It was at 2551 Kennilworth Road in Cleveland where I had my first taste of collard greens. They were a gift from “Sir Prince,” who dated Miss Anna Szolnoky in apartment 2B, across the hall from me. A retired school teacher who still sometimes substitute taught, Anna evoked another age: She typically wore dresses, accentuating a well-endowed matronly figure that topped off at 5′3″, not counting her beehive hairdo—a neatly arranged cone constructed of dyed black hair, setting off her pale complexion. When reading, horn-rim glasses sat perched on her strong, Eastern European nose.
Occasionally Anna would invite me over for a cup of tea, which we drank at her kitchen table from ornate tea cups with small, elegant handles. She spoke at lengths about Sir Prince’s honorable qualities, of his kindness, generosity, and polite demeanor. He was a true gentleman, she had said, and her “prince.”
Anna and Sir Prince had met late in life. She had met him in an elevator while at a teachers’ conference, which was held in the same building where Sir Prince had worked as a janitor. It was love at first sight. They later recalled how miraculous their meeting was, given the fact that the day they met was not a usual work day for Sir Prince; he was filling in for a coworker who had called in sick.
One fall evening, when the typical dinnertime smells of fried potatoes from apartment 2B had begun to subside, Anna knocked on my door. Sir Prince’s battery had died and would I mind if he used the battery in my car to jump his? Of course not. Anna then summoned Sir Prince, whom I had not yet met. The man who stood before me was probably sixty years old with a slender build and salt and pepper hair, he wore overalls, had a lilting Southern accent, and he was black.
A few days later Sir Prince knocked on my door with bunches of fresh collard greens from his garden, somewhat apologetically. I assured him that a gift of collards was the best thanks I could ever expect to receive. Having never prepared them, I asked him to share his method of preparation, which is as follows:
Place a smoked ham hock in water and let it simmer for awhile to flavor the water. Meanwhile, prepare the greens by removing the ribs and chopping them. Add them to the water with ground black pepper, white pepper, and red pepper to taste and simmer for a good long while, until they’re tender and soft, about an hour. When the collards are close to being done, taste for seasoning and add salt if needed. (The ham hock will add salt, so be sure to taste before adding salt.) If you like, you may remove the ham hock from the pot before serving, pull or cut the meat off the bone, and return the meat to the pot, discarding the bone and fat. Eat with chopped scallions sprinkled over top and some cornbread to sop up the broth—called potlikker (from “pot liquor”). Serve with vinegar on the side, just in case your guests like their greens with vinegar. (Sir Prince said he likes his collards without vinegar.)
Since learning Sir Prince’s method, I’ve made collard greens several different ways, including: a nonpork-based recipe for braised collards with caramelized onions, roasted garlic, chicken stock, and cayenne or harissa, which I initially made so that I could serve my beloved collards to a Muslim friend; a fine recipe for Brazilian collards made with peppered bacon, chicken stock, cayenne pepper, and red wine vinegar, which I started making as a pork-loving alternative to the collards with caramelized onions; and a version using a fairly standard braising method made with bacon, diced onion, chicken stock, and hot sauce, but with a very special secret ingredient that makes the greens far from standard—drippings from a sauced platter of barbecued pork. I learned this trick from my friends Sue and Adam while visiting them this summer in Alabama. (Click here to read about Saw’s BBQ, the source of the good barbecue drippings that made it into Adam’s collards.)
Now that Dowdy Corners Cookbook Club is cooking from the cookbook 70 Traditional African Recipes by Rosamund Grant, I’ve learned yet one more way to prepare collard greens, and it is my current favorite: Ethiopian collards, or Abesha Gomen. What sets this recipe apart from the others, giving them a distinctive flavor and aroma, is the addition of ginger, which made its way to Africa via Middle Eastern and Asian traders (Marcus Samuelsson, The Soul of a New Cuisine).
Like ginger, collards are not native to Africa, and the seeds for the plant were not brought to this country by captured Africans on slave ships, as I’d wrongly assumed for years, though other foods that we today associate with soul food, such as okra, black-eyed peas, and watermelon, did arrive this way (Jessica B. Harris, High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America). Collards, a member of the cabbage family, originate in the Mediterranean region. They do well in cooler temperatures, and, in fact, become sweeter and some say more nutritious after the first frost. Typically their peak season is described as January through April, but where? Clearly not in Cleveland or Vermont, where I currently live, but down south, where they are most commonly consumed. Here, in Vermont, the season is mid-summer through November or mid-December, depending when winter’s deep freeze begins to set in. (I currently have collards in the garden that are still thriving, even after several light frosts and a snow.) This explains why collards and black-eyed peas became a traditional New Year’s Day meal in the South, but not in New England. If this mild weather keeps up, however, I may be able to prepare collards for New Year’s after all.
Ethiopian Collard Greens (Abesha Gomen)
From 70 Traditional African Recipes by Rosamund Grant
In this recipe, collards are flavored with ginger, garlic, and chili peppers. Strips of red bell pepper are not just a pretty addition: Their sweet flavor is a pleasant pairing with the heat provided by the chili peppers. The collards are de-ribbed, briefly steamed and then gently squeezed to remove excess water, and then cut thinly—as if for a chiffonade. Previously when cooking collards, I’d removed the ribs and then roughly chopped them into about 1-inch or so pieces. The ribbon cut does several good things: It allows the collards to reach a velvety soft stage more quickly, enables a greater broth-to-greens-surface ratio, and promotes density (less air between collard pieces), which translates into a more satisfying mouthfeel and bigger greens flavor per bite.
1 pound collard greens
¼ cup olive oil
2 small red onions, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
½ teaspoon grated fresh ginger
2 green chili peppers, seeded and sliced
1½ cups vegetable stock or water, plus more if needed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 large red bell pepper, seeded and sliced
- Wash the collard greens, then strip the leaves from the stalks and steam the leaves over a pan of boiling water for about 5 minutes until slightly wilted. Place in colander to drain. When cool enough to handle, press out the excess water.
- Using a large knife, slice the collard greens very thinly.
- Heat the oil in a saucepan and fry the onions until browned. Add the garlic and ginger and stir-fry with the onions for a few minutes, then add the chili peppers and a little of the stock or water and cook for 2 minutes.
- Add the collards and the remaining stock or water. Generously season with salt and pepper and mix well, then cover and cook over a low heat for 30 minutes. Add the red bell pepper slices and continue to cook, covered, until the pepper slices are tender but still firm, not mushy, about 15 to 20 minutes. (During cooking, check occasionally to make sure there is still liquid in the bottom of the pan, and add more if needed.) Be sure to enjoy the potlikker. It contains a lot of flavor and nutrients.
Note: Rosamund Grant’s cooking time for the collards is 15 minutes, though in a cook’s tip she mentions that traditionally collards are cooked for 45 minutes, and with more liquid. To arrive at a more authentic taste, I increased the cooking time and amount of liquid used, per her cooking tip. The bell pepper strips, however, are added toward the end of the cooking so as not to overcook them.
Recipe reprinted from 70 Traditional African Recipes(ISBN: 978-1-84476-966-7) with the express permission of Southwater. Recipe introduction was written by Holly Jennings.