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Joni Woolf: Who ever heard of collard soup?

Years ago, when I was living in Macon, a friend sent me a recipe for collard soup. I thought she was joking. That was not how I ate, or imagined, collards. The recipe lay around a while — two or three years, in fact. Then one day when the cupboard was mostly bare except for a bunch of collards and a few miscellaneous cans, I pulled out the recipe. It was not hard to make, but it made a lot, so I shared it with my daughter and her husband. She liked it; he really liked it. And with a piece of jalepeno cornbread, I decided this was a soup I could enjoy again. And again.
Then in 2013, when my daughter, Carey, and I started the little restaurant called CJ’s in The Maze, we were putting together a modest number of soups, salads and sandwiches, and I decided to offer the collard soup — just to see if there were any takers.  As we often say, “the rest is history.” From the beginning of that restaurant adventure, which ended early this year, we offered the collard soup every day. We often ran out. But that was alright. Folks knew they could come back the next day and it would be on the menu again.
One of the good things about the collard soup is that it can be cooked in vegetarian style, by changing the stock from chicken to vegetable. And it begs for fresh — not frozen — collards. They can be bought by the bunch, as my first experiment was. I had to chop the leaves, disposing of the heavier part of the stalks. Since that time, collards have appeared bagged (about 16 cups per bag), in grocery vegetable sections, cut in nice strips with most of the heavy stalks removed. An added attraction is that they are grown and packaged right here in Georgia, so we are buying local, when possible. (Buying local, by the way, is a goal that many of us who live in Southwest Georgia have set for ourselves, and we are getting more and more suppliers who share that belief and are providing all kinds of wonderful fresh foods — right here in Americus.)
One of CJs’ small “claims to fame” was winning the collard cook-off contest a couple of years ago, though we don’t talk much about the number of entries. We just say “the collards deserved it.” I hope you try this. I know you’ll like it.

Collard and Black-Eyed Pea Soup
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
1 large stalk celery, chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped or crushed
1 sprig fresh thyme (can be found in plastic package in vegetable section)
1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper, or more if you prefer
4 cups chicken or vegetable broth (we always used chicken)
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
5 cups chopped collard greens
1 15-ounce can black eyed peas, rinsed and drained
Heat oil over medium heat; add onions, carrots and celery, and cook about five minutes, stirring until tender. Add the garlic, thyme and crushed red pepper and cook about 30 seconds. Add the broth, tomatoes and their juices and bring to a boil.  Stir in the collard greens, reduce heat and simmer about 30 minutes. When greens are tender, discard the thyme sprig and stir in the black- eyed peas, cooking until peas are hot. Turn off heat; let sit five to 10 minutes. Then serve with your choice of cornbread, toasted French bread, or saltine crackers.

This is a great fall and winter soup. It not only tastes good; it is good for you. It is not fattening; it is pleasant to the palate and it surprises all who taste it for the first time. So go find some local collards and make yourself a pot of this very-easy-to-make collard soup. It freezes well so if you make too much, store it away for that really cold, winter day when only soup will satisfy.

Joni Woolf, a writer and editor, now lives in Schley County, having moved from her home in Macon several years ago. Contact her at indigojoni@windstream.net