July 30, 2014

Slow-Cooked Collard Greens; a.k.a. Awesome Cuts of Meat You're (Probably) Not Eating: Ham Hocks!

For a white Jewish girl born and raised in New York City, I am absurdly fond of southern, African-American inspired soul food. Ribs, cornbread, fried chicken, sweet potatoes laced with brown sugar…pass me a plate. Better yet, pass me two plates, and also a wet-nap, if you have one handy. But just because my individual metabolism can’t quite handle the dose of carbohydrate that comes with those sweet potatoes, cornbread, mac n’ cheese, and the molasses, ketchup, sugar, and brown sugar lurking in the BBQ sauce on the ribs, doesn’t mean I can’t get a fix of some good, down home food that’s good for the body and the soul. And just because I am a white Jewish girl from New York City doesn’t mean I can’t cook some of it, myself. Exhibit A: slow-cooked collard greens, complete with ham hock! (Yes, that’s right, a ham hock. I said I was Jewish; I didn’t say I keep kosher. And thank goodness, because there are way too many delicious things to do with pork. A life without bacon is no life at all. <--- That would make a great bumper sticker.)

I have been wanting to try my hand at good, old-fashioned collard greens for years. Why I haven’t gotten around to it until now, I don’t know. And I’ll admit, late July is an odd time to make a dish like this, especially when the farmers’ markets are teeming with tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, eggplant, berries, peaches, and other yumminess that will be but a distant memory come the colder weather, when collards will be in abundant supply.

I guess maybe I wanted to do the collards because I’ve been skimping on greens for a while. Leafy greens, that is. I’ve been scarfing up broccoli and Brussels sprouts like a champ, but collards, kale, chard, and other greens have become all but a distant memory. And I know I need the nutrients. The cruciferous vegetables are awesome, but we’ve got to spread the love around if we want to cover our nutritional bases, right? We’ve got to introduce different things here and there, or re-introduce things that might have fallen by the wayside. Variety, mixing things up, keeping things interesting. (Hey, if it works in the bedroom, why not in the kitchen? But that’s all I’ll say about that. This is, as I have said before, a family show.)

The best collard greens I’ve ever had were, in fact, at a BBQ joint. And I tried to recreate the recipe based on my best guesses as to what was in it. I can’t say my attempt was 100% successful, but I wasn’t too far off the mark. I was close enough, in fact, that I’m pretty sure I’ll nail it with another try or two. (The biggest thing I think I missed was vinegar. Lots of recipes call for ACV.)

Let’s get to the recipe and then we’ll talk details, variations, and substitutions. 
  • 2 bunches collard greens—about 6-8 large leaves each (local & organic if possible, but if not, just eat the damn greens)
  • 1-2 ham hocks, depending on size (Mine were 8 oz total)
  • 1 medium white or yellow onion, sliced
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes (optional, but believe me, you want ‘em)
  • 2 tsp salt (preferably an unrefined one)
  • 4 cups water

First, you’ll want to separate the leafy part of the collards from the tough, fibrous stems. Unlike many recipes that call for discarding the stems, DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, DISCARD THE STEMS. I mean, really? Why throw away perfectly good food? It’s not like the stems have no nutrients or fiber. Most recipes call for pitching ‘em because nobody wants to deal with them, and they take longer to cook than the leafy parts. Oh, wah. Wah, wah, wah. Wait a sec while I go cry in the other room…

Okay, I’m back. There is a very simple solution to this problem: get the stems cooking first so they get a head start, then add the leafy parts a little later. So here’s how this works:

Cut the ham hock into pieces if you can. (You’ll need a good/big knife. Those things are pretty tough. More on this later.) Pour the water into your slow cooker, add the cut-up ham hock and set on high.

While the slow cooker heats up, separate the leafy parts of the collards from the stems. This is a bit tedious, but it’s easy, and it doesn’t have to be perfect. A little bit of the stem will still be left in the leaves, and that’s fine. You just want to get the biggest, toughest sections separated. So grab hold of the stem end, make a fist, and pull your hand along the stem, taking the leaves with you. (You could try to do more than one leaf at a time, but this didn’t work out so well for me. Best bet is one at a time. Like I said: tedious, but easy.) On the other hand, you could probably do this with a knife and cut through multiple leaves at once. If you want to do that, have at it. I won’t kick you out of the club. (But if you ask me, half the fun of cooking is getting your hands in there!)

Once you have a pile of stems, cut them up however you like. This means, go with however you want to see them in the finished product. If you want little pieces, cut little pieces. If you want 1-inch pieces, cut them that size. It’s all good. I did a mix, and I have to say, I prefer smaller pieces, maybe ¼ inch, but stick with whatever you like.

Throw the stems in with the ham hock and let ‘er go on high for about 60 minutes. 
Cut up ham hock & stems. 
No way anything that starts out like this can
possibly taste bad when it's done. 

At the hour mark, toss in the sliced onions and keep it going on high for another 30 minutes. (For the onion, just slice it thinly. Doesn’t have to be super-thin. You probably don’t want thick onion slices in this, is all I’m saying.)

Onions added

As for the collards, the quickest way to cut them up is to take a couple leaves at a time, stack them together, roll them up the long way, and then cut them into “ribbons” by cutting horizontally. (The technical term for this is a “chiffonade,” but I usually think of that more for much smaller ribbons, like for basil (as awesomely demonstrated in this video). If you happen to watch the video or click on the other link, your technique will be the same for the collards, but you’ll make larger ribbons, and you’ll want to stack fewer leaves together to cut through at once. (And you don’t have to go crazy finding a good angle to cut at. Just cut.)

After that first hour and a half, add the chopped collard leaves, the salt, and the red pepper flakes. Turn the slow cooker to low, and let it go for about 3-4 hours. After the first little while, give everything a toss/stir to make sure all the greens get coated in water and are wilted. When you’re done stirring, make sure the pieces of ham hock are all submerged in the water. Why? We’ll get to that soon.

Everybody into the pool!

One thing you will notice as this cooks is that the greens cook down. When you first add them all to the slow cooker, it’ll look like a giant mass of leaves. But once they all wilt and shrink down into the cooker, you’ll wonder what happened to it all.

You will also notice that your collards have turned from a bright, vibrant green, to a duller, darker color. That’s fine. Nothing wrong there. (The same thing happens if you overcook broccoli. Have you ever noticed it turns almost grayish and mushy if you let it steam too long? The same sort of thing happens with collards, except with collards, we want this to happen. They’ll only taste better, whereas the broccoli will turn bitter and just plain yucky if overcooked.)

Another thing you’ll notice is that there probably looks like there’s more liquid in the slow cooker than when you started. Some of that is water that has leached out of the greens themselves. And you know what that means: DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, DISCARD THIS LIQUID. This is what is known in the south as “pot liquor,” and any good cook worth his/her mettle would never dream of pitching it. For a few reasons:
  1. It’s effing delicious (I mean, it’s pork-fatty, salty goodness. Spill it down the drain? Are you kidding me?! I almost want to call it pot licker.)
  2. It’s loaded with nutrients. You may have heard that boiling vegetables isn’t the best way to cook them because you’ll lose some of the nutrients that leach into the cooking liquid. Well, you don’t lose them if you drink the cooking liquid, sillyheads! Yes, some of the vitamins will be reduced by the heat of cooking, but all the minerals will still be there. Minerals are not heat-labile. (I have to confess here, though, that I was disappointed by the mineral content of collards. Being a pretty hardy leafy green, I expected it to be loaded with magnesium. Why? Well, y’know how iron is the central element in the hemoglobin molecule? [It’s the Fe you see in the middle of the diagram there.] In chlorophyll, which we can think of as “the hemoglobin of the plant kingdom,” the central element is magnesium, so we would expect leafy greens to have tons of it. [It’s the Mg you see in the middle.] So I was pretty bummed to see that collards are not an especially huge source of magnesium. [Ditto for kale and mustard greens. Spinach has a little bit more. But that’s okay. These things make up for their shortcomings in the magnesium department by being insanely good sources of folate [the real stuff, not synthetic folic acid], carotenes (vitamin A precursor), vitamin K1, and manganese. Don’t know much about manganese? It does lots of cool stuff inside us, such as form manganese superoxide dismutase, a crazy-awesome antioxidant localized in the mitochondria.)
  3. It’s loaded with GELATIN!
Yes, these ham hocks are from the regular supermarket. 
So these pigs were almost certainly not free-foraging 
on a nice farm somewhere. But when I saw them 
at the store, I couldn’t help myself. I promise, next time, 
I’ll get the ones that have been anointed by the gods. 
Cut me some slack this time. (Pretty please?)

Since point 1 needs no explanation, and I’ve pretty well covered point 2, let’s expand on point 3 for a sec. Ah yes, our old friend gelatin. Proline, glycine, lysine, and other amino acid goodness that we sometimes don’t get enough of when we focus mainly on muscle meats (like ribs, chops, steaks, etc). This, my friends, is why we use the ham hock (which, by the way, is sort of the "shank" of the pig--a section of its little piggy leg). Well, no, the truth is, we use the hock because it contributes rich, rich flavor, but we also get the bonus of the gelatin. (And this is why I said it’s good to make sure the hock pieces are submerged in the cooking liquid. That’s how all the gelatinous goodness will get released.)

When you were cutting up your ham hock, you probably noticed that that thing was pretty gnarly, right? Just like the beef shanks and beef tongue we’ve looked at in previous posts, ham hocks are one of those cuts you would absolutely not be able to eat any other way except cooked low & slow in a moist environment. Those suckers are loaded with connective tissue and covered in skin. Know what that means? Collagen and gelatin. Things that are very good for our own collagen, skin, and connective tissue. (Even if you believe homeopathy is total new-age crank horseshit not scientifically sound, we can appreciate the philosophy of “like cures like” when it comes to skin and connective tissue. Eating these bits and pieces of other animals is good for these bits and pieces in us. So yeah, please, please, stop buying skinless chicken for crissake. Roast it until the skin’s crispy, and then EAT IT.) Making footballs isn’t the only thing pigskin is good for. Eat it, man, eat it! It will be quite rubbery. Eat it anyway! Eat the whole hock, except for the bone. (That, you can save in the freezer for stock.) It’ll be rubbery, but soft. You’ll have no trouble chewing it. (Besides, that never stopped you from calamari, right?)

Y’know how I know there’s a lot of gelatin and connective stuff in a ham hock? Well, besides me knowing by just looking at the thing, here’s what happened the day after I made the collard greens: the pot liquor jelled! Yes! Incontrovertible proof.

Here are the top & bottom of the ham hock. You can see the bone, 
connective tissue, and skin surrounding it all. Good stuff!

Et voila!
I’m not a food historian (although that sounds like a job I would love), so I can only assume that a dish like collard greens slow cooked with a ham hock was something prepared by slaves, for themselves and their families to consume, using whatever odds & ends they could get their hands on. So whatever greens they could grow in the tiny patch of dirt they might have had access to outside their quarters, combined with the bits & pieces the owners/wealthy landowners probably turned their noses up at: ham hocks, pig ears, organ meats, etc. So it’s a bit ironic: in using whatever little they could scrape together, the slaves actually created something more nutritious than what their owners/masters were eating at their cushy dining tables, using grandmama’s fine linens and antique silver. (But if I had to guess, I’d say they probably weren’t using electric slow cookers…)

Okay, now that we’ve got all the business taken care of, let’s see how to change this up a bit:

Don’t use a slow cooker. Just use a big pot, on low heat.

If you don’t have a ham hock (which would be tragic, but just in case), you can get the same flavor profile by using bacon. You won’t get the gelatin or other nutritious connective tissue, but you’ll get the smoky, porky goodness, and that’s plenty, in my book. I’d cook up a bunch of bacon, then cut it up and add it to the greens, along with some of the fat. There are tons of recipes online

You can omit the red pepper flakes, but most of the down-home-type places I’ve ever had collard greens in made ‘em just a tiny bit on the spicy side. The salt, however, is non-negotiable. Without a generous amount of salt, your collards will be bland city. Besides, sodium is an essential nutrient, and, in most people, it does not contribute to hypertension.

Probably the biggest way to alter this recipe is to use other greens in addition to the collards. I’d use collards as the base, but you can throw in kale, mustard greens, and /or dandelion greens. (I’d avoid chard and beet greens for this dish.) Something to keep in mind, however, is that mustard and dandelion greens are very bitter. They’re also much flimsier than collards and kale. If you want to add them, I’d let the collards go for at least an hour first and then add the more delicate greens—and keep an eye on them. For kale, you’d want to follow the same stem/leaf separating process as for the collards, but mustard and dandelion green stems are much softer and don’t need the extra cooking time. And if you use dandelion or mustard greens, you might consider adding a small amount of sugar (yes, regular sugar) to the slow cooker – maybe a teaspoon (two at the most). A teaspoon or two of sugar is not a lot for the amount of food this would make, and it might make these nutritional powerhouses that much more palatable.

Thank goodness for collard greens. When I manage to find a BBQ or soul food place where I can get ribs or brisket that aren’t served already sopping with sauces that are likely loaded with sugar, I can eat some delicious beef or pork, and the greens, and not miss the cornbread one bit. (Okay, maybe a little…)

Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.


  1. Fantastic! Only yesterday I slow cooked a whole fresh pork hock with onion, leek, garlic, fennel, fennel seeds, tomato, and stock (had lamb stock on hand, so used that). Using fingers to eat instead of knife & fork made it even more enjoyable - all the lovely flavours with meat, fat and skin...all so gelatinous that my fingers stuck together. Yummmm - perfect for a cold winter's night in southern Oz.
    If I have a bacon/ham hock, I firstly use it to make stock as a base for pumpkin or sweet potato soup.

  2. Gonna give this recipe a try ... another great article.

    1. Just one suggestion...look at a couple of other recipes online. I think I could have done better with the seasoning...maybe a little spicier, and definitely add a little vinegar. It was still delicious, but I think my next try at it will be better.