on preference. You could also chiffonade.

Because the stems take longer to tenderize than the leaves, cook the stems separately. Line several up and cut crosswise into 1/4- to 1/2-inch pieces. Sautéed or simmered, stem pieces will take 8 to 12 minutes to cook, depending on how toothsome or tender you like them.

Like other dark, sturdy greens, collards do well slow-cooked — think sautéed over low heat or braised. Southerners may swear they belong with chunks of bacon or salt pork (which is addictive, don’t get me wrong), but collards are just as happy in soups and pesto, finely chopped as an addition to a frittata or scramble, pasta, or sandwiches, substituted for cabbage or other hefty dark greens in starchy sides like Irish colcannon, or as a grain-free substitute for tortillas. If you’re down with super-green smoothies, steam a few leaves and blitz away!

Also like other greens, collards cook down significantly. An armful shrinks precipitously to make only a few servings.

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Here are a few ideas to get you started:

+ Make this genius recipe for harissa with mustard greens using collards instead (ribs removed first).

+ Move over kale chips: Spicy Parmesan collard crisps!

+ Collard and veg roll-ups as an alternative to classic sushi.

+ Tangled collards with pickled peppers, Parm and breadcrumbs could be side or meatless main event.

+ Give them a southeast Asian spin braised with coconut milk and lime.

+ In amongst long pasta with hazelnuts.

PIZZA or socca flatbread.

+ Collard green saagpaneer.

+ Grecian wild greens and fried eggs — horta me avga tiganita yes, please!

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As seems to be the case with many vegetables (looking at you beets, green beans and mushrooms), a major hurdle standing between people and collard greens is one bad experience. Or a childhood of bad experiences. Poorly prepared collards range from overcooked and mushy, undercooked and tough, greasy from too much bacon or lard, and/or bitter. Due to those experiences or simply a lack of knowledge about preparation, these incredibly delicious, versatile and nutrient-dense greens are passed over.

This post is hopefully enough to help you overcome any prior doubts — either in your own abilities or those of the collards themselves. Give one or several of the recipes listed above a try, and stay tuned for a unique recipe we turn to frequently: smoky braised collard greens.

Cheers, Heather

Tell me… Do you have a great collards recipe? Please share!

*High intake of vitamin K-containing foods is not recommended if you take blood-thinners, as it can decrease the drug’s effectiveness. Additionally, while there is only a small amount of caraway in this recipe, be aware that caraway may decrease blood sugar, which can be an issue if you take blood sugar-lowering medications for diabetes. If you take any of these medications and have questions or concerns about drug-nutrient interactions, please consult your physician or a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.

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