A Healthy Update for Southern-Style Collard Greens
A Southern cook remembers childhood meals at his grandparents' farm, and reimagines their pot of greens as collard green dirty rice wraps
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Article, recipe, and photos by Marrekus and Krysten Wilkes, Cooks with Soul
Sometimes I find myself sitting around daydreaming about my childhood and how I spent my summers in the country. I was born in Memphis, Tennessee but spent my summers in Byhalia, Mississippi where my grandparents lived. Byhalia is a small town about 35 miles outside of Memphis in northern Mississippi. My grandparents had several acres of land that my granddad used to grow vegetables, raise chickens, hogs, and horses. Spending my summers there was pivotal in my upbringing because it kept me out of trouble while growing up in the inner city.
I couldn’t wait until school to be out for the summer so that I could go see my cousins and get out to the country. Being at my grandparents' house allowed me to just be a kid and not worry about anything. I think my favorite part of it all was how simple life was back then. We knew that we would be responsible for getting up before the sun came up in order to go work the garden before it got too hot out, but we weren’t phased by the work because we were so focused on how much candy we would be able to buy from getting paid to work.
Every night my grandfather would set out the buckets that he needed to be filled with the butter beans, purple hull peas, collard greens, and other vegetables that he had planted. Working in the fields was hard work, but it built character. My grandmother would make sure we were well fed so that we would have the energy to finish all of our chores. We would get fresh bacon from the salt house, eggs from the chicken coop, and fresh buttermilk biscuits. This was the type of food that restaurants today charge a pretty penny for, and we had the luxury of having it all the time.
Most people reserve their family-style feast for Sundays, but we had it daily. Organic, grass-fed, all-natural food was on the menu whenever we wanted it. One of my favorite dishes was fresh-picked collard greens with salted ham hocks that had been cured since the last hog kill, and hot water cast-iron skillet cornbread. This was a simple side dish to make, but packed so much flavor. Seeing the greens simmering in a huge stockpot and getting the aroma wafting through the entire house was hypnotizing. I think the allure of picking collards myself made them more enjoyable, and made for a more intimate meal.
As I get older, I try to find creative ways to bring my favorite childhood recipes to fruition, but with a healthier aspect to them. When it came to collard greens, I was skeptical at first about how I could make a healthier version that also maintained the versatile seasoning and flavor profile of the South. One of the biggest misconceptions when it comes to cooking is that healthy food cannot taste good.
For this version of collard greens, I decided to go with steamed collards, and use a Southern-style rice and pork stuffing instead of the ham hocks. The rice stuffing is commonly called “dirty rice” and is a staple in Cajun cooking. It’s normally made with ground beef, chicken livers, and the holy trinity of green bell pepper, celery, and onion. My version of this rice stuffing is made with ground pork, peppers, onions, and my favorite Cajun seasoning, plus salt and black pepper.
When I told my family that I was making collard greens, they were super-excited. I know they were expecting the stockpot to be on the stove braising greens for several hours, but when they saw me rolling the collards and steaming them, they were anxious to try them. When the wraps were finally done, I plated them and brought them to the judges’ table (aka the family dinner table).
The combination of the steamed collards and the dirty rice stuffing gives this dish the perfect balance of healthy Southern food. The earthiness of the collards paired with the savory spiciness of the rice stuffing gives off all the vibes of country living, but with a healthier aspect.
The more I make this dish the better it turns out. I know that if my grandparents were alive they’d love this and give it their seal of approval.
Ingredients for collard green wraps
Beyond some kitchen staples, there are a few special ingredients you need to make the recipe.
Leafy greens. Get large, fresh collard greens that are big enough to be wrappers. They can be as big as 9 by 12 inches or even 12 by 15 inches, though smaller ones will work too, and then you can just use more of them. If you can't find collard greens, you can try the recipe with Swiss chard or even kale.
Cajun seasoning. We like to use our Cooks with Soul “The Boot” Cajun seasoning, which is a blend of cayenne, paprika, and herbs that enhances flavor with a little heat, but you can use a grocery store brand.
Remoulade sauce. For this dunk sauce for the wraps, we look for a store-bought kind that includes some horseradish, vinegar, and herbs for a little Cajun kick.
How to make collard green wraps
The basic process is to blanch the greens and make a healthy version of dirty rice for the filling. Then stuff the wraps, and steam them with a little chicken broth.
1. Blanch the collards in a large pot of water until they're bright green, about 2 minutes. This way they'll be flexible enough to work as wrappers. Cool them in ice water to stop the cooking.
2. For the filling, sauté ground pork with chopped red bell pepper, onion, and 4 cloves of garlic. Add Cajun seasoning, salt, and pepper. Meanwhile, cook a pot of rice with chicken broth and water. Combine the pork mixture with the cooked rice and check the seasonings.
3. Lay out one collard green leaf at a time on a clean work surface. Place a mounded ½ cup of rice filling mixture in the upper center of the leaf. Use less filling if your leaves are on the smaller side.
4. First fold over the top of the leaf and then the sides.
5. Roll the leaf to the base, compressing the filling a bit to help hold it together, until you have a neat bundle.
6. Warm chicken broth in a couple of frying pans or Dutch ovens and steam the wraps until the greens are tender and the filling is hot. The total time for the recipe is about 1 1 /4 hours. The wraps are great the next day, too, either cold or warmed up.
Three cheers for Southern cooking
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