Everyone wants to look good, feel better, and have more energy. Billions of dollars are spent buying supplements each year toward this end. Yet we often overlook simple dietary changes that can provide our bodies with the nutrients they need to achieve the goals we want.
Some of the most nutrient-dense foods available on the planet are dark leafy greens—the superheroes of the vegetable world. Eating a helping of delicious, dark leafy greens each day can help keep you in tip-top shape. Popeye was right. So why isn’t everybody putting greens on their must-have lists for the grocery store?
Lots of people are unfamiliar with how to prepare them, especially how to cook the more mature greens, like collards and kale, so they are not bitter. Once the basics of cooking greens are demystified and you see the results of including them in your diet, you’ll want them to make a regular appearance at your dining table.
How To Pick Greens
Arugula, beet greens, bok choy, collard greens, dandelion greens, kale, lamb’s quarters, mustard greens, spinach, swiss chard, and watercress are only a partial list of the kinds of these superheroes. I also like to include green leafy herbs like basil, Italian parsley, cilantro, and mint, which provide many of the same benefits. Greens are easy to grow, so if you have even a small yard, consider sowing some seeds. Most greens can be planted in spring after all frost is gone, and harvested July through August. Kale, collards, and mustard greens can be planted again in the fall. They overwinter nicely and produce fresh growth again in early spring. If growing is out of the question, your local farmers’ market or local natural foods market is your best option for purchasing fresh greens. Look for bright-colored, perky-looking greens. Pass by any bunch with brown spots, yellowing edges, or limp-looking leaves, and choose the more vitalized ones. Smaller leaves indicate a more immature plant, which means the greens may need little or no cooking. Their flavors will be milder and more delicate. Larger , thicker-leaved greens require a little more care but will have more robust flavors. Choose organic greens for the best possible flavors and to keep your ecological conscience clear.
Vegetables are alive! They are respiring, which means that they need moisture and air to survive. If you store wet greens in a sealed plastic bag, they will rot quickly. If you toss a bunch of greens onto the bottom shelf of the fridge without a bag, they will dry out and wilt due to moisture loss. The best way to store greens is to keep them slightly wet in an open or perforated plastic bag in the refrigerator. Fresh herbs do well if you trim off about 1/2-inch from the root ends, place them in a jar of water with a plastic bag over the top, and store them in the refrigerator. Stored properly, greens should keep about 3 days.
How to Prepare and Cook Greens
Fresh herbs and tender leaves like arugula, spinach, and watercress can be chopped raw and added to soups, salads, and grains, or lightly steamed. More mature greens like bok choy, kale, dandelion greens, and collards, taste bitter if you serve them raw, and often the texture is too tough for easy chewing. Steaming these greens actually intensifies the bitterness. They need to be cooked in liquid where the bitter flavor can be dispersed.
First you need to prepare the greens. Remove large stems or break off small ones. Fill a sink with cold water and submerge the leaves. With herbs, leave the stems and hold on to them as you give the leaves a dunk. If there is sediment in the water, drain the sink and repeat. If you plan to put the greens in a salad, spin them dry. Leaves destined for cooking can have excess water shaken off and be placed on a towel or chopping board.
The issue at hand is how to cook the greens so they lose as little nutritional value as possible while shedding their bitter flavors. There are three cooking techniques that I like to use when cooking the more mature, bitter greens: quick-boiling, simmering, and sautéeing.
To quick-boil greens, bring two quarts of water to a boil. Do not chop the leaves, but submerge them whole into the boiling water. Use a wooden spoon to move them from top to bottom. To tell when they are done, use your senses. The leaves should begin to lose their perkiness and wilt slightly, but the bright green color will still be present. At this point, bring a leaf up with your spoon, tear off a piece, and chew it. If the flavor is bitter, let them cook more. The greens are just right when chewing a piece releases sweet juices in your mouth. If the color is gone or there is no flavor left when you chew it, they’ve cooked too long. The amount of time depends on the maturity of the green and the amount of leaves you’re cooking. For something like tender mustard greens, it should be a thirty- to sixty-second dip, while mature collard greens can take about five minutes. Once you test the green and get a sweet flavor, pour the contents of the pot into a colander. Save the water, which is called pot-likker. Many cooks like to drink this nutrient-filled broth, but I like to use it to water my plants. Gently run cool water over the greens to halt cooking. Once they are cool enough to touch, gather them into a ball and gently squeeze out the excess water. Chop them on the cutting board and they are ready to dress and serve.
To simmer greens, bring about one inch of liquid (water, broth, wine . . .) to simmer in a large skillet. Chop the washed greens into strips. Place the strips in the simmering liquid and keep them moving with a wooden spoon. You are looking for the same results as described above: a bright green color and a sweet flavor; but since the greens have been chopped, the cooking time will be shorter.
When sautéing greens, it is good to work with just-washed greens. The water helps with wilting and releasing bitterness. Heat 1-2 Tablespoons of oil in a skillet. Add a minced clove of garlic if desired. The garlic will tell you if you have the heat right. Too hot and the garlic will burn, too cool and the garlic will just sit there. If there is too much water on the greens or the oil is too hot, the oil will sputter, so take care. Chop the greens you are using into bite-sized pieces. Stacking the washed leaves is an easy way to make efficient, uniform cuts. Place cut leaves in the skillet and keep them moving. Stay with the process and test every minute or so for doneness. When the leaves are still full of color and tasting proves not bitter, but sweet, they’re ready!
Dressing Up Your Greens
Once you have a heap of cooked greens in front of you, there are limitless possibilities. Frankly, I like to keep things simple and give them a dash of vinegar and a sprinkle of tamari, toss, and eat. Cooked greens can be added to soups, grain dishes, and salads to add color, flavor, and nutrients. You can prepare a heavenly peanut sauce to drizzle over greens, or toss them with toasted sesame oil and toasted sesame seeds for an Asian flavor. A squeeze of lemon is fine, but how about a little orange juice with garlic and a touch of chipotle sauce? Serve it over slices of polenta and it’s fit for company.
Following is one of my favorite greens recipe. Watercress Salad with Creamy Ginger Dressing. Another easy way to include greens in your meal is to take a less bitter green like chard or watercress and let it steam on top of an already prepared dish. Whatever way you choose to use them, let these superheroes rescue your next meal from the nutritional doldrums. Don’t be fooled by an antacid tablet claiming it’s your best source of calcium. Look! It’s a Vitamin C pill! It’s a digestive aid! No. It’s Captain Dark Leafy Green, ready to help you engage your warp drive and go!
Cynthia Lair is author of Feeding the Whole Family and Feeding the Young Athlete. More information available at www.feedingfamily.com. Reprinted from Vegetarian Journal Magazine
Watercress Salad with Creamy Ginger Dressing (Serves 6; makes 3/4 cup dressing)
This salad is quick, light, and nutritious. Watercress is rich in minerals and is usually free of pesticides, as it grows easily and abundantly. The ginger salad dressing is a favorite of mine.
1 bunch watercress, tough stems removed 1/2 head red leaf lettuce 1 cucumber, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped ginger 2 teaspoons chopped celery 1/2 teaspoon maple syrup 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 3 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds 1/8 teaspoon white pepper 1/8 teaspoon celery seed 1/2 teaspoon catsup 3 tablespoons soy sauce 3 tablespoons brown rice vinegar 3 tablespoons water
Wash watercress and lettuce by placing leaves in a sink full of cold water. Drain and repeat. Spin or pat dry. Tear greens into bite-sized pieces and place in a large salad bowl. Add cucumber and set aside. Place ginger, celery, maple syrup, oil, sesame seeds, pepper, celery seed, and catsup in a blender and blend. Add soy sauce, vinegar, and water; blend again until creamy. Before serving, toss salad with 1/4-1/3 cup of the dressing. The remainder of the dressing will keep in the refrigerator for at least a week.
By Cynthia Lair