Now that I live in the south again, I’m learning to love the lowly collard. You absolutely can’t go wrong with the nutrition in this vegetable, and in the garden, they grow and grow and grow, sometimes even through the winter.
These leafy greens taste somewhat like a cross between cabbage and kale to which they are related. They are chock-full of vitamins A and C, and high in vitamin K, calcium, iron, fiber, lutein and zeaxanthin. How’s that for a mouthful?
Best of all they are versatile enough to be sauteed, steamed, boiled and even served fresh in a salad. I grew up with collards boiled for hours with a piece of ham hock. That taste certainly brings back my childhood, but I know that it’s not necessary to cook them into a gray-green mass or with meat to make them taste good.
When purchasing, choose leaves that aren’t huge and tough and use the inner, smaller leaves. One of my favorite ways to serve them is sauteed with coconut milk, tomatoes and sweet potatoes. Feel free to experiment and take advantage of the abundance of collards in the markets right now.
Here is an easy recipe adapted from The No Meat Athlete Cookbook.
Caribbean Coconut Collards and Sweet Potatoes
1 T. olive or coconut oil 1 yellow onion, diced 3 garlic cloves, chopped ½ t. crushed red pepper 1 t. sugar 2 bunches of collards, stemmed and chopped into 1-inch squares or rolled into a “cigar” and sliced into ribbons 1 large sweet potato, peeled and diced One 15-ounce can red kidney beans or chickpeas, drained and rinsed One 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes with juice 1 ½ c. water ½ c. coconut milk Salt and black pepper
DIRECTIONS: Melt the oil in a large, deep skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and crushed red pepper. Cook over medium heat for 3 minutes and then stir in the collards and sweet potato. Add the beans, tomatoes with their juice, water, and coconut milk. Bring just to a boil, lower the heat to medium-low, and cook, covered, until the collards and sweet potato are tender, about 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and serve.
Greens are simple things. In a world of chaotic schedules, hurried meals, and gourmet foods, it’s pleasant to eat something as simple to prepare and wholesome as Swiss chard or kale. Besides, with the constant nattering about eating less fat and more vegetables, who can argue with getting a solid dose of cancer-fighting vitamins in something that tastes so good?
I wasn’t always a greens aficionado. When I was a child in the South, the preferred method of cooking collards and turnip greens was to boil them until they turned gray and then flavor them with bacon drippings. The last thing I wanted to put in my mouth was a pile of what looked to a ten year old like slimy gray-green glop.
It took a while to get past the specter of the sodden mass, but I’ve matured, at least according to rumor, and since I no longer have to eat greens, I’ve discovered how much I enjoy them. Sautéing or steaming them just until done makes a world of difference in how they look and taste. I toss kale and chard into almost everything I eat, just for the vitamin boost.
I’m also a huge fan of dual-purpose plants. Kale and Swiss chard leaves are as beautiful as any perennial flower and make wonderful accents for annual flowers as well. I was driving in a nearby neighborhood last summer, minding my own business, when in front of a typical suburban house was a sidewalk edged in a beautiful short hedge of rhubarb chard. Behind the chard, a single tomato plant occupied the front flower bed, surrounded with a little basil and some marigolds.
Beautiful additions to flower gardens
Dragon kale is a spectacular-looking plant with deep blue-green seersucker leaves, and scotch blue curled is a crinkled, beautiful dusty blue that is a perfect companion to pink and white flowers. Ruby chard has deep maroon leaves, and Bright Lights chard has stems in all shades of red, apricot, yellow, white and green. One of the most beautiful planters I’ve ever seen was a window box filled with chard and kale with sweet alyssum cascading over the edge. What more could you want from a flower garden?
There is no reason why the summer kitchen cannot always have greens. Once spinach and Chinese cabbage are finished in spring, and the heat of summer begins to weigh on the garden, it is time for the stalwart summer greens! Swiss chard is a humble vegetable, but one with an unbelievable array of culinary possibilities. Also called silverbeet or seakale beet, it is technically a beet (Beta vulgaris) that has been bred for its greens. It is simple to grow and monstrously productive.
Mustard greens will add piquancy to any salad or dish, with a zingy vinegary essence. The broad-leafed types are best for summer use, as they grow large and luxurious without getting stringy and tough. If allowed to go to seed, the mustard plant is useful in all forms. The seed stalks are tasty sautéed, and the seeds make the familiar tangy seasoning for hot dogs or pickles.
Collards, another sizable green, are grown frequently in the South. And for good reason. They remain tender and tasty throughout the summer and are slow to bolt in spite of heat and drought. They have a more cabbage- like flavor than mustard greens, but a little taste of collards seasoned with garlic and complemented with prosciutto will make you wonder why you didn’t start growing collards years ago.
Once you are hooked on greens, there is a wealth of other summer treats to try, from turnip greens to amaranth to Chinese kale to komatsuna Check out your local farmers market to try a few and plan to use them in your own garden next year.
Greens are delicious simply sautéed with garlic and olive oil. Toss with cooked pasta and top with fresh chopped tomatoes and a few gratings of parmesan and you have a delectable meal. Dark leafy greens pack an unbelievable vitamin wallop, to say nothing about their cancer-fighting phytochemicals. In addition to eating greens for themselves, try adding them to omelets, fresh or marinated salads, soups and savory breads.
Other than their great looks, another reason these basic vegetables appeal to me is that they’re carefree to grow. Sow seeds from early spring (even right on top of the snow) to fall. The plants grow without much attention – except thinning early on (which you can eat) and then harvesting. I like that in a plant. Starting them under a cold frame will give them a great head start and sowing more seeds in September and then putting a cold frame over them will assure you the freshest of greens into the Christmas season.
All greens produce well if given ample nitrogen. Composted manure or manure tea is one of the best ways to do this because it is mild enough to be used every three or four weeks. Provide plenty of sun, moderately fertile soil and ample water. After the seeds germinate, be sure to thin adequately to give them plenty of room to spread. It may seem a waste to pull out so many tiny plants, but they are delicious additions to a salad.
Harvest the outer leaves first, before they get too tough, or you can simply cut off a head of all the leaves at one time. Eventually, new leaves will be produced from the crown.
Although you can grow most greens from transplants started indoors, they germinate readily in cool soil outdoors as well. Also, you can cut many of them to ground level in late fall and leave the crowns under about four inches of straw mulch through the winter. They will start producing tiny leaves in very early spring. Thus you get the pleasure of the tender greens early in the season, while your new seedlings are getting off to a good start.
Sauteed greens for two
5-6 large leaves of your choice of greens, chopped (remove stems if desired)
1 large clove of garlic, minced
5-6 scallions, chopped
2 T. fruity olive oil
1 c. chopped tomatoes
1 T. balsamic vinegar
1 t. sugar
Heat olive oil and sauté garlic and scallions until soft, about five minutes. Add greens, tossing to coat in olive oil. Cover and let the greens steam about three minutes.
Toss with tomatoes, eason with salt and pepper to taste and top with fresh grated Romano cheese.
Pasta Alfredo with Swiss Chard
1 lb. Swiss chard (six-eight large leaves)
8 oz uncooked pasta such as penne or farfalle
1 T. olive oil
3 garlic cloves minced
3/4 c. ricotta
1/4 c. Parmesan cheese
1/2 t. salt
1/8 t. pepper
Remove stems and chop chard. Set aside. Cook pasta and drain, reserving 3/4 cup cooking liquid. Sauté garlic 30 seconds in oil, add chard and sauté 3 minutes or until wilted. Combine cooking liquid, ricotta, 2 T. Parmesan and stir well. Combine with chard mixture and toss well. Top with remaining Parmesan. Serves 4.