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On the Menu: Collard Greens and Pot Likker

Collard greens

Spring arrived March 19, at 10:06 p.m. Central Daylight Time. Spring symbolizes many things, like starting over, baseball, bunnies, baby chicks – and planting the bounty of fresh produce that awaits us in summer and fall.

The bounty that I will be awaiting is collard greens.

The dark leafy green – recently declared a “Superfood,” packed with vitamins A, C, and K, is a vegetable worthy of love and understanding. On many Missouri farms and in backyards small and large, the collard seeds will meet the soil in mid-spring, in time for a summer harvest.

Collard greens - usually associated with the South and a symbol of African American cooking - is one of the staples of a soul food meal in America. South Carolina, the collard green capitol of the U.S, supplies us with collards year-round.

However, the origin of the collard is known to date back to Europe.

As noted by Adrian Miller, author of the book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of American Cuisine One Plate at a Time, as early as 2,000 years ago, Romans were making greens “soulfully” with a piece of pork.

This culinary combination reached Britain and was called “bacon and greens,” with collards being one of the main winter vegetables for this dish (in England).

During the Atlantic slave trade, Europeans brought greens with them to West Africa, where there was a long tradition of combining plant leaves with meat. In the southern U.S., descendants of West African’s had a phrase for greens without meat, called “motherless greens.” Greens made without pork. Lacking a solid anchor – a mother.

Adding pork - the second-best thing about collard greens - produces potlikker. Potlikker is the seasoned broth that remains after the greens have been cooked in water with meat and spices.

As noted by John. T. Edge, author of The PotLikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, potlikker is “salvage food… slave holders ate the greens from the pot, setting aside the potlikker for enslaved cooks and their families, unaware that the broth, not the greens, was nutrient rich.”

Collard greens are a unique green. They have more “toothiness” than other greens – they let you know they are worthy of every bittersweet bite. I don’t recall when I started eating them, I just always have. I know them when I see them, I know the smell of their slow simmer. This green is special to me. They graced many tables that I have fond memories of.

How do you cook them? My favorite recipe is to make the potlikker with onions, garlic, apple cider vinegar, salt, sugar, black pepper, crushed red pepper, and hot sauce (Don’t omit the heat. It makes a difference). Add the meat and simmer for about an hour. Then add the cleaned, chopped greens and simmer for another hour.

Of course, if pork is taboo, smoked turkey wings are awesome. If vegan and vegetarian options are your desire, you can use them in a salad or braise them in coconut milk like I had at the famed Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem, NY.

When do you eat them? Weekends is when I cook them. Holidays, too. And New Years Day, of course, if you want wealth for another year as greens represent money.

How do you eat them? Eat them hot. Fresh from the pot laced with potlikker, the meat in chunks. Corn bread is required. Don’t pass on the corn bread. But if you do, promise me you will sip some potlikker from a spoon.

What do I eat them with? I love collard greens with fried chicken (did I mention baby chicks), but they can accompany pork chops, ribs, (double-pork!), beef short-ribs, turkey, seafood - or no meat at all. They need one more companion for a traditional meat and two. You can stay southern with it – mac ‘n’ cheese, potato salad, sweet potatoes, corn, beans, jollof rice. Or take a culinary journey elsewhere and serve them with mashed potatoes, polenta, risotto. It’s all good.

Back to spring greens season and new beginnings. Let the planting of my beloved collard greens begin! You can have a new beginning too - try some collard greens if you haven’t before. Add them to your Sunday dinner menu. By the way - the leftovers are better the next day.

Dr. Quantella Noto is Associate Professor and Director of Hospitality Management in the Harrison College of Business and Computing at Southeast Missouri State University.