For those folks more interested in how food tastes than its presentation, the Riviera Restaurant in Clemson was a favorite place to eat. Under the direction of a stately Turkish woman and her family, the mixture of foods on the buffet was also an education for anyone who thought that collard greens were exclusively a Southern dish.
The owners told me that in Turkey nearly every family grew at least a patch of collard greens as they were an essential part of their diet. Indeed, collard greens have their origin in the Mediterranean and Asia Minor area and are major staples in Turkish and Ethiopian cuisine. While visiting my son in Silver Spring, Md., a hub of Ethiopian culture, we had a wonderful meal that involved two different collard green preparations; one very much like what you’d find on the table in South Carolina, minus the pork, and one with a soft, curd-like cheese.
I once thought collard greens made the passage from Africa with enslaved persons, which was the path for okra and benne (sesame). But Clemson Vegetable/Entomology Specialist Powell Smith reminded me that collards are biennials, plants which grow in a rosette form for one season and then elongate when they reach a reproductive stage. With collard greens this vernalization process is caused by the accrual of cold hours, a process that wouldn’t occur in the tropical climate of the Western African countries from which most slaves were taken.
This simple-seeming plant has an internal clock that ticks, ticks, ticks – counting the hours of cold it has experienced. This marvelous system allows these and related biennials to wait until the end of winter to safely flower and form seeds. We often think that collards “bolt” with the arrival of warmer temperatures but in fact it’s exposure to a DNA-regulated cold period that causes them to grow tall and blossom. Their flavor is off for us after flowering but not for bees so I leave my collards up until the flowers are spent.
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In some places collards are called tree cabbages; the most familiar type grows on a stalk. My friend at the Riviera said that in Turkey people “stalk” their collards; picking off the lower leaves as they reach a harvestable size. The advantage to this practice is that you pick the leaves before they get big and tough; usually when I buy a head of collards at the store I compost those outer leaves since they are stronger in flavor and take longer to cook.
When we have a mess of those tender, plucked-off-the-stem leaves, we like to stir fry them in olive oil with garlic and then grate ginger on the top.
Down the road near Elloree, Christine Bickley of the Plant Petal certified roadside market grows a seldom seen heading-type collard. These “cabbage” collards are so beautiful I’ve used them as table decorations – they equal roses and orchids – and you get to take them home and eat them. The centers of non-heading collards are very tender; sometimes we cook the outer leaves with chicken stock and a piece of ham and save the inner rosettes for a more delicate process. Mrs. Bickley says these collards don’t hold up well after they are picked and they certainly would be difficult to “bunch” with rubber bands so you’ll have to find a fresh-market outlet for them, but it’ll be worth the effort to taste them.
Collards are famously tasty to “worms,” too, the larvae of certain moths. One old-fashioned variety of collards, Green Glaze, has some resistance to these munching machines. The leaves look a little greasy but since we Southerners like a little ham fat in collards, that characteristic shouldn’t bother us. If you grow collards, you can use the organically approved Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) pesticide to keep those pests under control (for very young larvae only so frequent applications are needed), and other approved pesticides are also effective (always read the label and follow directions without variation). I often smash the young larvae by rubbing the affected leaves between my hands (look on the undersides of the leaves to find them) as for me that’s sometimes faster and easier than getting out the sprayer and doesn’t harm any beneficials.
Amanda McNulty is an associate extension agent for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service and the host of “Making It Grow!” broadcast weekly on ETV television stations. Website: www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/ Check out her blog at the Making it Grow! page at www.scetv.org