Locally grown collard greens can be found throughout the winter at grocery stores in the Midlands. In celebrating the South Carolina state vegetable (see page 26), I would like to share two favorite ways to cook and serve these favored and nutritious greens that are both simple and delicious. The most traditional method is to put a ham hock or two — with some meat still intact — in a large pot of water, about 6 quarts. Bring the water to a boil and let it boil for about an hour until the ham is falling off the bone, adding more water as needed if the pot gets low.
Unless you chose to buy a bag of collard greens already washed, which is much easier, take the collard leaves and wash them thoroughly in cold water to remove any grit. I use about 5 pounds, or several fresh bunches. With a large cutting board and knife, stack collard leaves in manageable piles while removing large stems, roll together piles, and slice. This produces thin strips, which speed up the process of slicing one leaf at a time.
Next, add your collard greens to the pot of hot water with the hambone until the pot is almost full. As this is a lot of collards, keep adding as they cook down and wilt. In case you did not know, fresh collards are very odorous when cooked so people often choose frozen collards. When cooking frozen greens, put them into the pot of hot water straight from the freezer. When you finish this task, salt as desired, stir to keep the smoked ham taste evenly distributed, and cook for about 30 minutes. Continue to stir occasionally and taste to confirm the tenderness you desire before draining and serving.
The second method involves using bacon instead of a ham hock for taste. Place bacon in skillet over medium high heat and cook until evenly browned but not entirely crisp. The amount of bacon you use will depend on the amount of collards you prepare by the above boiling method. Remove the bacon and cool enough to chop. Add diced onion to the bacon grease still in the pan and saute until tender. Mix the onions and bacon with drained cooked collards and let rest for seasonings to be absorbed.
Serve your collards alongside or on top of grits for an ideal pairing. Ideas for seasoning include wine vinegar and/or hot sauce. Leftovers last a long time in the refrigerator and get better as the juices settle in!