The Kitchen Garden
The greens that bring good luck
By Jan Leitschuh
What would November in the South be without collards?
This cold-hardy green epitomizes the first nip of the Southern winter, when a killing frost only sweetens the leathery leaves of this open-crowned crop. Frost eggs it on rather than knocking it back. It’s the ultimate winter side dish, and can be expected to grace many a Southern Thanksgiving table. The dark, leafy greens are also included in the traditional New Year’s meal in many areas of the South. “Hoppin’ John” made of black-eyed peas, smoked pork and collards is said to bring luck in the coming year.
The collard harvest begins here in fall, and forges bravely into sure-enough winter, often providing hearty nutrition well into January, or even beyond, in a mild winter. Let’s see wimpy lettuce try that. Long after the bibb and the romaine have mushed up in the face of a light November frost, collards will shake it off with a chuckle and carry on growing new leaves.
In our garden, collards are a winter star. What else grows and produces in winter? The loose heads appear to freeze solid when nights get down into the teens. Yet, when the sun warms the broad, dark leaves, they crisp back up and return from their cryotherapy as if nothing has interrupted their happy life — including the pesky gardener who insists on collecting their maturing lower leaves.
Collards were a discovery vegetable for this Midwestern transplant. At first, their toughness and bitterness put me off. And that thick, stake-like midrib — what did one do with that?
It wasn’t until a Tar Heel friend served me collards the Southern way, the toughness simmered slowly into submission, the bitterness tempered with smoked ham hock, that I “got” collards. And once I learned to strip the leaves of their midrib, toss it away, then chop the tough, dark leaves finely, I could even sauté collards for a quick veggie side.
We here in the Sandhills can plant two crops of collards, one in the spring and again in the fall. Fall is favored, as some of that natural bitterness is moderated by frost. As the temperatures warm up in May, collard greens tend to bolt with the heat and lengthening days. Bolting is when the plant switches from growing leaves to putting out flowers to make seeds.
Some gardeners farther north say that if you just snap off the flowers every time you see them, you’ll have plenty of greens from March through December, without replanting. I’ve never tried that, and suspect our Sandhills heat and bug pressure might make the extra watering not worth the effort.
Besides, I like to let the cheery yellow flowers stay. The pollinators absolutely love the little four-petaled blossoms. When was the last time you made a pollinator ecstatic? And the blossoming yellow stalks look lovely in the garden.
A relative of kale, cabbage, broccoli, radish, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, this tough green grows in a very loose cluster like a cabbage, but doesn’t make a head. I usually plant in September, when the seedlings appear in stores, but have planted as late as early November with a little success. (If you set them in that late, a little supplemental nitrogen may be necessary to help spur growth in colder temps).
Collards love full sun and a fertile soil — the faster they grow, the more tender the leaves. They are heavy feeders, so be generous with the compost early on. Nitrogenous sources — blood meal, cottonseed meal, or composted manure worked into the ground — will help leaves pop.
The rich soil should also be well limed. This prevents some root diseases, and also provides us humans with a wonderful natural source of calcium as we eat the collards. In fact, an old-timey neighbor with chickens once confided she would grow collards if only to feed her chickens. The calcium strengthened the shells “and set them afire to laying.”
Besides calcium, collards pack a true nutritional punch — vitamins C, A and K, as well as manganese, folic acid and lots of fiber. Smaller leaves can be eaten raw but have a stronger flavor. I’ve heard it said that during the Depression, many rural poor in the South retained their health due to the sweet potatoes and collards grown here. Collards nourish the body as well as the soul.
After about a month of solid growth, you can start harvesting some lower leaves. The stalk continues to grow upward, producing new leaves. A little periodic supplemental fertilizing may be needed to push things along after harvest.
Cut off a few 10-inch leaves for dinner, and take them inside to rinse. That good, Sandhills soil will likely be clinging to the underside. The simplest method is to simply put them in the sink, plug with a stopper, run some water and plunge, plunge, plunge. Drain, and prepare.
As for cooking, being a Midwestern transplant, I’m not about to, as the saying goes, teach my grandmother how to suck eggs. I’ll leave the Southern preparation tips to those raised on the traditional dishes, and they are delicious — truly soul food.
But, I will add my fusion twist, since I discovered collards have an affinity for ginger, and even pepper flakes. Or, if it’s still early enough, I’ll add oregano from the garden if I can still find a scraggly handful. If you don’t care for ginger, oregano or pepper, experiment on your own.
Simple Braised Collards
Rinse collards in water and drain. Remove stems and midribs from collards; toss the ribs and chop leaves into 1-inch or smaller pieces. Heat oil in a large pot or skillet, medium heat. Add some chopped onion, garlic, and perhaps ginger, if that appeals. Cook over medium-low heat until translucent and golden, about 5 minutes. Add collards to the skillet. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 15 minutes, adding up to 1/2 cup water, if necessary. When collards are tender, pour off any excess liquid and cook a minute or two, until the pan is almost dry. Stir in salt and pepper to taste, perhaps a little allspice or hot pepper flakes, if desired, and vinegar. (If using oregano, try lemon juice.) Serve and give thanks for this nutritious winter superstar. PS
Jan Leitschuh is a local gardener, avid eater of fresh produce and co-founder of the Sandhills Farm to Table Cooperative.