Monday, November 18, 2013

Collard Greens, y'all

I am sure lots of gardeners will agree with me that we never really get over the amazement that something as tiny as a little round black seed no more than 1mm across can turn into a beautiful big vegetable like this. If you're not sure what it is exactly, but can see the cabbage family resemblance, your hunch is a good one. 

Its botanical name is the same as ordinary cabbage, Brassica oleracea, and its origins as a vegetable aren't known for sure, which is a story common to the many and amazingly varied types of Brassica oleracea out there, including cabbage, wombok, kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoli… and this lovely thing, collard greens.

Collard greens are a staple green vegie not only of the Southern USA, but also of countries such as Brazil and Portugal. It's the Southern USA connection which got me interested in them, as I ate and enjoyed some while driving across the USA in 2011. When I bought a copy of the Soulicious eBook by Awia Markey, she included a packet of collard greens seed with the CD she mailed out. So around late August I planted them, they came up in around 10 days, and they've been growing well ever since.

I wasn't sure how big the plants grew and so under-estimated
their impressive final size. I had thinned the seed out to allow
just two plants to grow, but about four weeks ago I realised
the faster-growing plant was going to monster the smaller one.
So I transplanted the smaller one (on the left in this pic) and
it didn't like that and struggled for a couple of weeks, but is
now showing signs of growth. The big one just powered on.
This 'helicopter' shot from above shows that, unlike cabbages,
the collard greens plant doesn't form a central head. It's just
 a big, beautiful bunch of thick, wide, ornamental leaves. I have
been feeding it monthly with an organic-based liquid food,
and watering it regularly. It wilts very readily on hot days but
bounces back very well after it's been given a drink. It's easy
enough to grow but needs space and sunshine to be happy.
One irresistibly charming thing about the plant is the way that
raindrops sit up on it like big jewels, in much the same way
raindrops do on nasturtiums and the leaves of broccoli.
As they're easy to grow and very nice to look at, I'll be growing more collard greens with the unsown leftover seed given to me by Awia. 

As for cooking it, I gave it a try last Saturday night and was very pleasantly surprised. I was expecting it to be a bit like spinach and silver beet, in that a whole lot of uncooked leaves shrink and wilt their way into a tiny puddle of shapeless green veg. 

Not so with collard greens. In terms of texture and form (but not flavour), they remind me mostly closely of broad-leafed seaweed that I encounter in Japanese restaurants sometimes. In terms of flavour it's mild and pleasant, but given a boost with the traditional additives of onions, garlic, a touch of chilli and smoked meat. So, what follows is my Saturday night collard greens experiment, which worked out well.

Step one, harvest all the outer large leaves from the larger of
the two plants. This bowl full weighed about 1lb, or 500g.
It was easy to trim out the thick, white central
stalk, then I tore up the leaves by hand into
big pieces and washed them in a couple of
changes of water in the sink. The leaves are
noticeably thicker than silver beet or spinach,
and almost feel like fabric in your hands
as you tear each one into pieces.
Drain in colander, set aside. 
Now, this is where the recipe taught me something. The method for cooking the greens is to create a broth, let the broth cook for 20 minutes, then add the greens, pop on a lid and let it cook a further 30 minutes. They came out very green, tender yet holding their original form nicely, and they had hardly shrunk down at all.

Awia's recipe (at the end of the posting) uses smoked turkey
meat, along with the onion, salt, chilli, garlic, sugar and a
pinch of bicarb soda. I varied that, as I knew that the Cajuns
use Andouille sausage (not smoked turkey), and so I investigated
that. Andouille sausage isn't available in Australia, and the closest
thing to it doesn't come close, as it lacks chilli. This "closest"
sausage is kielbasa (smoked Polish garlic pork sausage). The really
important thing is the "smoked" flavour, which is why Awia
used smoked turkey, then added garlic and chilli to her recipe
(clever move). You could also use smoked ham hocks instead.

Anyway, for 500g of collard greens I chopped up 200g of
kielbasa and added the onion, chilli, salt, sugar and a pinch
of bicarb soda into about a two-inch depth of water, let
it come to the boil and then simmer away for 20 minutes.
The bicarb soda and sugar are essential. The bi-carb soda
tenderises the leaves and preserves their green colour, but
it does make the already slightly bitter leaves more bitter
still, so the sugar restores the flavour balance nicely.

After 20 minutes of cooking the broth, I added all the leaves
to the pot, and popped a lid on to let the simmering continue
for another 30 minutes.
Here's a thrilling action shot of the greens cooking in the broth.
One little detail to note is that you don't serve the greens with
all that smoked meat (just dot it here and there with a few
pieces). The meat is there to flavour the broth and the greens,
but this is still essentially a vegetable dish.

It'd take a much better photographer/stylist than me to make
a plate of collard greens look exciting, but they did taste very
nice indeed, much milder in flavour than silver beet. As I mentioned
earlier, the leaves hold their original texture very well.

And, it being a birthday weekend for this new
member of the 60-year-old gardeners club, we
washed down our new culinary discovery with a
glass or two of very non-traditional but eminently
agreeable bubbles. 
Finally, the recipe

The thing I really like about Awia's Soulicious eCookbook is that
you can print out the page you want, instead of having a whole
book cluttering up your bench space. You can spill spices,
liquid, garlic etc on it then toss it into the compost at the end.
You can order the eBook from Awia's Facebook page, and that's
the best way to get the recipe, but the basic proportions I used
were: 500g leaves (enough to serve 4-6 as a side dish); 250g
smoked meat (Awia uses turkey legs or thighs – red meat, not white
breast meat; I used Polish kielbasa garlic sausage); 2 minced
garlic cloves (if you're using smoked turkey, but omit if you are
going for garlic sausage); 1 onion, chopped; chilli flakes to
taste (about 1 teaspoon is a fair bit); pinch of salt; pinch of
sugar; pinch of bicarb soda (baking soda). The method is
explained in the photos above.
It's all very easy once you've cooked it the first time, but the first step, of course, is to grow your own collard greens.


Lanie at Edible Urban Garden said...

What a wonderful post. And you just slipped in there that it was a big birthday! Happy birthday Jamie!!

Jamie said...

Thanks Lanie.