Collard greens, kale’s leafy cousin, have a history in my family

Editor’s note: Adrienne Cheatham is a James Beard-nominated chef, cookbook author and television personality.

When I think of collard greens, I almost instinctively picture a steaming pot of long-simmered leaves, sliced into delicate ribbons or rolled into tight little bundles, swirling among pieces of smoked meat made tender by hours on the stove.

This is how collard greens have always been prepared in my family, often picked by my grandfather from his garden after carefully considering each bunch. There have been small changes to the spices and aromatics added since his time, but the technique is always the same.

There are few items as closely associated with a singular cuisine as collard greens are with the cuisine of Black Americans.

Chef and cookbook author Adrienne Cheatham shows how to make a delicious salad using collard greens. - CNN
Chef and cookbook author Adrienne Cheatham shows how to make a delicious salad using collard greens. - CNN

This simmering pot preparation of collard greens is deeply traditional, and generations of Americans have memories of their mothers, grandmothers and aunts tending to a pot of greens while the rest of the holiday meal is being prepared.

No celebratory spread is complete without collard greens, especially on the first day of the new year when enjoying a bowl of these greens symbolizes wealth and prosperity for the days ahead.

Collards are a superfood

In warmer months and at outdoor celebrations, however, this staple dish is either completely left out or passed over in favor of sides that are easier to transport and add to your plate. And because of the time associated with cooking a pot of collard greens, it’s not something most people will try to whip up for dinner during the week.

Whether it’s part of your tradition or not, collards are a good option for people looking to add more nutrient-dense foods to their diet, according to Tufts University.

Collards pack a nutritional punch. They are an excellent source of vitamins C and K and are rich in carotenoid lutein, which prevents macular degeneration. As a member of the cruciferous vegetable family, they also contain the cancer-fighting phytochemical indole and sulfur, which helps your body ward off cancer-causing chemicals, according to Stanford Medicine.

With this wealth of health-supporting benefits, it’s a wonder collard greens don’t show up on the table more often, and in more ways. When collard greens are cooked in liquid, a lot of the water-soluble vitamins and minerals are lost to that liquid, which is called pot likker. Consume the pot likker with the greens to capture those benefits.

It is true that collards are fibrous and have a slightly bitter taste, but that shouldn’t mean they are only relegated to being cooked into submission. Collards make delicious salads. Sliced thinly or chopped like kale, the raw leaves tossed first with a little salt play nicely with all types of vinaigrettes and flavor combinations.

How to pick the right leaves

The trick is to gently toss and massage the leaves with a pinch of salt and maybe a little acid (a squeeze of lemon juice or splash of mild vinegar) before adding your dressing of choice. This tenderizes the leaves and helps neutralize some of the bitterness often associated with collards.

My grandfather would frequently walk the rows of his garden and tear small pieces of the leaves to taste, making sure he cut them before the leaves got too mature. As a rule, the larger the leaf the more developed it is, making its fibers tougher and the flavor more bitter. The smaller leaves will be more tender and sweeter or less bitter, a perfect substitution for kale in salads.

That’s why you should purchase young collards that are on the smaller side. Stores frequently carry bunches of collards that are very large, dark green and tough. While I still enjoy these in salads, they are much better suited to being cooked the traditional way. When selecting collard greens for a salad, or to stuff and roll with a filling in place of cabbage, select bunches that are small to medium in size.

It wasn’t that long ago that kale was also relegated to preparations similar to traditional collard greens. It took experimentation and intrepid eaters eager to partake in its health benefits to unlock its potential and make it a ubiquitous part of menus across the country.

The same can be done with collard greens to even greater benefit. There are culinary applications and delicious preparations that we have yet to uncover from this member of the same family. By rejecting the status quo (no matter how delicious), we stand to gain so much from playing with our food.

Want to give it a try? Try my recipe for collard green salad below.

The raw leaves tossed first with a little salt play nicely with all types of vinaigrettes and flavor combinations. - CNN
The raw leaves tossed first with a little salt play nicely with all types of vinaigrettes and flavor combinations. - CNN

Collard Green Salad With Sesame Vinaigrette

Makes 2 to 4 servings


2 tablespoons sesame seeds (mixed black and white or just one type is fine)

1 pound collard green leaves, washed

1 small shallot, peeled and cut in half lengthwise

½ a lemon (optional)

¼ teaspoon fine sea salt

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

2 tablespoons soy sauce

½ teaspoon ground white pepper

½ teaspoon sugar

¼ teaspoon mustard powder

1 tablespoon white miso paste

2 tablespoons sesame oil


1. In a small sauté pan over medium-low heat, add the sesame seeds and swirl or toss occasionally until toasted and fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Set aside in a small bowl and let cool.
2. Cut the leaves in half lengthwise, removing the thick center stems. Stack 4 to 5 half-leaves at a time and slice crosswise into ribbons about ¼-inch thick. (It doesn’t have to be perfect. If the cut is thicker, let it marinate longer at the end; if thinner, marinate for less time. You be the judge). Place the sliced greens in a large mixing bowl.
3. Shave the shallot crosswise, slicing thinly by hand or with a mandoline. Place the sliced shallot in the bowl with the collards. Season the collards and shallot with the salt, and, if desired, a squeeze of lemon. Use your hands to toss and massage the greens to distribute until they are dark and shiny. Set aside while making the dressing.
4. Combine the rice vinegar, soy sauce, pepper, sugar, mustard powder and 2 teaspoons water in a small bowl. Add the white miso paste and use a fork or back of a spoon to mash and dissolve it into the liquids. Use the fork to whisk in the sesame oil, then pour dressing onto the collards and toss well — like really get in there. Sprinkle the toasted sesame seeds over the top and let sit for at least 10 minutes before serving.
5. Toss the greens again and transfer to a serving bowl. The salad can also be made a few hours ahead and kept in the refrigerator in a covered container until ready to serve.

Recipe adapted from “Sunday Best: Cooking Up the Weekend Spirit Every Day” by Adrienne Cheatham with Sarah Zorn. Published by Clarkson Potter.

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