I was born and raised in the South, where collards are more familiar than closely-related kale, a mainstay in northern gardens. Compared to kale, collard greens are faster and easier to grow, and except for the possible exception of ‘Red Russian’ kale, collards produce more harvestable leaves per plant than any greens in my fall garden.
The numbers prove it. After sowing seeds or setting out seedlings in August, I start harvesting outer leaves in late September, and pick more leaves every five days for five to six weeks, or until cold weather seriously slows new growth. I did the math, and my patch of 8 to 10 collard plants provides more than 60 generous servings, or about 200 harvested leaves. Most of my collards go into the freezer, where they stand ready to enrich winter meals with their high levels of vitamins, minerals, and health-enhancing antioxidants.
A primitive version of cabbage (Brassica oleracea var. Acephala), collards have been cultivated since Roman times, and the word collard is a corruption of colewort, meaning leafy cabbage. As domestication of the subspecies progressed in various parts of the world, cold-hardy kales were selected in northern climates, while gardeners in warmer climates of South America, Africa, Portugal and India selected headless cabbages that could adapt to humid heat and grow in short winter days. Today’s vigorous collard varieties are the result of two thousand years of these efforts.
I often need to protect broccoli from cabbage worms and must watch for aphids on Brussels sprouts and kale, but these pests rarely show the slightest interest in collards. It is therefore troubling to me that commercial growers in America feel the need to use persistent systemic pesticides when growing collard greens, but it’s true. In 2013, the Environmental Working Group put collards and kale on their Dirty Dozen list after finding the leaves to be contaminated with "pesticides exceptionally toxic to the nervous system." This is an exceptionally good reason to grow your own or buy organic.
Growing Collard Greens
Many gardeners direct-seed collards as soon as nights cool down in late summer, or you can set out container-grown seedlings. Direct-seeded collards need aggressive thinning, but the thinned plants make excellent table greens. By the time growing collard plants have been thinned to at least 12 inches (30 cm) apart, they are large enough to start harvesting the oldest leaves. Widely spaced seedlings need a few weeks to fill out, but meanwhile you can use the space between them to grow upright scallions or leeks.
Chilly nights with hints of frost bring out the best in collard greens, which develop leaf sugars that please human palates and work like natural anti-freeze in reducing cold injury to the plants. I wait until the first frosts come in October to start blanching and freezing my collard greens, because those are the best collards of the year. Collard plants will survive winter temperatures to at least 15°F (-9°C), and they produce all winter where winters are mild. In my garden, I keep my collards covered with row cover in early winter to protect them from hungry deer, and then give up the fight when the snow starts flying and my freezer is full.
Cooking Collard Greens
The traditional preparation is to slow-cook chopped collard greens with bacon or ham, but in truth collard greens are a dream veggie for healthy plant-based diets. As a garden cook with basket after basket of collard greens to serve or put by, your first decision is whether to use the leaves whole or chopped. I set aside perfect, medium-size leaves to blanch and freeze whole because they make such excellent wrappers. Sturdier than kale leaves but more flexible than cabbage leaves, whole collard leaves that have been blanched in boiling water for two minutes are so versatile that you can always find a use for them.
And please note: when blanched and cooled, collard leaves can be rolled up like loose cigars and frozen for long-term storage. In addition to using them as wrappers, the thawed collard rolls can be cut into thin ribbons the same width as long pasta such as fettucini or linguini. Add the collard strips to the pasta pot during the last three minutes of cooking as the start of delicious pasta with greens dishes.
But back to whole leaf collard cuisine. Veggie-minded cooks have found that blanched collard leaves can stand in for nori in sushi rolls, substitute for tortillas in enchiladas, or serve as the wrapper for any type of wrap or roll-up. Blanched collard leaves are also a gluten-free alternative to lasagna noodles, and I often use them to line well-oiled baking dishes to form a bottom "crust" for quiches and casseroles. I speak from experience here: It is easy to get hooked on tender young collard leaves, blanched and chilled, then slathered with garlicky hummus and rolled up around slivers of crunchy carrot.
Slight leaf imperfections disappear when collard greens are chopped and blanched, and blanching in boiling water for three minutes also removes bitterness from collard greens harvested after a spell of warm weather. When promptly cooled over ice and frozen, chopped collard greens are ready for use in soups, stews and casseroles until the supply runs out. Fresh from the freezer, collard greens work beautifully in spicy minestrone as well as creamier soups made with potatoes or winter squash.
Legumes such as beans and lentils also make perfect partners for chopped collard greens. Indeed, one of the most popular (and tempting!) recipes I have found combines blanched collard greens with onions, garlic and Indian spices (paprika, cumin and turmeric), which are then combined with a can of chickpeas and finished with a dollop of yoghurt and a squeeze of lemon. If you thought maybe you didn’t care for collard greens, the first bite will change your mind.
By Barbara Pleasant