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Can Southern greens be vegetarian?

from kitchen taqueria 2

Eddie Hernandez with his turnip greens in 2004 (AJC Staff)

The collard greens at Heirloom Market BBQ in northwest Atlanta have their fans, as well they should. Cooked to soppy submission, dripping with flavor, and thick with chunks of long-cooked meat, these are the gold standard of barbecue-joint greens.

I like them just fine but, well, I’m not from around these parts and have developed a heretical approach to Southern greens.

Do I dare say it? I like to make mine vegetarian.

I’ll admit this because — I promise! — I put in my smoked meat dues. After moving to the South, I immediately started playing around with recipes for collard greens. I bought smoked ham hocks, and neck bones, turkey wings and everything else I saw my friends and neighbors using and read about in recipe books. My greens were never as good as theirs, but I think they were on the right track.

Then came the day I bought a 2-foot-long bunch of collards on a whim. I had no ham bone, not one slice of bacon, not one bouillon cube to cook them in. I briefly considered the soup packages in a couple of blocks of ramen noodles before devising a new plan. I decided to take the collards out for a tour of the Mediterranean, and so I stewed them with tomatoes, garlic, onions, peppers and a healthy glug of olive oil. I added enough water for potlikker, and a bay leaf or two may have made its way into the pot. A few dashes of balsamic vinegar added at the end, after the greens were tender, really set the flavor off. My family loved them, and so a new recipe was born.

Recently I’ve turned my attention to turnip greens. I’ve always loved the version served at Taqueria del Sol that are stewed with tomatoes, onions and enough chile de arbol (a small, very spicy dried red pepper) to make you stand up and take notice.

I figured it was time to try them at home. So I picked up a nice-looking bunch of turnip greens at the market along with a little bag of the hot chilies. When I got home I pulled out chef Eddie Hernandez’s recipe, only to discover it called for both margarine and chicken broth. Butter was an easy substitute, but I didn’t have a drop of chicken anything. And so my second recipe for vegetarian greens was born.

Spicy Vegetarian Turnip Greens (Based on the Taqueria del Sol recipe)

Hands on: 25 minutes Total time: 1 1/2 hours Serves: 6

  • 1 (1-pound) bag or 1 pound cleaned and chopped turnip greens
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 2/3 cup chopped onions
  • 1 teaspoon chopped garlic
  • 2-3 teaspoons ground chile de arbol, red pepper flakes or cayenne, or to taste
  • 1 can (14 ounces) diced tomatoes
  • 2 cups water or vegetable stock or 1 cup tomato juice thinned with 1 cup water
  • Salt

In a very large pot, cover greens with 1 inch water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until just tender, about 45 minutes. Drain well.

In a large pot, melt butter. Add onions, garlic and chile de arbol and saute until onions are softened. Add tomatoes and their juices. Add cooked turnip greens and water or other liquid and bring to a boil. Boil for 5 minutes, reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Add salt to taste.

35 comments Add your comment

the fish

February 14th, 2011
12:44 pm

Funny, but I made these Friday night for a poker game (along with Poblano Corn Chowder, and assorted tacos). Nine pounds of turnip greens were sucked down before the final hand was dealt. Delicious!!!


February 14th, 2011
1:26 pm

I have never had collard greens since I am a vegetarian and as you said they are generally always made with meat. I might try this recipe.


February 14th, 2011
1:28 pm

Greens can definitely be vegetarian – but PLEASE – no sugar! What a sin.


February 14th, 2011
2:44 pm

We eat at TDS in Decatur every Saturday without fail. If get the blue plate, I order Eddie’s turnip greens. The special taco? Turnip greens. I don’t care what else I get I always get the turnip greens. Eddie also sells them by the gallon and no matter what I try, i can never make them as good as Eddie does.


February 14th, 2011
3:18 pm

Sounds like a nice recipe.


Some folks, like myself, think sugar is gross on greens.


February 14th, 2011
4:12 pm

Your recipe sounds similar to the spicy collards made by Whole Foods on Ponce. I made up a recipe based on their ingredients, so I look forward to trying yours.


February 14th, 2011
4:46 pm

Kevin – that is what I’m saying. Leaving out the meat is fine. Just don’t put sugar in my greens!


February 14th, 2011
5:23 pm

Gotcha FoodFan. Sorry, I misread your post. Eat on!


February 14th, 2011
9:24 pm

On the assumption that if you put enough olive oil, salt and garlic on something, it’ll be great — I’ve grilled collards with great success. Take the individual leaves, wash and blanch in a microwave. Layer them with a drizzle of olive oil, salt and a little garlic powder until you have a stack maybe an inch high – then grill them over a charcoal fire with a few woodchips on for smoke. It’s different.


February 15th, 2011
8:12 am

Started doing the Mediterranean thing with my greens last year in October when I smoked a chicken – saute garlic and onion in olive oil, and then add greens. When cooked down from the saute mixture add stock and wine or beer. Let simmer for two hours – that’s it.

Will need to try the addition of the tomatoes sometime – thanks for the idea!


February 15th, 2011
9:06 am

I think the important thing to remember here is “Southern” greens … IMO, “Southern” greens can’t be cooked without some sort of meat.

I’ve had plenty of greens (turnips, mustards, collards, kale, etc) both meated and non-meated. I like both. But to call them Southern Greens I think meat is an essential component.

country boy

February 15th, 2011
10:38 am

Born and raised in GA,we used to eat greens three times a day,Breakfast ,lunch ,and Dinner ,or Supper if you prefer! strait out of the garden,sometimes a little pokesalad two.

Tonya C.

February 15th, 2011
10:41 am

Southern Greens have meat. Or meat-flavoring. Period. Anything else is NOT Southern Greens. Anything else are just greens with whatever other moniker you’d like to attach.


February 15th, 2011
12:07 pm

I make vegetarian Southern greens with Goya ham concentrate. It’s the only meat-free flavoring I’ve found that makes them taste like they’re flavored with actual pork. Add some vinegar and/or pepper sauce, and you’re good to go.


February 15th, 2011
12:12 pm

This spicy greens recipe reminds me of the collard-greens served at Sevananda in Little 5 Points. I will definitely give this recipe a try…

local is as local does....

February 15th, 2011
12:21 pm

if they are grown in the south and cooked in the south, they are southern greens. meated, meatless, whatever. in many rural areas meat wasn’t (or isn’t) an option, even the cheap cuts. greens can be made delicious in more ways than just adding a chunk of meat, and still be consider southern.

Organic only

February 15th, 2011
12:25 pm

Considering the rising weight and health problems associated with the general southern population, giving a vegetarian redux of the classic collards a hard time seems a bit inappropriate. Frankly I prefer them raw in a mixed juice drink or blended with kale, spinach, avocados, sprouts, cabbage, chard, apples, and other great organic items. Certainly beats cooking all the goodness out of them.

Organic only

February 15th, 2011
12:31 pm

I suppose that technically the Goya ham concentrate can make a vegetarian product that has the meat flavoring, but with this list of ingredients:

Salt, monosodium glutamate, artificial ham flavor, hydrolized vegetable protein, silica (anti-caking agent).

it hardly sounds like something positive to put in your body. The MSG alone is a horrible thing and who knows what “artificial ham flavor” is all about.


February 15th, 2011
12:39 pm

I have never seen Greens cooked with meat. I am very southern GA and my parents, grandparents…. have never done more than pull them from the ground, wash and cook.


February 15th, 2011
1:01 pm

I cook greens all the time and my basic recipe is
1) wash the greens
2) strip the leaves off the stalks by holding the stem with one hand and running the other up the leaf.
3) Stack the leaves, 5 or 6 at a time, roll them like a cigar and cut them fine – several times across and once or twice down the length of the leaf.
4) Saute onions and garlic in a tiny bit of olive oil (absolute minimum to get a good caramelization), then add finely shredded greens. No water is necessary – just the water on the leaves from washing.
5) Stir them around the pot for 10-15 minutes or so and they’ll be done. No stalks plus finely shredded leaves equal quick cooking.
If you want pot likker, add some water and a veggie boullion cube (check ingredients – I like Rapunzel brand) and simmer for a few minutes.
Don’t overcook – that’s what makes them stinky and mushy. I tried using my pressure cooker on them yesterday and I’ll never do that again. Ick.


February 15th, 2011
1:08 pm

Organic Only,

I had a “gifted” girfriend who insisted that eating only organic food was the secret to her insatiable bedroom antics. Of course, I had fun with that…a lot of fun…in every place in the house, including the kitchen table fun. Well, we parted ways, and years had passed by. A mutual friend told me that she died from eating contaminated organic spinach.
Now, isn’t that truly ironic?
Be careful, life is dangerous.

Citizen of the World

February 15th, 2011
1:12 pm

I make veggie greens by boiling them in sliced garlic, vegetarian Better than Bullion and water — that’s it.

I de-stem before washing.

Without modifying my ingredients, though, I’m going to try SouthernVegan’s cooking method since it sounds like it cuts down on time.


February 15th, 2011
1:13 pm

All you need is to add rice and beans and make it a “George.”


February 15th, 2011
1:14 pm

This sounds pretty good. I’ll definitely try it.
I’ve got to second Noelle on the Goya, though. I’ve been making my collards with it for years and my meat-eating family members can’t tell the difference. Also, all of the low-sodium Glory brand collards and greens are totally veggie.


February 15th, 2011
1:35 pm

I’ve always cooked my fresh greens, (collard, turnip and mustard), without meat. However I don’t use alot of water either. I let them cook down in a hot covered pot with a little oil and they come out tender and very flavorable.


February 15th, 2011
2:07 pm

Soul Food greens are good. These greens are cooked with meat.


February 15th, 2011
2:13 pm

I’ve been making greens for years without meat. Wash, cook, and a little hot pepper vinegar is all that is needed. Healthy and delicious.


February 15th, 2011
2:24 pm

I make a similar version based on a recipe I found on the Food Network’s website. Very tasty.

One tweak that works nicely is using some kind of “fire roasted” type canned tomatoes. Adds to the smoky flavor.


February 15th, 2011
2:27 pm

I pan fry collard greens in canola oil, apple cider vinegar, and sugar. Only cook for about 10 mins so they’re still crunchy and green.


February 15th, 2011
2:42 pm

I make mine with salted codfish, tomatoes, green onions, thyme, garlic and habanero pepper, seasoned with some jerk seasoning……very different and very wild!

John Kessler

February 15th, 2011
2:46 pm

Tom: sounds amazing. Can you share the recipe? Was it developed for callaloo?


February 15th, 2011
2:55 pm

John…..It was…..we use callalloo but now I use collards when I can’t get the real thing. I don’t really have a recipe but just cook intuitively. I eat it with boiled green bananas, yellow yams or homemade dumplings…..and yes, I am Jamaican!


February 15th, 2011
2:58 pm

P.S. I will also tell you that I put fat back, or thick sliced pepper bacon in from time to time……both are rendering down by slow cooking under the broiler with a little of the fat saved for flavor.

John Kessler

February 15th, 2011
4:13 pm

This is what can be so thought provoking about food blogs. The saltfish provides the umami taste the way smoked meat does. When I do veggie greens, that taste comes from the tomato to some degree and (I’ll admit) a pinch of MSG.

Mr. Ed

February 19th, 2011
11:19 am


Thank you!

I tried your recipe last night. Simple,quick and fresh tasting. I’ll never boil collards greens again. An added plus, they never lost the beautiful dark green color. I hit them with just a little lemon juice once on the plate and they were perfect.