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Man in Overalls - An Ode to Collards (Now with my recipes)

I love growing my groceries in the fall - watching the miracle of growth, having ready-access to the freshest produce money-can't buy, the many flavors, getting to try new varieties - all while the temperature drops to more and more pleasant levels. I enjoy growing most anything in the fall, but, if I had to choose just one thing to grow every fall for the rest of my life, it would be collard greens, hands down. 

It's a health thing and an effort-to-yield calculation, but in the beginning, the roots of my collard green passion were seeded by family.

When I was a kid about 9 or 10, just a couple years into gardening in the front yard, my aunt, the family documentarian showed me a clipping of my late grandfather from the Graceville New (or was it the Jackson County Times?) beneath his 9ft collard greens that he had kept alive multiple years, growing them into small trees.
Not to be outdone, my grandmother grew a
collard forest of her own.
Seizing the moment, my mother suggested that I grow some collard greens too. "But I don't like collards," I said. To which my mother replied, "If you grow them, you'll like them." - "No I won't," I retorted. "Well then, Nathan," my mother responded, "Then will you grow some for me?" The direct motherly ask; how do you say no to that?

So I turned up a new garden patch; we purchased a 9-pack of collards, and I planted them, watered them, tended them, picked the worms off of them, talked with my grandmother about them, and finally, harvested a big bunch. My mother helped me cook the "mess" of greens for dinner. And then, when she served everyone's plates, she fixed mine without any collard greens.  When I protested, my mother said, "Oh, but you don't like collard greens." - ", well...." 

So along with a heaping of collard greens, I ate my words that night.
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In addition to family legacies, I love collard greens for their sheer productivity.  I once grew 150lbs of collard greens off 12 plants in 9 months. Compare that to the little "bunches" of organic collards sold at the health food store. They are about 9oz and cost roughly $3. In those terms, I grew over 265 bunches worth $795+. Not to mention that collard greens are among the very few vegetables with a notable amount of protein: 3g to the serving.
It's no wonder that southerners for centuries have relied on collard greens as a dietary staple. When folks had a plateful of collard greens flavored with a cutting of meat from the smokehouse and a side of cornbread, they might have been poor like my people, yes, but they were sitting down to a filling, nutritious meal. Here's to collards!
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Collards are my favorite fall veggie, but I realize they may not be your thing. That's okay. There's a lot to grow in the fall. In short, here in the Deep South, fall is the time to grow your leafy greens (both things like collards as well as salad greens), roots other than potatoes (think carrots, beets), the garlic/onion family, and most of the herbs other than basil, which is a heat lover ( so cilantro, parsley, dill, etc).

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But for those of y'all who are collard green fans - in honor of Thanksgiving - allow me to let you in on how to harvest them as well as my three favorite recipes.

Harvest outer leaves that are as big (or bigger)
than your hand by breaking the leaf-stems downwards
In an attempt to minimize farm labor and to meet the spike in demand that Thanksgiving & Christmas create, larger farms tend to grow their collards for a single harvest, around the holidays by "cropping" or cutting off the entire stalk in big "bunches" to capture all the leaves at once. It's a silly way to harvest collards in a home garden, though, because if you do it right, harvesting the outer leaves, you can enjoy them fresh (and tender) all fall, winter and clear into spring.

So far as cooking collard greens, here're the recipes I lean on regularly, in decreasing order of how frequently I cook them (but not necessarily in order of flavor or preference):
  1. Stir fried with over-easy eggs on top. I start with coconut oil, butter, or bacon grease in the bottom of a caste iron skillet, high heat. Throw in chopped onions. While they sizzle, roll up, then chop tender, fresh-harvested collard greens. Just before adding the collard greens, stir the onions.  Once you've scraped the collards off the cutting board into the skillet, put the lid on, allowing them to quick steam. If the onions are getting too close to burning, add a few ounces of water (being sure to re-lid the pan quick-like to keep in the steam). After 2-3 minutes, take the lid off, add salt, pepper, chopped or powdered garlic, and depending on your daily preference: curry powder or ground (or fresh chopped) ginger and turmeric or soy sauce or smoked paprika & cumin. Stir that around, put the lid back on, and let cook for about 4-5 min, turning the temp down to medium and adding a little more water if necessary to keep from burning. Pile them on your plate and add those over easy eggs on top so that the yolks run down into your greens when you cut into them. Yum!
  2. Southern Style (kinda) like your grandma made them. Because hog jowl is hard to come by and most folks no longer keep a jar of lard by their stove, start with bacon. Chop it up into little pieces, and fry to crispy in the bottom of a caste iron pot. Take out the bacon, and sample some of it because you won't be able to help yourself anyway. Set aside. Throw in and brown two large onions. Roll up, finely chop, and throw in a "big ole mess" of collards. Once the pot's full and just before the onions start burning down in the bottom, add a cup of water and quickly put the lid on. This will blanch your greens causing them to shrink and you'll be able to add more greens. But before stuffing the pot with more chopped collards: add what seems like an absurd amount of spice: smoked paprika, chopped or powdered garlic, chopped or powdered ginger, a little chopped or powdered turmeric and your choice of the spice-rack: I like things like steak-seasoning and butt-rub and things like that. Also a little powdered or flaked chili is good. Maybe cumin, depending on how much you like the taste of taco mix. Sometimes I add a little curry powder. Just not Italian herb: that's for spaghetti, not greens. Don't forget salt. Don't be shy: bare minimum you'll need is a teaspoon. It's a big ole pot. Now stuff the pot full of greens. Fill the pot with water up to about an inch below the rim, and cook the living hell out of it (lid on)-- for 2-3 hours, stirring and adding water occasionally to get the flavor mixed together and to keep it from burning. When you serve, crumble some of those real-as-they-come bacon bits on top of each heaping, which should take up about half your plate and satiate some of your need for all those empty calories. (This recipe is especially good for those big-ole, tough, store-bought bunches.)
  3. Southern Style Re-imagined with roasted nuts & sun-dried tomatoes (& as it happens, vegan).  Start with coconut and/or sesame oil in the bottom of your caste iron pot. Don't be afraid to use some oil. Certain vitamins are fat soluble and only absorb with adequate fat, and you're about to stuff this pot full of vitamin-rich collard greens. So be generous. High heat. Chop & throw in a big handful of nuts: walnuts, almonds, and pecans all work. Add a big heaping of sun-dried tomatoes. Brown the nuts and tomatoes till you smell them roasting. Throw in a couple diced onions. As they sizzle, chop & add your greens, filling the pot. Once the pot's full and just before everything at the bottom starts burning, add a cup of water and quickly put the lid on. This will blanch your greens causing them to shrink and you'll be able to add more chopped greens to your pot. But before stuffing the pot with more chopped collards: add your spices: smoked paprika (especially important for meatless cooking), chopped or powdered garlic, chopped or powdered ginger, perhaps a little chopped or powdered turmeric and your choice of the spice-rack: I like mixed spices that are often called things like steak-seasoning and butt-rub. Also a little powdered or flaked chili is good. Maybe cumin, depending on how much you like the taste of taco mix. Sometimes I add a little curry powder. Just not Italian herb: that's for spaghetti, not greens. Don't forget salt. Don't be shy: bare minimum you'll need a teaspoon or two. It's a big ole pot. Now stuff the pot full of greens. Fill the pot with water up to about an inch below the rim, and boil for at least a hour or two (lid on), stirring and adding water occasionally to get the flavor mixed together and to keep it from burning. 
And just so you know, both of these last two recipes all but demand that you serve them with cornbread. It'd be sacrilege not to. 

Happy Thanksgiving. (With thanks to Lateef, my mother, and Minister Ivy for the initial recipes that inspired my own).

And, as always...
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Nathan Ballentine (Man in Overalls)
Itinerant Urban Farmer, Entrepreneur, Educator
Growing in Jacksonville, FL. Connecting Globally.
(904) 240-9592
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