When I realized late Friday how much effort I was going to have to put into preparing collards, Collard Friday very quickly turned into Collard Saturday. I was still committed to my one-day battle and I wanted to do it right, so I planned to spend all Saturday afternoon in the kitchen with collards. Mmmmm.
Saturday morning I went to the farmer’s market. And I might have gone by myself. But before you naysay anything about broken promises and whatnot, I actually found every single thing on my list.
So, have you ever seen a collard before? Or a bunch of collards? And if someone said to you, “three to four bunches of collards,” would you know how much that is? I walked up to the collard bin at the farmer’s market and I was the only person standing there for a minute (thinking to myself, of course I’m the only person buying collards because they’re goddamn disgusting). Before me were the biggest, hugest leafy green leafy things I’ve ever seen. Huge. Gigantic. Big. Bigger than me, big. Big. Several big stalky stems were bound together, which didn’t make sense to me, so I thought, I’ll just take those apart and take what I want. And you know I really only wanted one. But something about how I had to very laboriously separate the one stalky bit from its stalky bit friends wasn’t altogether intuitive, plus my recipe called for “three to four bunches of collards,” so then I started to really study the stalks and stems and binding of the stalks and stems. Were the big stalk-like things that narrowed down into many, many stems a bunch? Or were the eight or nine of those things bound together considered a bunch? If that was the case, could I possibly need 30 pounds of collards? I was beginning to feel like it was a mistake to come by myself this time, not because I couldn’t find what I was looking for, but because I wouldn’t be able to carry what I found.
As I stood there deliberating over how many collards to get, several more people finally came up and started putting bunches in their baskets. So I just watched them. The lady next to me turned to a plastic bag dispenser behind us; apparently collards are so big they get their own supersized bag. I watched as she pulled one off and then picked through the collards until she found a set (still not sure on the bunch business at this point) she liked (also not sure what her criteria was) and dropped it in her McBag. I followed suit. I got a big bag, picked through the collards, inspected them for nothing at all, chose one that looked like all the other ones, dropped it in my basket, and moved on to the rest of my list. A slight panic about Collard Saturday began to set in, but I suppressed the urge to let it take over. I mean, collards are so big and so green. And also so big. But you know, I can totally do this.
The next place I went in the farmer’s market was the meat counter for some ham hocks. I’ve never bought ham hocks before, not because I have anything against them, but mostly because I’ve only really ever heard of them being used to make vegetables taste better, and well, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but I don’t eat many vegetables. So I said to Mr. Meat Guy, two ham hocks, please. I had no idea what to expect, and actually, Elwood’s recipe called for smoked ham hocks and I was kind of hoping that’s what I’d get. Instead Mr. Meat Guy gave me two raw pieces of pork that looked like every other piece of raw pork I’ve ever seen. This was not an exciting experience. Nothing to see here, people.
It got a lot more exciting when I got home and realized hoping for smoked meat and not getting it meant I was going to have to smoke it myself. Of course, I didn’t actually realize that until I had a pot of simmering chicken broth on the stove to which I was about to add some really, super raw ham hocks. Yum.
I paused, and I thought for a second. I looked at the raw ham in my hands and thought, wait a minute, these ham hocks aren’t smoked! And then I envisioned myself firing up my smoker and spending the next six years smoking those hocks and the four years after that simmering collards, and blah, no thanks. I was pretty sure I was going to hate them to begin with, there was no way I was putting all that effort into something that fucking disgusting. (I mean, come on, Elwood, even you weren’t sure these were going to be good….I know we have faith in meat and beer, and I do, I totally do, but….you should have seen those fugly collards.)
Plan B. I was trying to knock these out in one day; obviously there was a Plan B.
Plan B was Alton Brown’s mustard green gratin, but with collards instead of mustard greens. I loved this idea, especially because it was a totally different way to prepare collards, it had my most favorite food word of all time—gratin—and it took about a thousand percent less time than the traditional way.
Once I read over the collard green gratin recipe a hundred times and did some Googling on how to clean and prepare collards, I determined to finally settle the bunch question for myself. I decided one of the big stalky bits with a ‘bunch’ of little stems is a bunch, because this is reasonable, and if a usual recipe calls for three or four or five or six bunches and they were grouped together that way at the farmer’s market, then the individual pieces are probably a bunch. Deductive reasoning is what that is, right there. Also, I got a little dizzy when I thought about having to work with much more than three or four of those stalky bits, so I got comfortable with my answer and didn’t verify with Google because if there was an answer other than the one I came up with, I didn’t want to know. Finally soothed about this daylong mystery, I started cutting off the stalks and stems and washing the dirt (and possibly bugs, according to Google) off the leafy greens. OK, now, collards are huge and scary and they’re super time-consuming, especially for the relatively small yield you get in the end, but I found the methodical, repetitive cutting and cleaning to get them ready really relaxing. I don’t think preparing them in the future will wind up being the best use of my time, but I enjoyed the one experience I’ve had with them so far.
I finished cleaning and cutting the greens and added them to the garlic and mushrooms I was sautéing in a roasting pan on the stove. This was the first time I’ve used a roasting pan on the stove and the only one I had was way, way bigger than what the recipe called for; really, do people have multiple sizes of roasting pans? I went with it, though, and I think I did it right. Then I added the greens to the cheese mixture I’d already prepared and popped that bad boy in the oven.
Hey guys, collard green gratin is great. It tasted like spinach, actually, which is one vegetable I tolerate extremely well. And when I took it as my side dish to a potluck that night, everyone agreed this is a perfectly acceptable way to win; I don’t have to like the other kind. And I probably won’t, so, one-day battle with collards won. Done.
I do still have those ham hocks, though, so if anyone has any idea how to marry ham hocks and bok choy, I’m all ears.