For many Southern families, it's simply not New Year's unless everyone sits down together to a "mess of greens." Cooked greens have been a valued part of Southern cuisine for centuries, and they provided an important source of nutrition during lean years. Two of the most common types are collards and turnip greens, and although many people refer to them both as "greens," there are differences between them.
Both turnips and collards are part of a larger family called the brassicas. They are related to the mustard family of greens as well as cabbages and kale. Also called cruciferous vegetables, they produce cross-shaped blossoms with four petals. Growers cultivate most brassicas for their leaves, with notable exceptions such as broccoli and caulflower, cultivated for their buds, and turnips and rutabagas, cultivated for their roots.
Collard greens are a non-heading variety of brassica, producing loose clusters of long, green leaves with an oblong shape. The leaves are slightly bitter when raw, and like kale are best after frost exposure. In the U.S., collards are primarily associated with the South, where they are a traditional staple. Southerners simmer collards for an extended period with a piece of fresh or cured pork hock, until very tender. Sopping up the cooking liquid with cornbread recovers many nutrients leached from the greens during cooking.
Most common brassicas produce flavourful leaves, regardless of their primary purpose. The greens of radishes, beets, rutabagas and turnips are all nutritious and flavourful, and cooks prepare them as a fresh vegetable during the growing season while waiting for the roots to mature. Turnip greens, or turnip tops as the British call them, have a slightly peppery character that mellows when they are cooked. Substitute turnip greens for other cooked greens such as spinach or chard in most recipes.
Differences and Similarities
Collard greens are typically larger and broader than turnip leaves and form a continuous edge throughout their length. Turnip leaves have a lacy edge with many indentations, offering less edible area from leaves of equal length. Turnip greens also have a firm central stem that is bare for much of its length. The stem is edible and mild when young, but toughens with maturity. Collard greens have a slightly bitter flavour, while turnip greens have a slightly spicy, peppery one. Both are highly nutritious, and usable in similar ways.