Food brings people together and keeps tradition, heritage, and culture alive. It’s also a way to be able to share with others your history and family. I grew up in Northern Wisconsin on a diet that was heavily influenced by German cuisine. Spätzle, strudel, stews, soups, and breads. There were also plenty of Spaghettios, fish sticks, and Hunt’s spaghetti sauce. In my adulthood I’ve branched out and really made it my focus to try all the food, learn to cook it, and appreciate the cultural heritage that is behind meals. I want to experience other cultures and the food that connects people. The challenge for me though is that I’m vegan and live in an area with really limited options.
Food, with its flavors and aroma, is one of the most powerful memory creators and inducers, so it makes sense that when you want to learn about a culture you need to eat its food. Think about how often you smell something and you’re instantly in a memory from your childhood or a special event. Marcel Proust’s autobiographical character ate a cookie and wrote a several thousand page book containing a lifetime of memories in Remembrance of Things Past. Food is powerful, and we need to keep real food thriving so that the next generations have memories of home cooked meals that didn’t come out of a box or the freezer.
This year I’ve been cooking a lot more and getting into cuisines that I’ve never really experienced before. As I cook or design recipes I try my best to stick to traditional flavors and techniques as much as possible or that I know how. As a vegan it makes it a challenge to cook traditionally when the time honored recipe uses meat or animal products as a main flavor or base. But, I do my best and try to make something so that I can experience flavors and dishes that I haven’t before.
A little while ago a friend of mine told me I needed to make Collard Greens. I had been getting really into Indian food and coming up with vegan methods to sub animal products. She said that she’d love to see how I veganize this classic dish. I did a lot of research on the traditional flavor profile and what flavors are needed to mimic ham hock. But, it is so much more than just trying to mimic a flavor. There’s a whole, rich cultural background when it comes to Collard Greens. When you take that bite of slow cooked greens and dip your corn bread into the pot likker you’re not just eating a meal, you’re taking part in a culture and a history, that for me as a white man from Wisconsin, I don’t want to appropriate, but appreciate.
What are collard greens? That name refers to two things: the actual plant and the meal. The greens themselves are similar to kale but not curly and more hearty, thick, and woody. The finished meal though is simply magical. It’s soul food for a reason, because that first bite…it hits. Close your eyes and savor it.
From What’s Cooking America: “Collard greens have been cooked and used for centuries. The Southern style of cooking of greens came with the arrival of African slaves to the southern colonies and the need to satisfy their hunger and provide food for their families. Though greens did not originate in Africa, the habit of eating greens that have been cooked down into a low gravy, and drinking the juices from the greens (known as “pot likker”) is of African origin. The slaves of the plantations were given the leftover food from the plantation kitchen. Some of this food consisted of the tops of turnips and other greens. Ham hocks and pig’s feet were also given to the slaves. Forced to create meals from these leftovers, they created the famous southern greens. The slave diet began to evolve and spread when slaves entered the plantation houses as cooks. Their African dishes, using the foods available in the region they lived in, began to evolve into present-day Southern cooking.”
Articles that go into further depth and perspective on the cultural importance and prominence of collard greens.
- Hungry for History – Collard Greens from Ebony.com
- A Letter to the Newgrorati: Of Collards and Amnesia from Afroculinaria.com/
This recipe for collard greens is a veganized version I came up with and by no means “The Best Way” to make these greens. I will say that they are easy to put together, because the only person really cooking is Time. The whole point of soul food is to let soul get into it, and that doesn’t happen fast. Low and slow is the key to great greens. Collard and mustard greens are thick and bitter when raw, but a long cooking time lets them break down, get soft, and meld with all the other flavors. You can serve them as a side dish or, like I’ve been doing, plates on plates of it to make it a whole meal. I’ve even been eating it for breakfast lately because it’s just so damn good.
Traditionally, collard greens are cooked with ham hock, but I wanted a way to get similar flavor while cutting out the ham. With just a few ingredients, and I stuck to ones you can find at most grocery stores, you can get that salty and smoky flavor that cooks down into the most delicious Pot Likker (that flavor infused liquid at the bottom of the pot).
I’d love for you to try out this veganized version and let me know what you think. Just don’t try to rush the process. Low and slow. Give it a few hours of stovetop time. If you want to be really cranky and/or pissed Google “collard greens” and check how many quick recipes there are out there. Bright green bowls of wet salad. It’s maddening. Or you can check out the Whole Foods fail where they said “Here’s how to cook them” but showed undercooked collards topped with peanuts and dried cranberries. Don’t be like them.
Southern Style Vegan Collard Greens
- Heavy bottom pot or cast iron dutch oven
- 8 ounces tempeh
- 1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar (could use apple cider vinegar)
- 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1 teaspoon liquid smoke
- 1/4 cup cold water
- 2 tablespoons maple syrup
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 Tablespoon seasoned salt
- 2 teaspoons vegan Worcestershire sauce
- 2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
- 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 small yellow onion (finely diced)
- 2 pounds chopped collard greens (or half mustard greens)
- 2-3 cups water (enough to slightly cover the greens)
- Chop the tempeh into small pieces that are roughly the size of Chicklet gum. Heat the pot over medium high heat. Place the tempeh into the preheated pot.
- Pour in the white balsamic, soy sauce, and salt while moving the tempeh around using a spatula. You don't want it to stick and burn. Drizzle the olive oil over the tempeh and quickly flip to coat each piece. Add in the onion powder and liquid smoke. Cook while moving the tempeh and flipping it for about 5 minutes. The goal is to brown it and build a base of cooked on seasoning in your pot.
- Turn off the heat. Remove the cooked tempeh from the pot and place on a plate or in a bowl. Set aside. Pour in the 1/4 cup water and stir to deglaze the pot.
- Measure out the ingredients for The Greens portion of the recipe. It is important to not let the seasoning from the cooked tempeh to scorch or to burn the seasonings as you add them in for this portion.
- Pour in the maple syrup and olive oil. Return the heat to medium-high. Once it starts to bubble add in the paprika, seasoned salt, Worcestershire, apple cider vinegar, garlic powder, and chopped onion. Bring to a simmer and let cook for 5 minutes while stirring. If it starts to look dry add in water 1 tablespoon at a time. This step is important to build the base of flavors.
- Add the chopped collard greens, stir to coat the greens in the seasoning, and cook for 2-3 minutes while stirring. Pour in the water. You want the water to just cover the greens and it's okay if you add a little too much because it will evaporate out. Top with the cooked tempeh.
- Bring the pot of greens and liquid to a boil then reduce to low. The lowest your range goes. Cook, uncovered, for 1-2 hours. Gently stir, scraping the bottom when you do, every 30 minutes. The goal is to have very little liquid remaining, only about 1/4 cup at the bottom.
- The longer you cook your greens the better they will be. If you can cook for 3-4 hours they will be even better. Add 1/2 cup water at a time if needed.
- The highly flavored liquid at the bottom of the pan is the best part. It's the "pot likker" and is perfect to dip some bread in, spoon over rice, or save and add to grits.
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