Collard greens are the new kale (or Brussels sprouts, anchovies or liver). You may not think you like it unless you’ve had this soul food staple properly prepared and seasoned. Maybe you had greens out of a can as a kid — without seasoning, bacon or extra acid. Forget that. Instead, start with fresh collard greens from the market. They grow well as the temperature starts to drop and have even better flavor after the first frost. Many think that using pork fat, ham hocks or bacon is the only way to make great greens. But they can hold their own as a vegetarian side with an extra bit of vinegar. Remember, it just takes a little salt, time and love to make a great batch of greens.
Most greens recipes are somewhat interchangeable. Sturdy greens like collard, turnip, mustard, kale, and Swiss chard will benefit from a little heat and moisture. Braising greens are different than salad greens because of their large amount of cellulose fiber, which imparts structure. These sturdy braising greens need a bit of heat and acid to make them palatable. Depending on your preference that can be 5 minutes to an hour. I prefer a little crunch left in my greens.
Water will work but won’t give you the depth of flavor that stock or broth will. I don’t like my greens swimming in liquid; it takes about o 1 cup of liquid per pound of greens. If you add all of the liquid at the beginning then you run the risk of having too much left when the greens are done. After I brown the bacon and onion, I add the greens for a bit. They should wilt by about half before adding more moisture. Add about a quarter of the liquid at a time. Let it slowly evaporate and wilt the greens. If there is extra stock at the end, freeze it for later.
Garlic, onions, bay leaves and pepper flakes are the go-to for most people, adding background flavor without overpowering the greens. I prefer onions because they add bulk and texture to the dish (collards will cook down to a fraction of the starting size).
Some type of fat is essential, but it does not need to be pork fat. Olive oil or butter work. Bacon is a staple in most collard greens recipes, not just because it is delicious. The process of curing bacon acidifies the meat. The acid and fat come together for the best of both worlds, making your braised greens taste delicious.Acid
Adding acid to any dish gives it that flavor pop. Vinegar or lemon juice also serves to enhance the flavor of the greens in place of more fat and salt. Apple cider, white distilled, white wine, or red wine vinegars will work, but I prefer balsamic. It may not be traditional, but its mild tang and slight sweetness give great balance to the dish. Adding a bit at the end just as most of the other liquid has dried up gives the dish almost a glazed finish.
Braised Collard Greens
1 pound collard greens, thick stems removed and cut into 2-inch chunks
¼ to ½ pound diced bacon (optional, can be replaced with 1 to 2 ounces olive oil)
1 small to medium onion, diced or sliced
½ to 1 cup water or stock (vegetable, chicken, beef, or pork)
2 to 3 ounces balsamic vinegar (less with thicker aged vinegar)
Salt and pepper to taste
Use a sauté pan or other shallow pan large enough to hold all of the raw greens; this allows the moisture to evaporate quickly. Cook bacon over medium heat until mostly crispy; remove half and reserve for end. Add onion and cook with remaining bacon until edges start to brown. Add in the chopped greens, season lightly with salt and pepper and cook while stirring until they have wilted to about half the original volume. Add in about ¼ cup of liquid and turn heat to medium low, while stirring occasionally. Cook until moisture is almost evaporated and repeat with liquid until desired texture. (If too much moisture is left, pour off and reserve.) Once moisture is almost evaporated, add vinegar and stir until all greens are coated. Cook until vinegar is almost evaporated. Season to taste. Add reserved bacon, if desired, and serve.