Three Bites: Collard Greens

Marilyn HawkesSeptember 1, 2023
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Photography by Angelina Aragon
Photography by Angelina Aragon
Don’t pass judgment on collard greens until you’ve tasted these delicious Valley versions of the soul food staple. 

Collard greens are one of those fringy vegetables that people either adore or despise, with very little ambivalence in between. First cultivated by the ancient Greeks, the large, leafy greens belong to the cabbage family and are quite bitter, which means they stand up well to barbecue and other sweet, salty cuisine. In the U.S., Southern-style collard greens simmered with ham hocks are the norm, but hardly the limit of what talented chefs can do with the Vitamin C-packed cultivar.

Chef Devan Cunningham of CC’s on Central (2800 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, 602-253-9220, has devised a raw collard greens salad that rivals any kale or arugula number in town. Cunningham, who runs the Midtown soul food restaurant with his mom, Sharon, extensively field-tested ingredient combinations before settling on torn collard greens with bits of smoked almonds, crumbly pecorino cheese and chunks of dried apricots tossed in a sweet and smoky vinaigrette, made with honey and supplemented with local Lillie Mae’s smoked pickled garlic. “I love the bite from the greens, the crunch of the smoked almonds and the chewy apricot,” Cunningham says. “The flavors bounce around your palate from bitter to sweet to savory.” The Cunninghams also feature vegan braised collard greens at breakfast with grits and eggs, and at their monthly Sunday Service dinners.

For the traditional Southern preparation, the collard greens at D-Mac & Wings (635 N. Country Club Dr., Mesa, 480-245-4541, are a smoky, salty delight that pair well with anything on D-Mac’s menu, a bounty of wings, fried catfish, burgers, sloppy joes and soul-satisfying macaroni and cheese. The sultry chopped greens are cooked down to their essence, revealing a full-flavored comfort food peppered with bits of onion, smoked pork and loads of spicy notes. The full-bodied cooking juice that binds the greens together, sometimes called pot likker, is great to dip fries in or enjoy by the spoonful. So. Much. Flavor. Tucked away in a Mesa strip mall, D-Mac & Wings is hard to find, so keep your eyes peeled. 

Down the road in another strip center, Café Lalibela (849 W. University Dr., Tempe, 480-829-1939, puts out crazy-good Ethiopian food, including gomen, a vegan chopped collard green dish. The greens are blanched then added to a mixture of onions, fresh garlic and ginger that’s been gently sautéed in rice oil, says Café Lalibela owner Salem Beyene. For vegans, Bayene suggests pairing the aromatic greens with misir wat, a spicy red lentil dish; and for non-vegans, doro wat, spicy chicken stew, or key sega wat, spicy beef cubes. Each order of gomen comes with injera, a spongy sourdough flatbread, which comes in handy for scooping up the gingery greens. Packed with nutrients, collard greens are also an excellent source of dietary fiber, Beyene says. “The greens provide a healthy veggie option.” And seriously tasty, too.