“What’s this thing about kale?”asked a newbie in town, from Alabaman, sipping her beer on a warm June evening on the terrace of our local brewpub. “I miss collards! Have you all ever even heard of collards?”
I had. I was growing them, thanks to somebody—I don’t remember who—who had brought tiny, hand-folded envelopes of Yellow Cabbage collard seeds to our local annual seed swap.
I’d planted the seeds in late summer of last year, and the plants had grown slowly over the winter. Normally, if I plant brassicas too late for a fall harvest, they go to seed as soon as warm weather arrives, if they survive that long. But through the spring the collards grew lushly. By then I couldn’t remember what it was I’d planted. I racked my brain to remember, because these brassicas looked good enough to eat even in lettuce season, when we neglect other vegetables to stuff ourselves with sweet, tender lettuce before it turns bitter and milky.
By the time I met the Alabaman, the collard plants were three feet tall. And with scant watering they kept growing through the hot, dry summer. The plants were so beautiful that my husband asked me to grow some in the front yard, where the neighbors could admire them.
Today the tallest of my four collard plants is four feet, and still the plants aren’t going to seed. Although I picked about 40 snails off the leaves this morning, the damage is scarcely noticeable from several feet away. The collards are still gorgeous.
Like kale, collard is a cabbage that doesn’t form a head (the word collard comes from colewort, an old name for wild cabbage). The thick green leaves have a waxy coating that repels water as oilcloth does. Tronchuda cabbage, which Portuguese cooks slice for caldo verde, is a kind of collard; so are the greens that Brazilians serve as a side dish with feijoada. Collard is rich in manganese and vitamins A, C, and K.
My plants bear big, open leaves all around the stem; the biggest leaves are two feet long. Yellow Cabbage collard gets the cabbage part of its name, I guess, because the plant makes a half-hearted effort at head formation, with small leaves in the center turning inward. The yellow part of the name makes sense to me only when I look at the smallest of my plants, whose color I would call yellow-green. The other three plants look to me more blue than yellow–but perhaps they are all yellower than typical collard.
According to Slow Food, which has put Yellow Cabbage collard on the Ark of Taste, the variety got its start in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1887. There, Colonel Joe Branner developed collard with less bitter, thinner leaves and a yellower color than other collards had. Today Yellow Cabbage collard is grown mostly around Ayden, North Carolina, where Benny and Vickie Cox sell both bagged collard leaves and collard bedding plants from their roadside business, The Collard Shack, and the town holds an annual collard festival.
In North Carolina, the harvest of spring-planted collard begins around Mother’s Day. The leaves are considered best when they are young and small, no longer than a foot. Although in general people prefer to eat collard when it has been sweetened by cold weather, Slow Food says that Yellow Cabbage collard reaches its peak flavor in mid-summer.
You can use collard much as you might use kale. In the South, collard greens are usually boiled for a long time with smoked or salted meat. But long cooking isn’t necessary if you like greens with texture; you can instead briefly sauté the cut leaves in oil, with garlic. Southerners sometimes use collard instead of head cabbage in sauerkraut. According to Slow Food, Yellow Cabbage collard is traditionally pickled in vinegar, with hot peppers and a little brown sugar (if you have such a recipe, please share it with me!). You can even make the famed massaged kale salad with collard in place of kale.
Whether or not you’ve ever made massaged kale salad, you don’t need a recipe for the collard version. First pick a few collard leaves—fewer than you think you’ll need, because these leaves are surprisingly dense. Cut out the midribs, and slice the leaves into strips. Sprinkle some salt over the collard strips. Rub the strips with your fingers until they lose their waxy coating and turn bright green. Let them rest for twenty minutes or so. Then taste the greens, and rinse them if they are too salty. Now add lemon juice and other ingredients of your choice—pickled onions, sunflower or pumpkin seeds, black pepper, chunks of tomato, small pieces of fresh or dried fruit. Finally, toss in some olive oil.
Before you make your Yellow Cabbage collard salad, of course, you must plant some Yellow Cabbage collard. The seeds can be hard to find. But Southern Exposure Seed Exchange has sold them in the past and probably will again, and one member of Seed Savers Exchange offered them this year. I may have seeds to share, too—assuming my plants ever produce any. Until then, I’ll think of my collards as lovely, edible evergreen shrubs.