How it started: A brisk early May day at the Portland Farmers’ Market. Brawny bunches of forest-green collards the only vegetables in sight among a sea of seedlings and perennials. MUST. EAT. LOCAL. VEGETABLES. RIGHT. NOW, my winter-starved palate demanding. Though I have never cooked collards, not even once, I bravely (rashly?) plunk two hardy bunches into my canvas bag.

How it’s going: A gray late September day. Dishes attempted: Braised collards with ham hocks. Braised collards with Parmesan. Braised collards with coconut milk. Sautéed collards with olive oil and garlic. Pasta with collards, bacon, walnuts and Parmesan. Stuffed, rolled collards with olives and tomatoes. Mac ‘n cheese with bacon and collards. Collard chips. My deadline oh-so-fast approaching. My crisper drawer oh-so-overrun with collards. My collards cooking errors oh-so-evident – and multiplying. My panicky telephone calls to Mainers who actually know something about the greens (finally) being returned – thank God.

It is dawning on me that I have gone about my grandly named Collards Culinary Journey of Discovery all wrong. Instead of starting in the kitchen, cocksure, why didn’t I start with the experts? The Maine farmers, and home and professional cooks who are dab hands with collards, in the field and in the kitchen. I am knee-deep in collards, and I am in way over my head.

Native Philadelphian that I am, and Caucasian, I didn’t grow up eating collards. Unlike many of the people interviewed for this story who seem to begin every conversation about collards with a beloved grandmother, my grandmother’s idea of a vegetable was mushy peas out of a can. I tell this to Bates College Associate Professor (and collards cook and eater) Myron Beasley. It’s never too late, he replies.

Slicing collard leaves into ribbons. Cut into chiffonade this way, they can be quickly sautéed. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

As an adult I’ve eaten porky, drab-green collards at barbecue restaurants – nothing drab about their taste or silky texture, though. Also, rice and beans with a tangle of bright green collard ribbons (shockingly good) at a hole-in-the-wall Brazilian restaurant I used to love in Manhattan. (Beasley, who did years of academic research in Brazil and teaches American Studies, helped me identify those, surmising they were a classic Brazilian preparation of collards sautéed with oil, garlic and a bit of water, then mixed with a “dressing” of onions, lemons, jalapeños and cilantro). Just this past June, I fell hard for a sophisticated and surprising treatment at Leeward in Portland: Saffron malloreddus pasta with smoked lamb ragu and collard greens. It’s not on the menu now, but another equally delicious-sounding dish is: Confit duck leg with fresh shelling beans and collard greens.

Collards taste as you’d expect from the family Brassica – earthy, robust, hardy and bitter (in a good way), characteristics that are well-suited to the approaching chill. Jill Duson, a former Portland city councilor and expert cook who grew up eating them, described their flavor more poetically: “To me, they taste like the garden.”

Over the years, I’ve experimented in my kitchen with, arguably, far less commonplace vegetables: fava beans, nopales, chayote, sorrel, daikon, purslane. At the same time, collards’ close cruciferous cousins – kale, cabbage, cauliflower, chard, Brussels sprouts, beet greens – are on regular rotation in my kitchen all winter long. So where have collards been my whole life?

Hiding in plain sight.

Sen. Craig Hickman at his farm in Winthrop, where he grows, cooks, eats and loves collards. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Down South to Down East

Leave Yankeeland, point your vehicle due south, drive some 800 miles, and they are not hiding. In “Bon Appetit, Y’all,” cookbook writer Virginia Willis describes collards as “familiar friends on the Southern table.” Southern barbecue without braised collards seems unthinkable, soul food without them would be short on soul. They are South Carolina’s official state vegetable.” (While Maine has a state herb, wintergreen; a state berry, wild blueberries; a state dessert, blueberry pie; a state drink, Moxie; and a state treat, whoopie pies, we lack a state vegetable.)

“In the diaspora in this country of southern Black people who traveled north and west in the Great Migration, we carried our recipes with us. In the culinary lexicon of folks in the diaspora, your recipe for collards, how you cook collards, defines whether or not you are a good cook,” said farmer and state Sen. Craig Hickman, D- Kennebec, when I called to ask him about the greens after finding online a moving essay he wrote about his father’s death and, indirectly, collard greens. “Collards are on the menu at church suppers, potlucks, barbecues, picnics, holiday feasts no matter the season – Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Easter. Collards have their own special place in soul food traditions.”

At his Annabessacook Farm in Winthrop, Hickman grows them, sells them and cooks them. To take him through Maine’s long winters, he stocks his freezer with mason jars filled with his version of braised collards. “The most traditional way, updated if you will” is how he describes his recipe, which includes unconventional additions like curry powder, ginger, chopped mint, carrots, soy sauce, and maple syrup – that last in place of sugar. In response to an email asking if he’d be willing to talk about collards, Hickman wrote just two words before noting when he was available: “Love. Collards.”

Because in this country, the greens are so heavily associated with the South and with African-Americans, many of us wrongly assume that collards originated in Africa. They did not, although according to culinary history website What’s Cooking America, the classic Southern method of long-braising and of drinking the resulting, fabulously tasty juices, known as pot likker, was devised by enslaved Africans trying to sustain their families with the leavings of plantation kitchens. Collards had likely come to Africa with the Portuguese, Beasley said; the nation colonized sizeable sections of present-day Africa.

Siren call of collards

Given their affinity for cold weather – Maine farms typically grow two to three plantings, in the spring and the fall – and New Englanders’ affinity for cabbage, a close kin, it’s surprising that collards have taken their time reaching Maine, or, frankly, the United States more broadly. In my highly unscientific look at local menus, I see collards infrequently, excepting at African or barbecue restaurants, and those are relative newcomers to Maine. Fore Street Restaurant is another exception, often carrying collards as a side in the fall and into the winter, a dish likely to cost $8 to $10 in the upcoming season, according to Fore Street General Manager Matt Stewart.

“I think collard greens spoke to (founding chef and partner) Sam Hayward, because he has Southern roots,” Stewart said. (Hayward’s mother was from from East Tennessee and South Carolina, and Hayward himself spent part of his childhood in Baton Rouge.) “Kale became so popular. Everyone is doing it,” he added. “One of the things we’ve always strived for is a little bit of curiosity and discovery in our menu.”

Is the collards dish popular? “Certainly when you are gilding them with bacon,” Stewart laughed after briefly describing their preparation: Bacon is rendered, onions are caramelized, collards are slowly braised and hit with salt, acid and fat. The dish is rewarmed in Fore Street’s wood-fired ovens, where it picks up a suggestion of smoke. “People see ‘Oh, bacon! with collard greens’ as opposed to ‘collard greens with bacon,'” he said.

Thirty-nine Maine organic farms grow collards, according to their certification with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. But almost three times as many, 110, list kale while 115 list chard. Still, that’s a shockingly high percentage compared to the ratio of recipes for kale, chard and collards in the very popular New York Times recipe database. A search of that database at the end of September yielded 1,484 recipes for kale, 1,288 for Swiss chard and a paltry 90 hits for collards.

At the Portland Farmers’ Market on a recent Saturday, I counted three stands selling collards (Goranson Farm, Snell Family Farm and Fresh Start Farms) while kale – myriad types of kale – and chard were everywhere.

They don’t sell super well. Otherwise more farmers would grow them,” said Jan Goranson of Goranson Farm in Dresden, who was offering them for $4 a bunch. “It’s probably not going to pay the farm mortgage. It’s really the smallest percentage of anything that we grow in terms of that family. It would be nice if people started eating more of them.”

One year, Goranson said, she tried marketing collards as “the new kale.” Did that work? “Unfortunately, it didn’t,” she said. (Whole Foods tried something similar in 2014, likewise calling collards the new kale and asking its customers, “Have you heard the siren call of collards yet?” At the same time, the supermarket caused a Twitter brouhaha by adding peanuts to a recipe for collards.) But given that vegetables, like everything else, are subject to the whim of trend and that we’ve been on a cruciferous roll for some time in the foodie world – kale, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and cabbage have all had their moment in the sun – Goranson may be onto something.

Incidentally, and this really is very incidental, if human Mainers are timid about adding collards to their repertoire, nonhuman Mainers are not. Goranson grows collards because they fit well into her crop mix, and “I love the way they taste.” A couple others who love the way they taste? Cabbage loopers and flea beetles.

The lexicon

Setting aside for the moment their taste and healthfulness, on language alone, collards get my vote. A brief synopsis of some of the words and phrases I heard while reporting this story:

“Where I am from, down in Virginia, they don’t call them greens, they call them salad. And when you pick salad, you gotta go pick a mess of it,” said Stewart Werner, whom I asked about collards at a recent family wedding. (After cooking collards myself, I get it. You really do need “a mess,” because they cook way down.) Please imagine the soundtrack: Southern gentleman, thick Southern drawl, charm to spare. Later, describing how he cooks them, Werner called for a “big ol’ tablespoon of garlic.”

His sister, North Carolinian Amy Powell and mother of the bride, as it happens, cooks braised collards for her family for the holidays with a smoked turkey leg, presumably a big ol’ smoked turkey leg. But her grandmother, she remembered, used to make “killed lettuce,” putting greens or lettuce in a frying pan with bacon grease to “kill the lettuce. And it’s very, very tasty.” (OK, so not collards, but let’s not quibble.)

When I asked Beasley for more guidance on how long to cook my braised collards, he neatly sidestepped my question, referencing Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor’s well-known and well-loved 1970 book, “Vibration Cooking: or, the travel notes of a Geechee girl.” “And when I cook, I never measure or weigh anything. I cook by vibration,” she wrote.

I am saving the best for last.

“Don’t sleep on the collards – don’t ignore it,” Duson, the former city councilor, said. “Say they are playing defense against the star and forget to guard the guy who doesn’t make all the points but who has all the assists and he throws a three-pointer and their reference would be, ‘Now don’t sleep on the collards, y’all.’ ”

I suggest it as the name for her first her cookbook.

Hickman picked up the torch. “We might say, ‘He can burn some green,’ or ‘You put your foot in those collard greens,’ which means you made a really good batch of collard greens. Someone might say, ‘I swore I could taste a toenail in here.’ ” (Yes, this is a compliment. Believe me, I asked.) “I don’t know where these terms actually originated,” he continued, “but they are part of the jargon around what it means to cook really good food.”

In the kitchen with collards

Back in the kitchen, I am trying to learn to cook really good food, specifically really good collards. For now, the emphasis is on “learn.”

“You prepare them long, low and slow,” Beasley advises, passing on his mother’s tip. “Long, low and slow,” he repeats.

Leeward chef/co-owner Jake Stevens suggests the opposite approach. “I think one of the reasons people shy away from collard greens, if they are cooking in Southern tradition, it’s a long one-hour, two-hour or three-hour cook with smoked pork or some other flavoring, and they are delicious that way. I love them. But one thing people don’t know is that they don’t need to be cooked that long. If you want to leave them with a little bit of tooth to them, we cook them the way you might cook Lacinato kale.”

The restaurant blanches the leaves, shocks them in ice water, cuts them to size and then tosses them into stew or pasta. I tried Leeward’s method just a few minutes ago to make my lunch, still whittling away at the mound of collards that has laid siege to my refrigerator. After I’d squeezed the ice water from the blanched collards, I sautéed them in olive oil with garlic and hot pepper flakes, adding cider vinegar to finish, as I’ve done hundreds of times with other greens but, inexplicably, had never thought to try with collards. (To make them tender enough for me, they required a little extra cooking time with a couple tablespoons of stock added to the greens and a lid placed on the skillet.)

I served the sautéed collards atop a roasted, buttered sweet potato. I felt virtuous – collards are high in calcium, folate, fiber, vitamins K, C and A, as well as antioxidants. Don’t tell the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine, but “Not even blueberries have more antioxidants,” according to Matt and Ted Lee in “The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook.” Lunch was fittingly autumnal. I felt aesthetically pleased, too. The orange of the sweet potato set off the green of the collards nicely, so I ate lunch with my fork and my eyes. And while I have by no means mastered collards cookery, or come close, I felt a smidgen of self-satisfaction that I’d stretched my palate and my repertoire.

Coconut-milk Braised Collard Greens Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Coconut-Milk Braised Collard Greens

From “The Vegetables Gardener’s Cookbook: 75 Vegetarian Recipes that Will Help You Make the Most out of Every Season’s Harvest” by Danielle Majeika. Use good-quality coconut milk. A friend suggested some fish sauce wouldn’t be amiss here. I like to thinly slice the stems from one of the bunches of collards and add them with the onions to sauté. I find collards so meaty, a bowl of these coconut-braised collards over rice satisfies me for dinner.

2 tablespoons coconut oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 pounds collard greens, coarsely chopped (see note regarding stems)
1 fresh chili, seeded and minced (or more or less to taste)
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger root, or more to taste
3 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 (12-ounce) can coconut milk
1/2 cup vegetable stock
Juice from 1 lime

Warm the oil in a large pot. Add the onion, collard stems if you are using them, chili and ginger and sauté until very tender. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute more.

Add the greens, a big handful at a time, letting them wilt before you add the next handful. When all the greens are slightly wilted, season them with salt and pepper. Add the coconut milk and stock. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the pot and let the greens cook until very tender, at least 40 minutes. Stir in the lime juice. Check the seasoning and adjust if necessary before serving.

Top the feta-stuffed collards with chopped tomatoes. Having beautiful, summer tomatoes was a nice boon. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Rolled Collards with Feta and Olives

Lightly adapted from Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Simple Meatless Recipes for Great Food.” I like to serve these over rice as dinner. The taste is very lively.

Serves 4

8 large collard leaves
1 leek
2 tablespoons olive oil
8 ounces feta cheese
2 tablespoons minced garlic
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup dry white wine, vegetable stock or water
1 cup chopped ripe tomato
1/2 cup chopped Kalamata olives

Cut the collard leaves off the stems, taking care to keep each half of the leaf intact. Slice the stems thinly. Cut the leek, white and light green parts only, in half lengthwise. Cut each half into slices about 1/4-inch thick. Wash carefully, and dry.

Heat the oil in a deep skillet with a lid or a Dutch oven. Add the sliced collard stems and the cleaned leeks. Sauté until very tender, at least 20 minutes. While the leeks and stems are cooking, thinly slice the feta into sticks about 2 inches long.

One at a time, lay out each collard leaf half on a clean counter. Place a feta slice at the end and roll up each leaf. (It’s OK to be pretty casual about this; it doesn’t take the care stuffed cabbage does.) Place each stuffed collard leaf on top of the leek-collard stem mixture in a single snug layer. Repeat until you’ve used up all the leaves. Pour the wine over all. Top the rolled collards casserole with the tomatoes and olives.

Bring the liquid in the pan to a boil. Cover and turn down the heat to low. Cook until the collards are tender, at least 40 minutes. Serve the stuffed collards with their pan juices.

Mac ‘n Cheese with Collards combines two classic Southern sides.

Mac ‘n Cheese with Collards

The macaroni and cheese is adapted from an Alton Brown recipe for the Food Network. I stirred in bacony collard greens, effectively combining two classic southern sides. The dish is very rich, portion accordingly. I sometimes toast chopped walnuts in the bacon fat and mix those with the panko for the topping, but be aware that traditionalists almost certainly won’t like it.

Serves about 8 

FOR THE GREENS:
3/4 pound collards
3-4 slices bacon
1 large clove garlic minced
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar

FOR THE MACARONI:
1/2 pound elbow macaroni
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
2 teaspoons ground mustard
3 cups whole milk
1/2 cup finely diced onion
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 egg
8 ounces sharp cheddar, grated
4 ounces Monterey Jack, grated
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Fresh black pepper

FOR THE TOPPING:
1 cup panko bread crumbs
3 tablespoons butter

To make the greens, take the collards off their stems. Blanch the leaves in boiling water for 2-3 minutes. Drain and shock in cold water. Squeeze out the water and chop into small bite-sized pieces.

Meanwhile, fry the bacon in an iron skillet. Remove when done and drain on paper towels. Crumble into pieces. Add the collard greens to the bacon fat and sauté until tender, seasoning with salt and pepper. Add the apple cider, stir to coat, cooking about another minute. Add back the crumbled bacon and set aside.

To make the macaroni, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. F.

Cook the macaroni in a large pot of salted water until al dente, about 7 minutes. Drain.

While the pasta is cooking, make the béchamel sauce. Melt the butter. Whisk in the flour and mustard and be sure it’s free of lumps. Cook several minutes to cook off any floury taste. Stir in the onion, bay leaf and paprika and gradually add the milk while whisking. Simmer 10 to 15 minutes.

Place the egg in a small bowl and beat lightly. Slowly add about 1/2 cup of the béchamel to the egg, whisking all the while; you are tempering the egg to prevent it from scrambling in the hot sauce. Stir the warmed egg mixture back into the sauce. Take the béchamel off the heat, and gradually add the three-quarters of the cheese, stirring it in to melt. Remove the bay leaf.

Combined the drained macaroni with the sauce and the reserved collards. Stir to combine. Pour into a greased 2-quart casserole. Top evenly with remaining cheese.

To make the topping, melt the butter in a skillet. Add the panko and sauté the crumbs a few minutes until golden. Sprinkle the mac ‘n cheese with the buttered panko. Bake for 30 minutes.

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