collard greens

Every time I make a pot of these greens, it feels like cheating. I make them pretty often for potlucks and gatherings, and everyone always wants to know “my secret”, as if there is some special, sneaky method to make this dish work. The truth is I simply make the dish as it had been made throughout history – with smoked, lesser cuts like ham hocks or neck bones, some liquid, and a bit of cider vinegar – and let the flavors develop on their own time. But I think that in today’s age of canned greens, crock-pot greens, or greens made with bacon (the worst!), people’s expectations of how greens taste have changed. Instead of knowing how greens should taste, we’ve become content with how they typically taste. I think of it like how a quality, handmade cheeseburger runs laps around a Big Mac.

So this week’s recipe will definitely be making it into my upcoming cookbook, and only slightly tweaked from when I first published it in The Ancestral Table, because not much has changed when it comes to these classic flavors. Many recipes you find will insist you add sugar to the greens, to take away some of the bitterness of the greens, or the tanginess of the vinegar, and I disagree; since greens are typically part of a whole meal, I let the other dishes complement the sharp flavor of the greens – that way you’re encouraged to have a little greens with every bite. Our favorite accompaniments to these greens are something with a crunch texture, like Seasoned Southern Fried Chicken, and something with a mild flavor, like Mashed Potatoes.

Here’s my writeup from The Ancestral Table: Greens were popular in the early American South when slaves were forced to survive on kitchen scraps like the tops of vegetables and undesirable pork parts, like ham hocks, necks, and feet. Today, the dish has been refined and remains a favorite in many Southern kitchens. In fact, collard greens are the state vegetable of South Carolina.

This recipe is unlike many typical greens recipes, which often add pork or bacon pieces in small portions or as an afterthought; this dish celebrates the savory nature of pork by using both broth and a significant amount of pork. If you aren’t able to find smoked ham hocks or neck bones, unsmoked varieties will do—just be sure to add 2 tsp. liquid smoke when adding the greens to the pot. Alternatively, you can buy smoked turkey necks or smoked turkey wings.

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Although the common consensus is that collard greens originated in the Mediterranean, they gained their most widespread popularity in Africa (see my Sukuma Wiki recipe). It is assumed that collards made it to most of the Americas via African slaves. In Brazil, it’s a different story, as collard greens were likely introduced via Portugal, where it has been a staple veggie for hundreds of years (as evidenced by my Caldo Verde recipe). Today, collards are served often in Brazil, usually as an accompaniment to fish or beef.

Today’s recipe is a collaboration with my friend Alex Boake, who stayed at our house for a few days before heading off to Ancestral Health Symposium with us. She’s going to post an illustrated version of this recipe on her blog later this week, so bookmark her site! We’ll be knocking out a couple other illustrated recipes in the near future as well, so this is just the tip of the illustrated Paleo recipe iceberg. Update: Here is Alex’s post!

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NOTE: An updated version of this recipe appears in my cookbook, The Ancestral Table.

I love collard greens. They may be my favorite green food – well, second to mint chocolate chip ice cream, at least. They’ve been in use for at least 2,000 years; the ancient Greeks cultivated them along with kale.

I typically simmer my collard greens with some sort of smoked pork (usually bacon or smoked ham hocks), chicken broth, and apple cider vinegar, and it’s always delicious, although it can get a little boring. So a while back I consulted my buddy, the internet, to find another use for collard greens. During my search, I kept coming across the word Sukuma Wiki, the Swahili name for collard greens. Sukuma Wiki literally translates to “push/stretch the week” – collard greens are available year-round in East Africa, and are used to stretch meals out to last all week.

In the culinary world, Sukuma Wiki is a common name for a Kenyan dish of braised collard greens, usually prepared with ground meat, tomatoes, and onions. Turns out that this dish is dead easy to make, both in terms of time/preparation and ingredients. I was able to whip it up using stuff already in my pantry, and it’s always nice to find another use for ground beef. But the best part about this dish is its taste: it’s absolutely delicious, and has just a hint of exoticness to make it remarkable. One thing that sets this dish apart is that the collard greens are simply wilted down, and so they retain a slightly crunchy texture that really complements the ground beef.

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