Shawn Owen, the kitchen manager and lead chef at Wilson County Barbecue in Portland, moves collard greens to the smoker. Michele McDonald/Staff Photographer

What adores cold weather and smoked meats, but has never been especially beloved in Maine? Collard greens.

If Portland-area menus are any indication, things might be changing slowly for this humble Brassica. Right now, you’re still most likely to encounter collards at barbecue restaurants or businesses with links to the South. Elsewhere, they make occasional cameo appearances, as at Fore Street, which lists them on their current sample menu as an accompaniment to a turnspit-roasted, marinated half-chicken.

We’d love to see collards become more popular in Maine. Not only are they frost-resistant, but these leafy greens might also offer unexpected health benefits. A member of the cabbage family, collard greens are chock full of antioxidants and vitamins, so much so that drinking “pot likker,” their leftover cooking liquid, is a well-respected folk remedy.

In the spirit of boosting the local profile of collards, Press Herald restaurant critic Andrew Ross and food writer Meredith Goad, our resident transplanted Southerner, anonymously sampled dishes prepared by four Portland restaurants – Asmara, Elsmere BBQ, Salvage BBQ and Wilson County Barbecue. (Note: Typically, Hot Suppa and Soul Food Paradise also feature collards on their menus, but at the time of our sampling, they were not available at either restaurant.)

Afterward, the two sat down and compared their takes on each restaurant’s preparation and talked about their personal relationships with the vegetable.

Ross: OK, so what are your earliest memories of eating collard greens?

Goad: Well, my mother did cook them occasionally, but most of my memories are of my grandmother’s collard greens. She and my grandfather lived on a farm and grew and prepared most of their own food. And my sister and I – this was back in the 1960s, so I’m dating myself here – we used to get up at dawn when we were visiting them and go into the kitchen in our pajamas to say goodbye to my grandfather, who was going out to milk the cows. And we’d help my grandmother make biscuits from scratch, on her kitchen table.

She was still churning her own butter back then. And she would make some of the classics. She would laugh to hear me call them classics, but things like fried green tomatoes and country ham and red-eye gravy, that kind of thing. Sometimes they’d kill one of their chickens and fry it up for dinner. And collards were a part of that. It all sounds really unhealthy, but she lived to be 103.

Ross: Well, collards are really great for you.

Goad: She did flavor them with a ham hock or fatback. Her greens were not spicy. I didn’t really have spicy collard greens until I was an adult. Apparently some people use smoked turkey as an alternative to pork. I had never tried that until Martin Beavers opened Soul Food Paradise. They were a little too spicy for me, but they were very good.

Ross: Growing up, I ate a lot of collards also, but not necessarily the same style as what you had.

I lived in New England, and then my family moved to North Carolina when I was about 7 or 8, and I never had collards before then. The very first time I had collards is when my third-grade teacher brought in black-eyed peas and collard greens for a New Year celebration. I just remember sitting there thinking that this was the strangest spinach I’d ever had in my life!

But collards were such an important part of the food culture. They were such a big deal that the schools that I went to when I was living in North Carolina sometimes served collard greens in the school cafeteria, which my mom thought was the most bizarre thing. When I first started seeing collard greens in the cafeteria I never really wanted them, but then everybody else loved them, so I think peer pressure forced me to start eating them much more than anything else. But it took a while. It wasn’t love at first sight, or love at first taste.

I did a little bit of a taste last month with (Portland food writer) Mindy Fox and her husband, Steve Hoffman, and we all tried three different collards on our list. At that dinner, we had the ones from Salvage BBQ, Wilson County Barbecue and the ones from Asmara. The consensus was largely that everybody loved the ones from Salvage, and people found the ones from Wilson County to be a little spicier, and that was fine with me, because that’s definitely more my style.

So tell me your thoughts about the ones that we tried.

Owen adds the molasses to the smoked collard greens. Michele McDonald/Staff Photographer

Goad: Of the four we tried, I liked Wilson County and the Asmara best. They’re very different, but they were both really good. When I saw that Salvage BBQ says on their menu that their collards are vegan, I was like, “Oh no!” But it turns out, the ones from Wilson County are vegan as well. I talked with one of the managers there and, it turns out, they smoke them.

When I first opened my takeout container, I could smell what I thought was pork. But they fooled me. There was all this flavor from the smoke and I assumed they were adding pork because it’s a barbecue spot – you know, why wouldn’t you? They also have a little bit of onion and garlic, and I’ve also learned that they add apple cider vinegar and a little molasses.

Ross: I was going to ask about sweeteners, because I do recall that one was a little bit sweet, but it wasn’t overwhelming at all, and that’s the place where people tend to go wrong with collards: putting too much sweetener in there, whether it’s honey or molasses, or whatever. But the Wilson County collard greens have a really good balance.

Goad: They also had a little heat, but it was in the background, almost an afterthought, but you knew it was there. It was enjoyable, but the spice didn’t steal the whole show. And Salvage, I thought, also had a nice level of heat and were very well seasoned. But overall, I really liked the Wilson County ones. There’s something about smoking those greens.

Ross: Which is a really smart way to get that same kind of flavor in there. There is this kind of umami flavor that comes through and at first, I thought it might have been from onion, although it’s really hard to get that flavor out of an onion unless you really, really, really cook it. But that flavor is there in the collards themselves. I love that you can still bring that flavor out, that you might not need fatback, a ham hock or smoked turkey or whatever, if you take the time to coax it out or get creative.

Another thing I found interesting, and I don’t know if you had the same experience, but when I had the ones from Asmara, I think they’re called tsebhi – tsebhi hamli. At first I thought, this is very bright green to just be collards, and then, as I was eating, I realized that I had probably half collards and half spinach. But I can’t say for certain. (Editor’s note: According to the Asmari menu, their collards are mixed with kale.)

Chicken stew, hard-boiled egg, salad and collard greens and kale wrapped in injera bread, from Asmara in Portland. Photo by Meredith Goad

Goad: They also add that mild yellow curry sauce. Those were the creamiest greens of the bunch. Of the four, it might have been the spiciest, but it wasn’t too much.

Ross:  I also really like that mellowness that that yellow sauce adds. There’s definitely cardamom in there, probably also allspice, and there was some fiery heat, but it wasn’t super, super hot. I don’t think anybody eating with me had any problem, even the wimps. Another thing that might have helped was that you’re supposed to eat the tsebhi with pieces of the injera bread, so you’re not just taking a spoonful and putting it in your mouth. There is something there to help cut any heat and spice – that slightly fermented flavor of that of spongy injera. It was just such a great combination. There was a really lovely balance of textures and flavors.

Did you also have the ones from Elsmere? Tell me what you thought.

Goad: They were well-seasoned, but they didn’t have much – or any – heat. The leaves were cut in bigger chunks, so they weren’t as tender.

Ross: This is very validating, because I’m looking at my notes, and right here on my phone, it says, “very large, square slices,” and a note that I also didn’t find them to be super spicy. With the Elsmere collards, you do occasionally see these very, very large pieces of collard, and when I’m eating, that always reminds me of what I find so unusual about collards, compared to many other vegetables – the texture. I’m going to say the word “silky,” but I don’t mean it in the way that you typically think of, not like the way you’d talk about chocolate pudding being “silky.” With collards, I mean “silky” like the actual fabric. Imagine cutting slices or squares of silk fabric, I always find big pieces of collards have that same textile texture. It’s unusual, and I like it a lot.

The other thing about the Elsmere ones, is that they (more than any of the others) stripped out basically every rib and every single woody part, so it was basically just all that silky leaves and very little else. Of the bunch that we tried, they’re probably my least favorite, because there was maybe a little too much sweetness there. But with the right combination of other dishes, it probably would have been better. If I were eating that with something like fried chicken and very little else, I might have thought that sweetness worked.

Goad: That’s a good point, and since you went there first I’ll say it: The Elsmere collards were my least favorite as well. They were fine, I’m not saying they weren’t. They were still decent collards, but I don’t want it to be like a salad. I guess it’s the transplanted Southerner in me. We always cook the hell out of them.

Ross: You don’t want a salad, and you don’t want an episode of “Hot Ones.” You want something in between.

Goad: Yes. And I was going to say something else about Wilson County. I like the fact that they included a lot of the juice. I like the pot likker. Of the collards we sampled here in Portland, did you have an overall favorite?

Ross: I probably like the Wilson County collards best, to be honest with you.

Goad: They’re doing such authentic Southern food all around, I guess it didn’t surprise me that the collards would be good. Why do you think collards are getting to be popular in Portland now?

Ross: They’re kind of riding the coattails of kale. Which makes sense, considering that kale and collards are really very similar vegetables. In fact, they’re the same species. But I always find kale to be a little bit crunchier and wetter. I also think kale lends itself to a lot more different kinds of preparations.

Goad: Southern food in general is more popular than it used to be. It’s just the way our culture is now – everything can be had everywhere, and everyone can have these shared experiences. When I moved to Maine 33 years ago, you couldn’t even get instant grits in the grocery store. My mother used to ship them to me. Maybe somebody was growing and making collards back then here in Maine, but it was probably in their own garden, for their own kitchen. It’s really interesting to me that now local restaurants are serving them. I think Jay Villani might have been the first, because I remember going there for his (Salvage BBQ) opening, and he set this tray in front of me that had pulled pork, hush puppies and collards, and I felt like I was in heaven.

Ross: There are also a lot of chefs in the area who are more and more adventurous. And considering that you can do a lot of the same things with them that you can with kale, collards seem like a natural thing to experiment with. It’s not that risky or complicated.

Smoked collard greens at Wilson County Barbecue. Michele McDonald/Staff Photographer

WILSON COUNTY BARBECUE COLLARDS

These collards are vegan, but you can add a ham hock or pork belly (trotters or cheek will work too) when sautéing the onions and garlic. If using a hock, don’t add salt while cooking; salt to taste at the end of cooking. The pinch of baking soda softens the greens. Smoking is critical for this recipe. If you don’t have a smoker at home, a grill will work. Start with charcoal, then throw on wood chips and place the Dutch oven in the center of the grill, with the grill cover on.

Yield: 8 cups

7 pounds fresh collard greens, chopped, or 3 pounds frozen
3/4 cup vegetable oil
8-10 cloves garlic, rough chopped (not minced)
2 medium sweet onions, diced
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/3 cup Texas Pete hot sauce
3/4 cup molasses, divided use
1 cup apple cider vinegar

Cut the ribs out of the fresh collards and discard, then cut the leaves into 1/2-inch strips. In a very large stockpot, heat the oil on medium high. Sauté the garlic and onions in the oil until softened.

Add all remaining ingredients except the vinegar, and using just 1/2 cup of the molasses. Cover the greens with water. Simmer the mixture, uncovered, for 2 hours. Transfer the greens to a Dutch oven and put it, uncovered, in a smoker for 1 additional hour. Stir in the cider vinegar and remaining 1/4 cup molasses, to finish.

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