There are hundreds of ways to eat your greens these days, but slow-cooking them in bacon fat is not a trendy one for the wellness-obsessed.
It is, however, the quintessential way to prepare collards. Although I have lived south of the Mason-Dixon line my whole life, my portrait of Southern food is cultural, not personal. My family ate well, but we didn’t eat the defining foods that make up a good meat-and-three buffet. When I got older, I didn’t flee the South but stayed for a job, and my job taught me the power of place and its relationship to food. And Southern food, with its abiding link to Southern land, taught me the richness of heritage, and my knowledge expanded but didn’t settle on my own table until one day, I decided to make collards for myself.
I don’t have a cherished recipe from my grandmother, nor did I consult any other icons before turning a bunch of collards into deep-green ribbons for slow-cooking. The only pork in my kitchen was bacon (hardly something to apologize for), and I had no idea how long the greens should braise. After crisping up the bacon, I sautéed lots of sliced garlic along with the chopped sweet onion and chile flake, before adding the greens. I was cooking by feel, finding my own road to the spicy, smoky, sweet taste of the braised collards I craved.
The resulting tangle of collard greens swimming in delicious pot-likker outshone everything else on the table, including the barbecue pork my husband had smoked for hours. It was—is—a reminder that those who came before us knew a few things, especially how to eat their greens.
1 ½ lbs. collard greens, sliced into ribbons
12 oz. applewood bacon, cut into lardons
2 small sweet onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
¾ tsp. red chile flakes
2 c. chicken broth
¼ c. apple cider vinegar
Kosher salt to taste
1. Add the bacon to a large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot, and then turn the heat to medium to let the fat render out as the bacon crisps. Fry until bacon is crispy and brown, stirring occasionally. Remove bacon from pot with a slotted spoon; set aside.
2. Add chopped onion to hot bacon fat and stir, sautéing for about five minutes. Season with salt. Add sliced garlic and chile flake to onion and continue sautéing for another five minutes, until onions are soft.
3. Pour chicken broth into pot and raise heat until the broth comes to a simmer. Add collard greens in batches, stirring, until they have wilted enough for all to fit. Season again to taste with salt. Reduce heat to very low and cover with a lid. Cook slowly for another 45 minutes to an hour, stirring occasionally.
4. Remove from heat, stir in apple cider vinegar and reserved bacon lardons, and taste to adjust seasoning, if necessary. Serve with the pot-likker.