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I still remember the minute I got the idea for this recipe. I was at the Ballard Market, staring at a glorious display of young collard greens, wondering what on earth I could do with them that my husband would eat. He’s choosy about greens, especially the tougher or bitter ones, and I spend a good deal of time trying to conceptualize recipes that get greens into my belly– the more the better!– in a way he won’t kvetch about. Now, don’t get me wrong. There have been plenty of his ‘n hers dinners where I eat a plate of crunchy gai lan or spicy arugula while he eats a boring old sandwich. His loss. But, there are certainly benefits to cooking meals we both enjoy, and to feeding him greens. When I thought of the recipe for these collard greens rolls, I knew it would be one of those meals we both like a great deal, and I was right.

R came home from work one day raving about some cabbage rolls a client had made and shared with him and his coworkers. “They were so tender! They had *rice* in them and the sauce was good and I wanted more.” I was elated, and simultaneously ashamed that I had never made cabbage rolls before. I assumed he wouldn’t like them, which was short-sighted. What’s not to like? Tender cabbage leaves with a lightly-spiced meat and rice filling braised in sweet tomato sauce are what comes to mind when I think of traditional cabbage rolls. The Swedish version, kaldolmar, are another part of my aunt’s famous Christmas Eve smorgasbord. Most often made with the classic red sauce, I think I remember that they were sometimes topped with a gravy similar to the one that accompanied Swedish meatballs. I mean really. I could get her recipe with a quick phone call, not to mention the countless versions available on Pinterest and in my own cookbook collection.  For instance, in my copy of The Finnish Cookbook, the recipe for cabbage rolls doesn’t have a tomato-based sauce; instead, you cover the stuffed cabbage with undiluted corn syrup. (Just think about that for a second. Meat and corn syrup. Cabbage and… corn syrup.) So, with all of the options available to try, let me tell you what I did make.

To put a twist on the classic cabbage roll without going too far off course, I used collard greens in place of cabbage and made a filling with ingredients I like to cook and eat with collards. I used Andouille sausage, tender black-eyed peas and red onion for the filling and made a red sauce that makes you think of a good tomato-based barbecue sauce. These rolls are spicy, sweet and smoky. The brown sugar in the sauce and the slightly-bitter collards are an ideal match, and the black-eyed peas add a creamy, nutty element. The Andouille sausage is juicy and adds a pop of spice. Chipotle pepper in the tomato sauce adds both smokiness and another kind of heat; in tandem with the sausage, I would say the recipe as written is medium spicy. They are just so good. So why collards instead of cabbage? In this case, I was swayed by beautiful seasonal produce, but there is no reason you couldn’t substitute cabbage and proceed with the recipe. I was excited to remember that R loves collards, especially as prepared in a few local barbecue and soul food restaurants we enjoy. And where’s the rice? Truthfully, I was concerned that rice and black-eyed peas would be too heavy and together would overpower the sausage, but the collard greens rolls are terrific served with rice. If you’re a fan of jambalaya, or good collard greens cooked all day with pork, this is a recipe for you.

Next time I find some fresh, beautiful greens and wonder whether my husband would give them a try, I’m going to do something I learned from this Cabbage Roll Experience– I’m going to ask him. In the meantime, I’ll be cooking collard greens rolls until we’ve both had our fill.

Sweet & Spicy Collard Greens Rolls

Spicy & Sweet Collard Greens Rolls (serves 4-6 people)

  • 12 tender collard greens
  • 1 lb. uncooked Andouille sausage (about 5 links)
  • 1/3 c. diced red onion
  • 1 c. cooked or canned black-eyed peas*
  • 1 egg white
  • salt & pepper

For the sauce:

  • 1 14.5 oz. can of low-sodium tomato sauce OR 1 pint of home-canned tomato sauce**
  • 1 T. apple cider vinegar
  • 1 T. brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. chipotle powder
  • salt & pepper

Bring a gallon of water to boil in a large stockpot or Dutch oven. Trim any tough stems off the collards. Blanch the leaves for 2 mins. and then drain immediately. Allow to cool slightly while you prepare the filling and sauce.

blanched collards; sweet & spicy sauce; filling with Andouille sausage, red onions and black-eyed peas

Mix the filling for your rolls: if you’re using link sausage, remove it from the casings. Break into pieces, roughly, with your fingers; add the onion, black-eyed peas, egg white, a good amount of black pepper and a pinch of salt. Use your fingers to mix the ingredients thoroughly, like meatloaf. It’s okay to leave some larger pieces of sausage, but try to get a fairly even mix. Set aside.

Make the sauce: in a small bowl, mix the tomato sauce, cider vinegar, brown sugar, chipotle powder, a pinch of pepper and a pinch of salt. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees and have ready a 9″ x 13″ baking dish or similar size casserole dish. Spread about one-third of your sauce evenly in the bottom of the dish.

Preparing to roll a blanched collard green around a few tablespoons of filling.

Place a blanched collard green flat on a cutting board and center about 3 T. filling in an oblong shape about 1″ above the bottom of the leaf. Fold in the sides and hold them while you roll the bottom toward the top. This doesn’t have to be perfect, just try to get the filling completely encased in the leaf. Place the roll seam-side down in sauce in your baking dish and proceed. I had a little bit of filling left over, which I sauteed and ate with scrambled eggs.

When all the collards are filled and rolled, respace the rolls so they are snug in the pan but not crowded. Pour the rest of the sauce over the top. Cover with tin foil and bake for 1 1/2 hours. When the rolls are done, serve immediately, 2-3 per person with rice or a nice, crusty bread like we did. Store any remaining collard greens rolls in a tightly covered container for up to 3 days. They are marvelous reheated; the greens get even more tender.

Baked collard greens rolls, ready to eat

*I soaked one cup of dry black-eyed peas for 8 hours. I then discarded the soaking water, covered them with fresh water, added two bay leaves, 1 T. olive oil and a garlic clove and brought to a boil. I then covered the pan, reduced the heat to medium-low and simmered for 25 mins. I had about 3 c. total and took the 1 c. for this recipe from that. You could easily substitute drained and rinsed canned black-eyed peas.