When we were in North Carolina, I couldn’t wait to have some real Southern-style collard greens. I’m a big fan of collards in all of its forms. I devour it piled on top of injera as gomen, and I can’t refuse it when it’s used as the packaging of a raw taco. But the first way that I came to know and love collard greens was slow cooked and smoky at soul food restaurants in Los Angeles. Steamed piles of smoky greens would accompany barbecue or mac and cheese. (Going to LA? Don’t miss the greens at Stuff I Eat; although, they actually make theirs with kale.)
The first place that we dined in North Carolina was Bean Vegan Cuisine. (My full post about it, including a video tour, is here.) Collard greens were offered as a side dish, and that was a must. The smoky, slightly sweet, collard greens were mouthwateringly good. They were clearly slow cooked and falling apart in my mouth as I bit into them.
The vague sweetness of the greens was interesting to me, as it was unlike any other greens I’d had. The executive chef and founder of Bean, Charlie Foesch, came over to say hello. I commented at how wonderful the greens were, and he asked if I’d like to know his secret. Of course, the answer was yes.
He said that when he opened Bean, he wanted to have collard greens on the menu but made without the animal products that are often included (for obvious reasons since Bean is a vegan restaurant). He decided to add dried cranberries to the greens to give them a subtle sweetness that didn’t overwhelm. I looked closer at my greens and saw that dried cranberries were breaking apart in them. Genius!
As soon as I got home, I had to try it for myself. I made collard greens my usual way with lots of sautéed garlic, a bit of water for steaming the greens, a dash of liquid smoke, and part of a vegetable bouillon cube for added flavor. (This is my preferred bouillon. I often add it to soups or stews instead of vegetable broth or stock. It’s an easy pantry ingredient to have on hand. However, if you’d prefer to use broth, stock, or even just water, that works too.) Finally, I added dried cranberries and allowed the collards to cook for 20 to 30 minutes until they were fully softened.
The smoky sweet greens were perfection. They have a bold flavor, fall apart in the mouth, and still hold onto that wonderful edge of tinniness that I love in collard greens.
The first time I made these smoky sweet collard greens, I served them with blackened tofu using the creole spices I got at the Savory Spice Shop. The second time I barbecued seitan on a skewer and made some baked fries to go with it.
A note about liquid smoke:
Oftentimes Southern-style collard greens are smoky by way of animal products. People will include a smoked portion of a pig, specifically the joint where the pig’s foot was attached to his leg (called a ham hock). Keep in mind, of course, that the only reason it has a smoky flavor is because it was cooked in a smoker. So instead of smoking someone’s leg and then using it to flavor something else, I cut out the middle pig and use liquid smoke. Both the pig and I prefer it that way.
Liquid smoke is an ingredient that makes some people apprehensive. They imagine it’s some fake concoction when in fact, liquid smoke is literally condensed and liquefied smoke. It’s made by placing hickory, applewood, or mesquite wood in large chambers and then applying intense heat. That causes the wood to smolder and release smoke. The gasses are then cooled in condensers, which liquefies the smoke. The droplets are collected and the impurities are filtered and removed.
The flavor of liquid smoke is intense and a little goes a long way. I’ve noticed that in many recipes, people use a lot more than I do. I wonder if different brands have different intensities. I like to use Wright’s, because of the short ingredient list. You can find it in most grocery stores next to the barbecue sauces or grilling accoutrement for just a couple of bucks.
If you’d still prefer to stay away from liquid smoke, try using smoked salt instead. That’s what I often use in my split pea soup. Smoked salt is obviously saltier than liquid smoke, though. So start with less salt and add more as needed.
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