Why It Works
- Simmering the ham hocks until the meat falls off the bones creates a deeply flavorful broth.
- Chicken stock adds even more flavor.
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.
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.
Here, we will cover how to make a pretty traditional pot of collards stewed with ham hocks, hewing closely to classic recipes. For those of you looking for a vegan version, I created another recipe that attempts to capture the same smoky, meaty flavors, minus the meat. Hopefully, my nontraditional approach won't inspire a peanut-sized reaction.
How to Make Classic Collards With Pork
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.
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.
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.
1 1/2 pounds (680g) meaty smoked ham hocks (see notes)
2 medium yellow onions (about 1 pound; 450g), sliced into 2-inch lengths
4 medium cloves garlic, crushed
2 quarts (1.9L) homemade chicken stock, low-sodium store-bought chicken broth, or water
3 pounds (1.3kg) collard greens, woody stems trimmed and leaves cut into thick ribbons
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Apple cider vinegar, to taste (optional)
In a large pot or Dutch oven, combine ham hocks, onions, garlic, and chicken stock and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook at a bare simmer until hocks are very tender, 2 to 3 hours.
Remove ham hocks from liquid, transfer to a cutting board, and pull bones from meaty and fatty parts. Discard bones. Chop up meat into chunks and return it to pot.
Add collard greens, pressing down to submerge in liquid. Return to a simmer and cook, uncovered, until collards are very tender, about 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add vinegar to taste, if desired, then serve. (You can add vinegar to the pot, or let individual diners season their greens with it at the table.)
You can swap out the ham hocks for other smoked or cured pork products, like slab bacon or salt pork, as long as they aren't lean meats, like smoked pork loin. Lean meat will dry up and toughen with extended cooking.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 14g||18%|
|Saturated Fat 4g||22%|
|Total Carbohydrate 19g||7%|
|Dietary Fiber 8g||27%|
|Total Sugars 4g|
|Vitamin C 34mg||172%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|