(Originally published in Asheville’s Plough to Pantry)
A long time ago, through selective breeding, the wild species of Brassica oleracea began to take on many faces: broccoli, kale, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and collards. Today, most supermarket shoppers wouldn’t recognize these crops as direct relatives, but the budding botanist can tell! Note the four little yellow petals in the shape of a cross, branding these vegetables as cruciferous; note the raceme (flower cluster) of thin seedpods, producing small dark round seeds; note their love of cool season growing or their shared mortal enemy, the dreaded cabbage worm.
In the recent popularization of kale, it has always seemed that collards pulled the short straw when marketing agents were allocated. How those collard plants—tucked away in a forgotten corner of the garden, planted out of Southern obligation—must scowl and bitch about kale. Kale, the supermodel of greens; kale, the front-cover glamour girl; collards, green with jealousy. And then they are boiled to death, adding insult to injury.
Mercifully, collards are afforded a reprieve from the competition and are even somewhat renowned in our own southern states, where—especially during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays—they tend to be the southern green of choice, with kale, cabbage, spinach, turnip greens and chard all vying for second place.
Portugal is another culinary hotspot for collards. The Portuguese have a green called Portuguese Kale, which looks and tastes very much like collards. Also, it seems every internet troll knows that Portuguese Kale Soup is actually made with collards. Add in the Portuguese word Couve, which is used for both kale and collards, and one has to ask the question: what is the actual difference between collards and kale?
With so many varieties of both kale and collards, the answer is easily blurred. In general, collards have a broader, smoother leaf with a mild nutty taste; they make awesome sandwich wraps and healthy lasagna layers. Kales are often crinkled and curled and have a strong ‘green’ flavor; the baby leaves cling to pockets of salad dressing and the bigger leaves curl and crunch in the oven for kale chips. Both sweeten after a frost or two, both are well paired with blue cheese or vinegar, you can sneak either into smoothies for your daily green check, and experimentation with collard or kale Kraut is encouraged, if fermentation is your thing.
While some health food chain stores may declare collards “the new kale,” in reality the two are brother and sister, and should be ready to put their competitive sibling squabbles behind them.