December ABODE: Your Kitchen

Turn up your collards
Warmth becomes a fond memory as December arrives, scattering the last of autumn’s dried leaves and pinching any remaining greenery with frost. Each colder night leaves fewer and fewer plants standing their ground, and the winter solstice (December 22 this year) offers just 9.5 hours of daylight! It takes a vegetable of substance to withstand plummeting temperatures and the threat of even less sunshine tomorrow. It takes dark, leafy greens.

(File photo)

True, veggies in the vast brassica family smell bad and taste worse when stored too long or cooked too quickly—perhaps the leftover Brussels sprouts are still in the back of your refrigerator from Thanksgiving? They’ll turn bitter with rough handling or high heat (see: boiled broccoli). Unfortunately for kales, mustards and collard greens, they withstand the rigors of transport and storage better than the rest of the brassicas and, as such, they may spend more time in the grocery store than you care to consider. The best advice is to embrace them early in their local season, and eat of them often.

The tenderest cooking greens re-appear at farmers’ markets in October, and continue to be available in excellent quality and quantity well into December. Some say that these greens taste the best “with a little frost on them,” deepening their flavor and adding some sweeter notes. Talented local farmers will protect and over-winter their final fall planting, then throw off the row cover in time to arrive at market in the spring with this year’s growth on last year’s plants. So these greens are there for the picking for three months each in the spring and the fall.

So what’s the problem with leafy greens? Nothing that some familiarity can’t remedy. Take the collard, for instance. The collard green is a Southern favorite, often simmered with some smoked pork (or bacon!) for hours on end, and then spiked with plenty of vinegar and hot sauce at the table.

Across many areas of the South, collards are traditionally consumed on New Year’s Day alongside black-eyed peas and cornbread, a delicious and symbolic trifecta. The cornbread represents gold in the coming year (maybe you only have a piece or two, but you’d certainly grab another if you could!) while the plentiful black-eyed peas are the coins that will rattle around in your pockets. The collard greens symbolize paper greenback (money used to be greener than it is now, incidentally), so the more you tuck in on the first of the year, the more you are likely to gather for the remainder of the year.

Not coincidentally, both of these dishes could be slowly simmered overnight atop an open fire or on a wood stove—and if you consider the amount of time spent at the stove in Days Gone By, it would be a holiday indeed if you could simply reheat and eat with your visitors all day long.

Preparations for collards
According to Kathy Zentgraf of local food cart Greenie’s, collards can be sliced very thin and cooked on high heat with garlic, spicy red pepper flakes, and olive oil…but that’s for folks who embrace the rich, earthy flavor and toothsome quality of the collard itself. She also incorporates collards into her Greenie’s Root Vegetable Sammy (available at the City Market—just follow your nose to the smell of cooking garlic!). If all that on a Saturday morning sounds impossible—well, you’ll have to try it.

Beginners might also try adding collards to spinach in a favorite recipe (lasagna comes to mind), or including some ribbons of collards or kale in a hearty soup like Tuscan white bean or minestrone.

Like any other dark leafy green, collards can benefit from the addition of a sweet element, especially if the intended audience has not yet been converted to our winter wonders. The simplest addition is honey, or apple cider, or a sweet vinegar like balsamic or sherry; Sicilian cuisine will often feature dried fruit like raisins, cherries or prunes rehydrated with wine and cooked alongside onions in savory dishes.

Then too, a spicy component can also be welcome in your collard greens, from very simple (crushed red pepper or hot sauce) to the ever-delicious smoked and spiced pork products like chorizo, andouille and kielbasa.—Lisa Reeder

Our kitchen columnist, Lisa Reeder, is an educator and advocate for local and regional food production in Central Virginia. She received chef’s training in New York and currently works in Farm Services and Distribution at the Local Food Hub.

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