How to Make Rich and Smoky Collard Greens, With or Without Meat

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Collard greens, stewed until tender and rich with cured pork, are a dish that's become emblematic of Southern cooking and, more specifically, African-American cooking. Trace its origins and you'll traverse empires and colonies, trade routes and slave ships—delicious food with, at times, brutal roots.

According to Michael Twitty of Afroculinaria, Portuguese slavers brought collards to their forts in West Africa and Angola. Because stewed greens had long been a staple food in much of Africa, collards—a leafy member of the brassica family, like kale—were a natural addition to the local cuisines. Enslaved Africans then carried those greens with them to the Americas, stewing collards and other greens in a deeply flavorful broth—known as the "pot likker" (pot liquor). The tradition has spread from there and continued to today.

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How collards should be cooked can be a contentious topic. Last year, after Whole Foods tweeted a photo of braised collards with peanuts, the company weathered a backlash from people who objected for two reasons. First, many claimed that peanuts had no business in the collards pot. Second, the tweet carried a faint whiff of cultural colonialism ("Hey, check out this cool new vegetable I've discovered," says the white person to a nation of black people who've known about it all along). Regarding that second reason, I'm not convinced the original tweet was quite so tone-deaf, but I understand how it could be taken that way. Read it here and judge for yourself.

Those objecting on the basis of the first point, though, were decidedly wrong. Twitty fact-checked their claim in an article on his site, pointing out that in Africa, peanuts were a common addition to braised greens—nothing ahistorical about it.

All of this leads me to the two recipes I'm sharing here. The first is a pretty traditional pot of collards stewed with ham hocks, hewing closely to classic recipes. The second definitely is not. It's a vegan version that I created to capture those same smoky, meaty flavors, minus the meat—hopefully, its nontraditional approach won't inspire a peanut-sized reaction.

Classic Collards With Pork

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The key to a classic pot of braised collards is that you have to first cook the cured pork long enough to tenderize it and make a deep and smoky broth. That'll become the pot likker later. I often use meaty ham hocks and simmer them in chicken stock with onions for even more flavor and depth (though water works perfectly well). With hocks, this can take around two and a half hours.

You could also use slab bacon, salt pork, or another smoked or cured fatty cut of pork, but make sure to avoid anything lean, like a smoked pork loin—it'll only dry out and toughen up as it cooks. Different cuts can take different amounts of time to fully tenderize, so it's best to check in periodically and prod at them with a fork; you'll know when they're done.

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Once the pork is tender, I remove it from the pot, pull the meat and other good stuff from the bones (which should just slip right out), chop it into chunks, and add it back to the pot.

Then the collards go in, their woody stems removed and the broad leaves cut into ribbons. This is another one of those great vegetable dishes for which you really want to overcook the vegetables, so that they're very tender and infused with the flavor of the broth (and the broth, in turn, is infused with the flavor of the greens). About 30 minutes is a good starting point, but the greens are very forgiving—once they're cooked, you can keep them hot, and they'll just get better and better.

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At this point, the greens will be done. You should have plenty of liquid left in the pot, which is a joy to sip like a broth on its own, or sop up with cornbread. Some people will slip a little sugar into the greens, though I prefer their natural sweetness. Either way, you can hit them with some vinegar if you like, whether in the whole batch or to taste in each individual bowl. Sometimes hot peppers find their way into collards as well, so feel free to play with that; the idea is to tailor the dish to your own tastes.

Vegan Collards With Smoky Pot Likker

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To veganize porky collards, I needed to do three things: First, I needed a much more flavorful broth base, because there's no individual vegan ingredient I can think of that can single-handedly do the kind of heavy lifting that cured pork can do. Second, I needed something meaty to stand in for the chunks of pork. And third, I needed something to add a sense of unctuousness, since simmered vegetables would yield a far too lean pot of greens—the rendered pork fat that lightly coats each and every morsel in a traditional pot of collards is a critically important element of the dish.

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For the first part, the solution was to create a flavorful vegan stock. Most of the time, when I make vegetable stock, I do a very quick and easy version, which works in many applications in which you want just a little more flavor than water alone will provide. But in this case, that quick stock isn't going to cut it. We need more intense flavor and depth. So for this recipe, I turned to Kenji's more ingredient-intensive vegetable stock recipe, which includes kombu (Japanese seaweed) and dried mushrooms for an intensely umami foundation, along with a broad array of spices, from black pepper to coriander seed, for much more complex flavor. This is a stock with a stronger backbone that can better support the collards.

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Once the stock is done, I fish out the dried mushrooms and keep them for later—they'll make up some of the meaty bits I'll need to stand in for the pork chunks. On top of that, I add sliced cremini mushroom caps, which I sauté in olive oil with the onions to brown them and deepen their flavor. Then I sprinkle in some smoked paprika, which delivers that smoked-meat flavor I'm after, and add the vegetable stock.

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The collards go in the pot and cook in the same way as above—long enough to lose their fresh green color and become very soft. To finish them off (and solve the third problem), I stir in a generous dose of olive oil, enough to leave an even sheen on all of the leaves.

With that, you have a bowl of vegan collards that taste an awful lot like the pork-loaded ones, minus the meat. And, you know...feel free to add peanuts.