Sunday, September 17, 2006

In Defense of Collards

The farmers market yesterday was a first for me in that it absolutely poured rain for just about the entire market. Not only did we vendors get soaked to the skin, but the wind turned turned cool enough at times to see your breath. I had to take down my umbrella because the wind turned it inside out, and the only other canopy had to be held down at each corner to keep from blowing away. Naturally there were few customers and we all decided to pack up and leave about 11:30 when the next downpour started. I felt bad because I am trying to get my brother-in-law to come and sell with me as he always plants three huge gardens, and I took some of his corn stalks tied into bundles to sell for him. I thought if I could show him that he could actually make some money with his gardens that he might be more amenable to joining our group. So, it was a shame I could not sell any of his sheaves, and he is just not interested in marketing. I am certainly going to be working on designing a sturdy, easily portable and erectible stand this winter.

This week I had beautiful collard greens to sell. I picked them Friday and to keep them fresh, I bundled 10-12 nice stems (depending on size) and stood them upright in tall plastic ice cream buckets lined on the bottom with wetted paper towels. I set the buckets in a larger plastic tub and placed ice blocks around the buckets. Then I wet newspaper sheets and covered the collard tops, tucking in the paper edges so that the newspaper looked like a sealed cover for the larger plastic tub. I put the tub near our whole house fan so air would circulate well near the collards and kept the newspaper wet. When I was ready for market, I re-wet the newspaper, drained the melted ice and added new ice blocks. The collard stems stayed perfect! I had been worried about keeping them from wilting because the temperature had risen to near 80F on Friday, but they came through like champs. But the reason I am talking about collards is that I have definitely noticed that people up here don't appear to be familiar with this fantastic vegetable. I have heard people pass by and say "But what do you do with it?" and "They don't have any taste." Hence, this little aside on the merits of one of my favorite vegggies.

My mother was from Louisiana and we kids grew up no strangers to Southern cuisine. I remember my mother going shopping in the black neighborhoods of Chicago to get "Southern" food ingredients because she could not get them in the grocery stores near our house. Collard greens was one of the items. After I got married and we moved to our own house, the first thing my husband and I did was carve out a garden area in the back yard. Collards were always a staple.

Easy to grow and ornamental in the late summer/fall garden, collards are a member of the cabbage family and are often called "headless cabbage". The leaves are large and well-veined on strong stems. They have been grown since Greek and Roman times and the plant originated in the Mediterranean area. Some people like the taste of collards after frost has tinged the leaves, but I actually think they are more tender before frost hits and I cover my collards with row cover to protect the leaves from frost. Collards like warmth, but grow very well in cool temperatures, as do all brassicas. They grow quickly in the late days of summer and I have not found them to be picky about the soil they are grown in.

I begin picking collard leaves in mid-September, starting with the lowest leaves on each plant as these are the first formed and most mature. I use a pocket knife to cut the stems, but my mother used to twist and pull toward her each stem -- much the same as picking rhubarb stems. As you pick the leaves, the plant produces more leaves higher up on the stem, and as the season progresses, the collard plants can twist and turn creating delightful visual garden accents.

To prepare collards you first wash the leaves in water. Be sure to use leaves that are green and not yellow, as yellow leaves do not have the nutritional benefits green leaves do and are tough. It is an imperfect world, and the leaves may have bug holes chewed in them; that doesn't bother me (you can't see the holes after the collards are chopped and cooked anyway). Trim off excess stem (some people slice and cook the stems, but I prefer to add them to the compost bin), fold the leaf in half using the center vein at the fold point, and slice along the fold to remove the main vein. I then fold the leaf a couple more times and slice it into smaller pieces. Voila -- chopped collards!

Collards will shrink down when you cook them, much the same as spinach, chard, and other greens, and you can substitute collards for other greens in recipes. I have used collards instead of spinach in lasagna and think the collards give a better taste. Besides being high in Calcium, B vitamins (especially B1, B2, B9), A and C, collards are high in fiber and 1 cup of collards will give you 4 grams of protein. I have read that you can blend collards into fruit juice for a healthful drink that supposedly helps gouty conditions, bronchitis and poor blood circulation. I do know that lack of vitamin B2 has been linked to depression, so if you tend to suffer from depression, try eating some collard greens and see if it helps you. Lastly, collards freeze and can well, and believe me, there are few things more satisfying than eating fresh garden produce that you have stored in the dead of winter when the snow is blowing. To learn more about collards, just do a Google search and you will find plenty of information about them.

And in the meantime stop by my farm stand at the Phillips Farmers Market in Phillips, Wisconsin on Saturday morning, and buy some collards. This is my first year as a market gardener, and I don't have much to sell, but I am sure that once you try collards, you will want to buy more of them.