It’s Pretty Easy Eating Greens

Italy and Virgina meet at the Thanksgiving table.

My family spent Thanksgiving this year with the extended Italian family who live next door to my brother. Fourteen adults at one enormous table, six kids under the age of seven screaming in the next room, and one of the most untraditional and fun meals I can remember: turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes, sure, but also tortellini in brodo and cipollini agrodolce. Oh, and yeast-raised biscuits, which my brother made in honor of his visiting in-laws, who were raised in Virginia. The biscuits inspired me to make a dish from the very traditional “Gift of Southern Cooking” that had sounded practically Italian: long-cooked collard greens in a spicy tomato sauce.

Collards are cultivars of Brassica oleracea, the species that includes cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, cauliflower, and kohlrabi. I like them best in fall and winter since they’re sweeter and less bitter after they’ve been through a mild frost. (I read once that the plants produce a sugary compound that lowers the freezing point of the leaves but I haven’t been able to confirm that yet.) Unlike spinach or chard, the leaves are thick enough to need long cooking, so most preparations tend to be a little moist.

The sweetness also goes well with pork (no, really, it’s not just me—the Portuguese use pork in caldo verde, too) so the first step was to make a simple stock by boiling a smoked pork hock from Flying Pigs Farm in abundant water for an hour or two. (I’ve made this in the past with a thick slice of intense country ham, which was also good. If the stock had turned out fatty I’d have degreased it with a ladle or by chilling it.) I stripped the leaves off a couple bunches of collards, washed them, then sliced them into inch-wide slices. I dumped them into the stock and let the whole mass simmer for the good part of an hour.

In another pot I softened a fine-chopped onion in olive oil until it was translucent, added a couple cloves of chopped garlic and a generous pinch or two of red pepper. When the heat had dulled the garlic’s fiercest edge I added a big can of Italian tomatoes and a couple ladles full of the collard-cooking liquid and let the sauce simmer for a quarter of an hour. Then I dumped the drained collards in the sauce, turned the heat way down low, and let everything sit until dinner. They turned out just spicy enough to help fend off the turkey torpor and deeply flavored without being rich. And my brother’s in-laws approved, which was better than I could have hoped for.

Subscribe to Gourmet