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Once the first frost kisses the collards, they are ready for picking. We get entire plants, cut at the base like cabbages from certain roadside stands & use 'em all! Big flat heavy leaves are every bit as good as tender inner leaves if done right. Some folks cut out the center ribs on the bigger leaves - we prefer to string out the strings & snap the stems up. We were also taught not to cut a collard, they are to be torn after soaking in 3 sinkfuls of water to remove any grit. Start the braising pot a the evening before cooking collards, to give the ham hocks time to cook down. Don't be daunted by the amount - collards do cook down a lot! Remember to serve with cornbread to sop up the pot liquor - this can be a full meal for collard lovers. Dig in! For the pork averse, 5 or 6 smoked turkey wings may be substituted but they lack tha "jes right" flavor of ham hock. Interestingly, ham hock is very low in fat & provides more flavor in the form of gelatin (like oxtail) - apparent only after chilling the pot liquor! ***make a big batch as these freeze great in freezer bags for later use***
- Using large nonreactive pot, bring water, vinegar, salt, red pepper flakes & ham hocks to a boil.
- Reduce heat to simmer, cover pot & simmer 2 hours until ham hocks are falling apart.
- Cool liquid & ham hocks.
- Pick bones from meat & skin - chop both roughly & return to pot.
- Bring liquid to simmer & lay the collard stalks in the bottom of the pot. Next layer in the torn leaves, putting the largest, thickest on the bottom above the stalks & finish with the tender innermost leaves. There should be about 4 cups of liquid in the bottom of the pot - not all the leaves are submerged!
- Gently braise collards with lid on pot for an hour. Low heat is key - high heat causes release of sulfur compounds (as same other members of Brassicaciae family -cabbage, broccoli), stirring occasionally.
- Expect the leaves to initially brighten & then slowly turn a dark forest green - and smell really good!
- Add additional heat with pickled peppers or Texas Pete (made in NC) hot sauce & vinegar as you wish at the table - Mmmmmm good! Freezes well in freezer bags.