When I was growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta, my parents’ garden teemed with hardy, wavy-edged collard greens. Resilient and easy to grow, the greens flourished from late autumn through early winter—but my mother always insisted that they were at their best after the season’s first frost. That’s when she would harvest the sinewy leaves and stew them for hours on the stovetop, making that year’s finest pot of braised collard greens yet.
Tender braised collard greens, infused with the rich flavor of smoked meat, are one of the most iconic dishes in the Southern cooking canon, and there are few dishes I’ve eaten as often as this one. While my family is partial to cold-weather greens, pots of collards made year-round appearances on our table for holidays, Sunday meals, and other special occasions. They were an all-purpose accompaniment for everything from red beans and rice to stewed chicken wings and occasionally stood alone as a light main course with cornbread and hot sauce.
The foundation of braised collard greens is rich and flavorful meat-infused pot liquor (also known as pot likker), which I make by boiling two ham hocks in 8 cups of water. Following my mom’s instructions, I cook the smoked meat until the water turns slightly opaque, a sign that the hocks have infused the liquid with their flavor.
Watch the Pot
How do you know that you’ve successfully transformed ham hocks and water into a smoky, savory broth? Here’s my mom’s trick: Wait until the water turns slightly opaque. This indicates that the hocks’ gelatin and fat have diffused into the liquid, giving it body and infusing it with salt and smoke.
As the stock cooks, I prepare the collards, removing their fibrous stems. I add the collards to the pot, along with more water, chicken broth, pepper, and cayenne, and then briefly cover to wilt the mountain of greens.
After a quick stir, the waiting game begins: The greens boil, covered, for about an hour and a half over high heat. During this window, magic happens. The greens soften both in flavor and texture, their bitterness reducing to pleasant earthiness, their fibrous quality giving way to silkiness. The pot liquor also infuses the collards with rich meatiness. And finally (in my house at least), drawn in by the collards’ smoky aroma, the whole family makes their way to the kitchen to talk and laugh as the pot bubbles away.
Once the liquid in the pot has reduced to about an inch and the greens are tender, it’s time to serve. I pull out the hocks and cut the meat from the bone, stirring the shreds of pork into the greens, and then bring the pot to the table. Sometimes, they’re a side dish; sometimes, they’re the star of the show—but a mess of greens is always a comforting, cozy symbol of my heritage, a taste of multigenerational family tradition.