As much as I love vegetables and know that dark, leafy greens are incredibly rich in nutrients, I’d actually been mystified and intimidated by collards for decades. They seemed foreign to me, even off-limits to a degree because of their cultural origin. So I kept to myself and didn’t bother with them until one day two years ago, when I worked up enough gumption to put a fresh bunch of collards into my cart at Food Lion. At checkout, I humbly confessed that I was nervous because I’d never cooked them before. From behind me in the line a friendly Black woman spoke up: “What are you planning to do with them?” I shrugged and said I figured I’d be boiling them or maybe putting them in the slow cooker because I assumed they took a very long time to cook.
She quickly gave me an alternative. —
“No, honey, fry them!” And right there at register 3, she gave me a crash course in her way of making collards, the food that so many take for granted is a native “southern thing,” though food historians say they came to this country for the first time in the 1600s—from Africa. And in Africa, cooks have learned from their grandmothers for generations that frying collards in oil, then simmering them is the best cooking method.
Ever since, I’ve prepared them precisely as she instructed, because it wasn’t just a recipe that kind woman shared with me that day—it was part of her culture, her tradition, her story, her life. She was happy to share it with me, and I’m honored to share it with you.
These have a terrific flavor and have become a staple in our meal rotation. I don’t know why I wasted so much time feeling intimidated by this simple food. After all, as the woman told me—”they’re just collards.”
2 slices bacon, cut into one-inch pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
Cooking oil (I use extra virgin olive oil)
2 lbs. fresh collard greens, cleaned and chopped
A few shakes crushed red pepper
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup water or broth (I used vegetable broth)
If you’re a visual learner like me, you won’t need to read the instructions below. That’s how easy it is.
- In a large, heavy-bottomed pan, cook bacon pieces and chopped onions together until the fat renders and bacon begins to crisp. Sprinkle with crushed red pepper and season with salt and pepper.
- Add collard greens, a few handfuls at a time, and stir them around so they soften and wilt. When there’s room in the pan for more, add more. Add cooking oil to the middle of the pan as needed for cooking the remaining collards.
- When all the greens are wilted, move them to the outside edges of the pan. Pour vinegar into the center of the pan, and stir with a wooden utensil to de-glaze any burned bits from the bottom of the pan.
- Add water or broth and reduce heat to low, then cover and simmer the greens for about an hour until tender.