A Leafy Green Vegetable Fanatic's Guide to Buying and Cooking Various Types of Greens
Here are my favorites and how to enjoy them at home.
As a child, leafy green vegetables never really entered my consciousness. My eldest sister Martha loved something called "Spinach Souffle," a frozen food from Stouffers. And I loved watching Popeye cartoons on TV. Other than that, greens never appeared at our house. And then, I fell in love with a Southerner and everything changed!
Cooked greens were occasionally requested, and though completely out of my comfort zone, I attempted to make them. And, lo and behold, I discovered that I loved them. I had always assumed, from seeing them, that they were slimy and flavorless. I could not have been more wrong. Not to mention, they were so easy to cook. I started making them all of the time. But I pretty much stuck to the basics, like spinach.
A second epiphany occurred in the home of two extraordinary people connected with the theater my husband ran in Virginia. Georgia and Mac Rimple fed me my first taste of collards… and I was hooked for life. I will always be grateful to them for that meal (among other things). I began, however, to suspect that there was more to the world of greens than I knew.
A farmer's market is probably the best place to begin an exploration into the realm of leafy greens. It certainly was for me. I took the "buy one of everything" approach, and came home with WAY too many greens. But the thrill of experimentation and the excitement of cooking new things far outweighed the fact that the kitchen looked like a produce warehouse.
So that you don't necessarily have to explore through the same trial-and-error process I did (though, it is a fun way to learn), here are some things I have come to understand about various types of greens:
There are a number of kale varieties, but basically three types you see often: curly, flat, and black. I'm particularly fond of black (also called cavolo nero or dinosaur kale) because of its flavor and tenderness. Kale has a bit of the bitterness associated with most cooking greens, but it's not overwhelming. You can eat it raw, but it's fibrous nature can make that a problem for some people. However, if raw is the way you want to go, choose the youngest leaves you can — cut them small and massage the greens to break down the structure a bit. As for cooking, they will never get totally soft like spinach, so you can cook them for a short time as well as a long one. Again, I'd suggest cutting them small. Blanched black kale can be blended to make a wonderful pasta sauce. Tough stems and centers should be removed. You can also oven roast kale leaves it for the ubiquitous kale chips.
You can find spinach in curly, flat, and "baby" varieties. (Baby spinach is most often small, immature flat-leaf spinach.) The flavor of all three is very mild, especially baby. Baby spinach is most often used raw, especially in salads as it tends to totally break down when cooked. The other types become quite smooth with cooking. Of the three, I find that curly (also called savoy spinach) has the best and most flavor. Tough stems should be removed.
Collards are not a delicate green. They are strongly flavored, and require a fair bit of cooking to soften up. They are a bit bitter, but again (as with kale) not too bitter. Many traditional cooking methods require cooking in water, with a smoked ham hock, for a long time. There is nothing about this method that requires improvement… the results are absolutely delicious. (As is the pot liquor — the liquid remaining when the greens are removed.) Collards play well with others, and combining other greens with them makes for a multi-dimensional flavor that is wonderful. I'm not a fan of a short cooking time for this particular green because collards are tough. But they are really worth the investment of time. The tough stems and center must be removed.
This very bitter, wonderfully flavorful Italian green (also known as rapini or broccoli di rape) or is one of my favorites. It is not related to broccoli, though you could be forgiven for thinking it is when you see it. It is actually related more to turnips. Most recipes will give you a method whereby you can "tame" the bitterness. But I have to say, the bitterness is what attracts me in the first place. If you must — blanch for a few minutes in boiling water, shock in ice water, and proceed with your recipe. The tough stems should be trimmed, and cut into smaller pieces as they take longer to cook than the leaves and tops. Or, larger stems can be peeled like asparagus, allowing the tops and bottoms to remain together. They will then cook at the same rate.
For my fellow gardeners: If you happen to see seeds for "wild broccoli di rape" be aware that, though the flavor profile is similar, it is all leaf and a bit milder. Delicious, but different.
Swiss chard, and the gloriously colorful and aptly named rainbow chard, are — to me — spinach for grownups. The flavor is a bit stronger, and they will not "melt" like spinach, but the flavor profile is very similar. Both the leaves and the stems can be cooked, but the stems take more time, so removing them, chopping them and cooking them separately is best. Baby chard can be eaten raw.
Mustard greens are not for the faint of heart. They have heat and they have a strong bite. But, the powerful flavor is worth it. Many people combine these greens with other milder greens, but I love mustard on its own. They can be cooked in the same manner as collard greens. Just remember, always remove the tough stems.
One of the great joys of the farmer's market, for me, is being able to buy freshly harvested beets with their beautiful fresh leaves still attached. Years ago, before people had figured out how delicious they were, one of my favorite stands at the market would save me garbage sized bags FILLED with the greens people asked him to "get rid of!" Those were the days. Yes, as with most greens, there is some bitterness, but beet greens have a wonderful earthy mineral taste, along with just a hint of beet sweetness that makes them irresistible. If the stems are small, they can remain. If they're large, just cut them off. Beet greens are wonderful sauteed in a bit of olive oil with plenty of minced garlic (and maybe even a splash of wine).
This is just barely scratching the surface of the wonderful world of greens. There are dozens if not hundreds of varieties out there, just waiting for you. Buy some you've never seen before, and experiment. And if you don't want to jump right in the deep end, look in your grocer's freezer section — you'll be surprised at how many varieties you can find in there. Add them to soups, stews, pastas, and mixed vegetables. Buy a ham hock and simmer up a "whole mess of greens." These dark leafy beauties are not only extremely nutritious, they are addictive. I think, like me, you'll find yourself making them all of the time. And dreaming up endless new ways to add them to every meal!
P.S. Greens could not be easier to grow if you have the room in your yard! Just toss in the seeds and wait. And if you do grow them, be aware that after a frost, the greens will get a bit sweeter and less bitter.
This story originally appeared on allrecipes.com