Collards in kitchens of the Lowcountry Finding edible talismans for luck and fortune

Collards served at Charleston Grill.

It was called Akitu and it marked the ancient Babylonian celebration of the New Year. Four millennia later, we continue to gather in celebration of the ending of one year and the beginning of another with ritual and required food traditions.

The official date of the New Year has been shaped by both agriculture and astronomy and it took Julius Caesar, in 46 B.C., to reform the lunar calendar and establish Jan. 1 as the start of a new cycle around the sun.

Noodles and grains, hallmarks of a long life and abundance, mark the New Year in many Asian countries. In Japan, soba noodles are slurped to send out the old year.

In Spain and Portugal, as the clock strikes midnight, a dozen grapes are consumed, one for each month ahead.

In Greece, the pomegranate and its seeds of prosperity are a part of celebratory gatherings.

The Lowcountry has a long history eating collards for the New Year’s meal. This non-heading, descendant of the wild cabbages of Asia and Southern Europe was called “colewort” and documents confirm that these greens were in America by 1669.

Their hardy nature is associated with good luck; their green leaves represent paper money. They are known for their ability to “stretch the meat.”

What’s distinct to the Southern consumption of collards, according to food writer and culinary historian Jessica B. Harris, is “pot likker,” which she says is African in origin.

So with global approbation and Lowcountry assimilation, today we take a look at where you can sup on prosperity for 2016:

For Alabama native Michelle Weaver, executive chef at Charleston Grill in the Belmond Charleston Place Hotel, turnip tops are her greens of choice. However, when she accompanied her mentor, chef Bob Waggoner, to the kitchen of Charleston Grill in 1997, she embraced collards.

At the time, Charleston native Esau Graham was her “go-to guy” for true local receipts. Chefs Frank Lee of SNOB and Louis Osteen of Louis’ introduced Weaver to Graham, who schooled her in the art of great greens. His secret: sugar, Old Bay Seasoning, celery and low and slow cooking.

Weaver uses the pot likker (the liquid that remains after cooking the greens) as both a soup base and seasoning stock.

On New Year’s Day, she will not risk her luck and will prepare Sea Island peas, rice middlins and collards in a finely tooled “likker” where ham, apple cider vinegar, Palmetto Amber and butter and bacon form the hallelujah chorus for her Hoppin’ John. The peas, she says, should be cow peas according to Esau Graham; “those black-eyed peas were all wrong.”

Over at Magnolias Uptown, Down South, executive chef Kelly Franz will stay the course to the past with Magnolia’s Down South egg roll. The recipe, created by Magnolias’ founding executive chef Donald Barickman and Casey Taylor, has been on the menu since the late 1990s and Franz reports it is as popular as ever.

The roll combines collards, tasso ham, red pepper puree and peach chutney, spinning Southern ingredients into an Asian appetizer orbit.

Franz also has introduced to her menu a classic Charleston crab cake that she plates over a Hoppin’ John risotto using Johns Island black-eyed peas, collard greens cooked in apple cider vinegar, bacon fat and Tabasco sauce. So if you do not want to take any risks for 2016, you can double up on the collards at Magnolias.

Executive Chef Marc Collins at Circa 1886 turns his creative deglazing juices on a modernist expression of these traditionally low-and-slow cooked greens. Collins pivots fish and chips out of its pub grub orbit and serves a Mediterranean sea bass with fingerling potato chips, smoked paprika tartar sauce and a chiffonade of lightly sauteed collard greens. He plays off their bright green color and vibrant vegetal flavor to parlay this dish into sophisticated simplicity.

Collard greens are typically found as a side dish option where barbecue is served. Any smoky remnant is a welcome companion to the pot where the collards transform from toothsome to tender.

At Swig and Swine on Savannah Highway, where the meats are smoked on property, we learn from owner Jonathan Kish that they add smoked turkey to their collards to give them a rich, smoked meat flavor. Also, people who do not eat pork can enjoy the collards.

Kish shares that sister restaurant 82 Queen built its collard greens recipes on the backs of their line cooks. Each cook had a particular method of seasoning greens. Ham hocks were replaced with bacon, brown sugar was added to temper bitterness and apple cider vinegar rounded out the flavors of this seasonal green. Each cook drew on the legacy of their family’s unique preparation.

Drew Hedlund, chef at Fleet Landing Restaurant, incorporates collards into his Wednesday special so you will find collards and fried chicken every Wednesday at lunch as well as a side in his Southern-steeped menu.

Martha Lou’s Kitchen also designates collards as a Wednesday featured side.

Chef-owner Kevin Johnson at The Grocery looks to texture his salads with baby collard greens when available. Both Rebellion Farms and Johns Island organic Lowland Farms have provided his restaurant with the locally grown, tender baby greens.

Owner and executive chef Chris Stewart of the Glass Onion treats his collards to a bit of culinary royalty come the holiday season. Stewart, an eighth-generation Alabama native who schooled his palate in New Orleans and the Lowcountry, dresses his oysters Rockefeller-style.

He first prepared the dish for a friend’s wedding to much acclaim and now makes the preparation as a holiday special at his restaurant. Pot likker forms the base for a classic veloute sauce that is finished with finely chopped collard greens and pooled over Virginia oysters. He tops the oysters with crumbled cornbread and finishes them in a hot oven. They are sold individually and Stewart suggests a splash of hot sauce or more, to taste.

Chef B.J. Dennis, personal chef and caterer, prepared collards for the Les Dames d’Escoffier annual international conference held in Charleston in October. His simple preparation resonated with these veteran food professionals and had its roots in the Gullah-Geechee culture that Dennis looks to celebrate in his “food-telling.”

Green turnip tops, rutabagas, mustard greens, kale and collards were the currency of the Dennis family. Dennis’s recipe has its roots in West Africa and Brazil where the greens are cut in thin strips and sauteed quickly.

There, they will accompany Brazil’s national black bean dish, feijoada, or are served on their own as “couve a mineira” in a simple stir-fry.