I have a real admiration for collards and other greens because they are survivors. Tomatoes, eggplants, and other warm-weather vegetables are delicious, of course, but they have it easy, basking in the sun all day and not being expected to withstand repeated freezes. And while Mississippi isn’t exactly known for its cold weather, this year, like much of the country, we experienced one of the harshest winters on record. At the coldest point, the temperature stayed below freezing for days on end, breaking waterlines in the city where I live, shutting down schools and leaving us without drinking water for about a week. Since December, it’s snowed more times that I can remember, which is amazing when you realize that we usually see snow maybe once every 5 years, so we remember even the faintest flurry by the year it happened, not the month.
So my collards made it through some real winter weather this year. At the height of the big freeze, I went outside to check on them and they were literally frozen solid. During the heaviest snow, they were buried in white for a couple of days, until I finally thought to go out there and dig them out so the leaves could get some light. But did the winter weather faze them? No, they shook it off and emerged just as vibrant as ever, perhaps even stronger for having endured:
That’s how they looked right after the coldest weather, before I started stealing some of their largest leaves to cook with. That’s another great thing about collards; unlike head lettuces or cabbages, you can cut off what you need, and the plant will keep growing.
When the weather really starts to get warm, the collard’s central stem shoots up and sprouts clusters of florets that look a little like broccoli. Eventually those florets bloom into little yellow flowers, which are pretty, yes, but signal the end of the growing season for the collards. The leaves become more bitter once the plant has flowered, so I try to harvest the leaves before that can happen. In this I almost never succeed. Currently my collards have stalks about 4 feet tall and more flowers than leaves.
I’ve been been racing against summer to use all the collards, adding them to as many meals as my family can tolerate. The simplest (and to my taste best) way to cook them is in the pressure cooker, as a side dish for beans and rice. But this time, I wanted to do something a little more ambitious, so I wrapped the beans and rice inside the collard leaves and baked them with a simple tomato sauce. In the words of my husband, “This one’s a keeper.”
- 1 cup cooked brown rice (I used brown jasmine)
- 1 1/2 cup small red beans, cooked
- 1 large onion, finely diced
- 1 green or yellow bell pepper, chopped
- 2 ribs celery, finely chopped
- 5 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 15-ounce can diced fire-roasted tomatoes
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
- 1 teaspoon sweet smoked paprika
- 1/2 – 1 tablespoon Tabasco, or to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- salt to taste
- 12 leaves collard greens
- You will need cooked rice and red beans, so before you do anything else, make sure you have those prepared. I pressure-cooked 1 cup of small red beans for 25 minutes (natural pressure release) and had about 3/4 cup of beans leftover after making this recipe.
- Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Spray or wipe it with olive oil, if you like. Add the onion and a pinch of salt, and cook, stirring regularly, until it begins to brown. Add the green pepper and celery and cook, adding a little water if it starts to dry out, until the vegetables are tender. Add the garlic and cook for another minute.
- Remove 3/4 of a cup of the vegetables from the skillet and mix them in a bowl with the fire-roasted tomatoes and a little salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
- To the skillet, add the rice, red beans, the seasonings, and 1/4 cup of bean-cooking liquid or vegetable broth. Reduce heat to very low and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring regularly and adding additional liquid if it starts to dry out. Remove from heat.
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to boil. Wash the collard leaves and cut off the stems level with the bottom of the leaves. Turn them with the coarse stem-side of the leaf up, and holding a very sharp knife parallel to the leaf, trim off part of the thickened central rib. Be careful not to cut through the leaves. If leaves are very large, you can just cut out the thickest part of the central rib.
- In two batches of 6, place the collard leaves into the boiling water, pressing them down gently to make sure all leaves are submerged. Boil for 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and rinse in cool water. Repeat with remaining leaves.
- Preheat oven to 350F.
- To assemble, spoon half of the tomato mixture into the bottom of a long, oiled casserole dish. Place a collard leaf in front of you, trimmed side up and stem closest to you. Place about 2-3 tablespoons of the rice mixture (2 for small leaves, 3 for larger) about a quarter of the way from the bottom.
- Fold the side edges over the middle. Fold the bottom (stem end) over the filling, tucking it in behind the filling. Roll up tightly, and place each roll into the casserole dish. Spoon the remaining tomato mixture over the rolls, and cover the baking dish tightly with aluminum foil. Bake at 350 for 40 minutes. Serve hot.
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