Collards originated as a primitive non-head-forming cabbage, the wild Brassica oleracea plant, in the Mediterranean region, over 2000 years ago. Ancient Greeks grew kale along with collards, and the Romans grew several kinds of collards before the Christian era. Julius Caesar is said to have eaten a generous serving of collards as an indigestion preventive after attending royal banquets. It’s thought that either the Romans or the Celts introduced the vegetable to Britain and France in the 4th century B.C.
In America, the first mention of “coleworts” (collards) was around 1669. Enslaved Africans in the southern American colonies embraced collard greens in their cooking. African Americans developed recipes for the fast-growing collards, and a style of cooking that eventually evolved into what we know today as “Soul Food.” They kept at least one tradition from Africa: drinking the juice, called pot liquor, left over from cooking the greens.
Collards are also called couve in Brazil, couve-galega or “couve portuguesa” (among several other names) in Portugal, kovi or kobi in Cape Verde, berza in Spanish-speaking countries, raštika in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia and raštan in Montenegro and Serbia. In Kashmir, it is called haak.
Although they appear very different, collards, kale, cabbage, kohlrabi, cauliflower, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts are all varieties of the same species, Brassica oleracea. The only difference between these plants are the differences that humans introduced over thousands of years of selective cultivation. All of these Brassica oleracea vegetables are in the Brassicaceae family, along with along with bok choy, rapini, napa cabbage, turnips, mustard, watercress, arugula, radishes, horseradish, daikon, land cress, rutabaga, and shepherd’s purse. Collards are part of the family known botanically by the name Brassica oleracea acephala which translates to “headless cabbage vegetable.”
Collards remain the favorite green of the American South, especially in the winter, after the first frost. If grown during hot summers, collards develop a strong bitter flavor. The traditional way to cook collards is to boil or simmer them slowly to soften up the leaves and reduce the bitter taste. Typical seasonings can consist of diced onions, vinegar, salt, and black, white, or crushed red pepper. The most common side dish to serve with collard greens are baked or fried corn bread, and some people like to put hot sauce on the greens for extra flavor. They are often prepared with other similar green leaf vegetables, such as kale, turnip greens, spinach, and mustard greens in “mixed greens” or “mess o’greens.” Many Southerners believe that they can look forward to a year of good fortune if they eat collards and black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day. Others might hang a fresh collard leaf over their door to keep bad spirits away, and a fresh leaf on the forehead is said to cure a headache.
The major differences between collards and kale stems from their appearance and flavor. Collards have a medium green hue, an oval shape and smooth texture. Kale on the other hand is darker with grayish green broad leaves that are crinkled. Kale is also the stronger tasting of the two, thicker, chewier leaves, can taste a bit bitter compared to collards. People who aren’t used to these vegetables will more than likely think they smell unpleasant, whereas Southerners who grew up on this vegetable love the smell of cooking greens. Collards are available all year long, but their peak season is January through April. Fresh collard leaves can be stored for up to 10 days if refrigerated to just above freezing (1°C) at high humidity (>95%). In most home refrigerators, fresh collard leaves can be stored for about three days. After they are cooked, they can be frozen and stored for greater lengths of time.
Collard greens lower cholesterol by binding bile acids in the digestive tract. When this bile acid binding takes place, it is easier for the bile acids to be excreted from the body. Because bile acids are made from cholesterol, the net impact of this bile acid binding is a lowering of the body’s cholesterol level. Steamed collards show much greater bile acid binding ability than raw collards. The cancer-preventive properties of collard greens may be largely related to 4 specific glucosinolates found in this cruciferous vegetable: glucoraphanin, sinigrin, gluconasturtiian, and glucotropaeolin. Each of these glucosinolates can be converted into an isothiocyanate (ITC) that helps lower our cancer risk by supporting your detoxification and anti-inflammatory systems.
One cup of cooked collards contains only 49 calories, and is an excellent source of vitamins K, A, C, and folate; the minerals manganese and calcium; and fiber. It’s a very good source of tryptophan, choline, iron, vitamins B6 and B2. It’s a good source of magnesium, vitamin E, protein, omega-3 fats, potassium, phosphorous, and vitamins B3, B1, and B5. Collards are also high in the phytochemicals alpha and beta carotene, lutein and xeazanthin, sulforaphane, and oxalic acid.
Nutrients in 1 Cup Cooked Collard Greens
1 teaspoon of olive oil, or a few tablespoons of water or broth
2 or more large garlic cloves, minced
1 pound fresh collard greens, cleaned, trimmed & chopped (see below for more detail)
1 cup vegetable stock (optional)
1 tablespoon balsamic or cider vinegar
Salt to taste
Red pepper flakes to taste
Clean and prep the greens: Wash the greens well under slightly warm running water. You may want to let greens soak in water for a few minutes to loosen any dirt, then rinse well. Trim away any rough stems pieces or bruised leaves. Cut out the stems from all the leaves, collect together and chop into one-inch pieces. Roll 1 – 2 leaves into ‘cigar rolls’. Holding a roll with your fingers, to hold it together, slice into it lengthwise, turn ninety degrees and cut lengthwise again. Then cut cross-wise about an inch apart, you’ll end up with one-inch squares.
Spray a little olive oil in a large skillet, or just heat a little water or broth if you want to avoid the fat. Add the garlic and cook for a minute. Stir in the greens, stirring to coat. Add the remaining ingredients. Cover and cook til tender, stirring occasionally. Taste and adjust seasonings.
I am lucky to live in Carrboro, North Carolina, walking distance to the farmers’ market, so my collards are tender and fresh and only take 10 minutes or so to braise, without the vegetable stock. But if yours are store-bought or tough, you may want to try adding the vegetable stock and simmering for up to 45 minutes.
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