How to Make a Pot of Southern Greens

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

I didn't enjoy eating collard greens as a kid. I wasn't a picky eater by any means, but I recall not understanding the mushy puddle of vegetables plopped on my plate, with its murky juices seeping dangerously close to my candied yams and macaroni and cheese. I grew to accept that collard greens were something that would be served at every black family function, from holiday dinners to cookouts, so I learned to tolerate them. But I was well into my adulthood before I grew to appreciate a good bowl of greens, and it wasn't until I learned to cook them on my own that I truly loved them. I think when you get in touch with the hands-on process of making a traditional pot of slow-cooked greens, you really begin to understand the meaning of soul food.

Nowadays I cook collard greens just about every week. Sometimes I prepare them in faster, less involved ways, but for Sunday dinners and special occasions I take the time to make a real pot. My daughter Raven is a collard green eating machine. She will sit there with her tiny toddler hands, shoveling spoonful after spoonful of greens into her mouth and then instinctively pick the bowl up to slurp what's left. Pot liquor is really the best part of making greens after all. It's the rich savory broth created from the slow simmered stock, collard green juices, aromatics and smoky drippings from whatever meat was cooked along with the greens. With prices rising and gentrification of the humble collard greens peaking, we're not far away from Pot Likka being bottled up and sold in Whole Paycheck as a miracle elixir or trendy new cocktail mixer. (I'm here to tell you that collard greens are certainly not new, let alone "the new kale" - but I do often cook kale with my collard greens, for what it's worth.)

The flavor profile I enjoy most for southern style greens is spicy, smoky and vinegary. Although the time commitment to prepare greens can be intimidating, it all truly boils down to a few simple steps:
  1. Create a broth for the greens by braising smoked meat with stock, onions and aromatics.
  2. Thoroughly wash greens, destem and slice.
  3. Add greens to the pot and cook in the seasoned broth until tender.
You'll notice that even though this is a slow-cooked dish, the greens aren't added until the end. That's because greens really don't take long at all to cook - an hour, tops. Most of the time here is spent building flavors in the simmering liquid. I use that time to clean my greens while the meat is braising, along with whatever else I'm making for dinner. You're looking at a half day's work, but other than physically cleaning the greens most of it is inactive. And yes, I'm well aware that greens are sold fully washed, chopped and ready to go in most grocery stores. Some brands have even gotten better about not including so many stems, so go ahead and use them if you'd like... but you'd be missing the point here. When I see a bowl of southern collards, I see the time somebody spent bent over the sink diligently swishing mounds of greens in the sink, rolling them up in stacks and slicing each one by hand, removing the tough stems. I know that somebody simmered pot liquor for hours and took the time to pull the smoked meat off the bones to stir back into the tender greens. I understand all of the effort that went into that dish and as a cook, I respect the process. Soul food isn't about opening a bag up for convenience. It's about the time and love and elbow grease that goes into preparing those traditional meals. Once in awhile it's only right to carve out that time, drag out your biggest pot and treat your family to some good southern greens.

Angela's Southern Greens

2 tbsp grapeseed or canola oil
1 to 2 lbs smoked bone-in pork or turkey (such as ham hocks, neckbones, turkey wings or turkey necks)
2 yellow onions, sliced
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tbsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
6 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
Several sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp maple syrup
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar, more as needed
5 lbs organic collard greens (or a mix of collards, mustard greens, turnip greens and kale)
2 tbsp butter
Salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
Hot sauce, for serving

Active Time: 1 hour
Total Time: Up to 4 hours
Yield: Serves 8
Special Equipment: Large (preferably Dutch oven) pot with lid

The first step starts out like most other braised dishes. I'm using a little more than a pound of smoked turkey necks here. If you want to have more meat in the final dish, use turkey wings, neck bones or ham hocks. Just make sure whatever you're using was smoked. Even though the meat is already cooked, we'll brown it here to build more flavor in the pot. 

Add a little oil to the pot over medium high heat and sear the meat off on all sides, about 5 minutes, working in batches if necessary. 

Add the sliced onions to the pot. Season with salt and pepper. You can remove the meat and set it aside, or just push it over to make room.

Cook the onions until they soften, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, smoked paprika and pepper flakes and cook for another minute.

Add the chicken stock and scrape up any brown bits at the bottom of the pot with your wooden spoon.

Bring the liquid up to a boil. Add the bay leaves and thyme. If you tie your thyme in a bundle with twine, it will be easier to fish out later.

Return the meat to the pot if you took it out earlier. Cover the lid, reduce heat to low and simmer for 2 hours or until the meat is tender. That amount of time will vary depending on how big and tough the cuts of meat used are; out of the suggestions given, ham hocks will take the longest. Alternatively, if you're using a Dutch oven pot you can transfer it to the oven and cook at 350° F, where things will work a little faster.

Meanwhile...let's prep some greens. I do a double (sometimes triple) wash process, depending on how dirty they look. Sometimes fresh greens from the store will seem pretty clean. Other times you'll see a lot of dirt caked on them especially if you are lucky enough to get farm or garden fresh veggies. Either way, you definitely need to thoroughly wash greens. I once got a bunch of kale from the farm and opened it up to find several ladybugs living in there. Cute, but gross. 

If the greens are visibly dirty, rinse them off under running water before handling them. The fastest way to destem greens is to hold a leaf by the end of the stem with one hand and slide your other hand down the stem, tearing away the leaf as you go. If they're a little tougher you can fold a small stack in half and use your chef's knife to cut off the stem side. This is Lacinato kale, but it works the same way for collard greens.

Fill up your sink with cool water. As you destem, add the greens to the sink. Once you've destemmed all the greens swish them around in the sink really well to release any dirt. Let them soak for several minutes so the dirt can sink to the bottom. Lift the greens up and drain the sink. Rinse and repeat.

If you're working with collard greens, grab a handful, stack them up on your cutting board and roll into a cigar. Then you can slice them (I cut mine into thin slivers, but thicker bands will also work.)

Curly greens like kale or mustard greens will be easier to handle if you just make a small pile and chop. I like a mix of about 2/3 collard greens and 1/3 mustard greens or kale added in.

As you slice the greens, transfer them to a big bowl. Once you've worked through the whole sink, drain it and fill it up with water one more time. Dump the sliced greens in, give them one last swish around the water and then you're done. 

In about an hour, you're gonna hate me when this big ass truckload of greens you just spent all day prepping wilts down to a small serving bowl. You'll despise me, more than when I had you shred two pounds of cheese with a box grater or cut butter into flour with your bare hands.

Oh, trust me, I get it. And you can be mad all the way up until your uncle asks who put their foot in these greens and you can finally be the one to take credit. But for now, take a few deep breaths, stretch your back, and let's continue. 

Back to the pot, which was simmering for a couple hours either in the oven or on the stove top. You want the meat to be just shy of falling off the bone tender.

Fish out the bay leaves and thyme.

Add the maple syrup and vinegar, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Smoked meat adds plenty of salt so you shouldn't need much. You do want the broth to taste fully seasoned at this point though. The vinegar will mellow out some as it cooks. You can make it spicier but I usually just wait until the greens are cooked and let people add hot sauce to taste. (Unless you have the kind of crowd who will all want spicy greens, in which case go for it.)

Finally, the greens get added to the pot! Add them by the handful, giving them a minute or so to wilt down until they all fit. Nestle the smoked meat in there. Cover the pot and simmer over low for another hour, or return it to the oven.

When the greens are silky and tender and have absorbed all that flavor from the pot liquor, it's time to finish things up. Remove the smoked meat from the pot and set aside until it's cool enough to handle. Pulling all the shredded meat off the bones is an extra step but it's a nicer way to serve it so nobody is picking through bones and cartilage.

I also take one more step in reducing the pot liquor, when time allows. I simply transfer the greens to a bowl and let the liquid left in the pot simmer, uncovered, until the level drops down by about half. It'll be much more concentrated and a thicker consistency.

Add the greens back to the pot, and stir in a little butter. Fold the meat back in, and they are good to go! 

Southern greens are best served with hot sauce and cornbread. They get even better after a day or two in the fridge, so it's definitely a good idea to make ahead of time. 


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  1. Can you use this same process to make southern style green beans? Would you cook them for the same amount of time?

  2. this looks delicious. maple syrup. def different from my hand me down family recipe

  3. You are sooo amazing God Bless You and continued success

  4. I used your recipe and thank you sooooooooo much. It is the only recipe I will ever use for my greens

  5. Loved your greens. I made this last year for Thanksgiving and my cousins ate every last bit. Will be making twice as much this time to at least have some leftover.

  6. This is a wonderful recipe! Thanks so much. I used all the greens I had in the fridge, a combination of kale, kohlrabi, spinach, beets, even lettuce and it came out beautifully! Used the instant pot to cook the greens which made the pork neck bones very tender. Loved it!

  7. So don’t shoot me, but I made these without onion (GI doctor put me on a low-FODMAP diet) and they were still really, really good. Homemade chicken stock and smoked pork neck bones can make up for a lot! And good call on reducing the pot liquor. Never tried that before but I’ll be doing it every time I make greens now.