I think it’s a fairly safe thing to say that virtually all of us know we’re supposed to be eating more vegetables. It’s become a cultural mantra: “eat your veggies.” And, at the very top of the list, the most hallowed of vegetable choices, are the leafy greens…you know, the very ones most people push to the side of the plate with a skeptical look as they turn to food choices that are, well, less green.
The reputation of leafy greens as a super food is actually pretty well deserved. They’re a good source of about 90% of the various vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and such and so, that help the body function. Need vitamin A? Leafy greens! Need iron? Leafy greens! Need potassium? Leafy greens! Need xeaxanthin? Leafy greens! (I know we all spend a lot of time musing about how to get more xeaxanthin in our diets…In case you’re wondering, it helps prevent eye damage as you age.) More important than the nutrients, in my opinion, is that overall diet patterns that include lots of leafy green veggies tend to be associated with better health. Plus, they’ve got lots of fiber to keep everything in your system, ahem, moving.
In general we’re failing miserably to include enough greenery in our diets. We are trying though. Broccoli, is by far and away the most frequently chosen green. I recently saw some analysis of national sales data, showing that broccoli consumption is something like 13 times higher now than in 1960. But there’s so much more to the leafy green category than broccoli – or spinach for that matter, in spite of the persistent message of Popeye – however it seems that most of the greens out there are intimidating to people. I have friends who are good cooks, have even studied nutrition, yet they cower when they are faced with kale or collards.
I definitely have not always munched my way happily through serving upon serving of ambiguous greens like I do now. When I was young our family supper table would, on most nights, turn into a bitter war between my father and myself – think the 100 years war or the feud between the houses of Lancaster and York. The source of my ire and accusations of cruelty to children was that he was constantly asking me to eat my vegetables, usually broccoli. How could he be so heartless!? We finally settled on a compromise in which I only had to eat the tops and not the stems (and now I’m glad that he never gave up on me because I did learn to love them) but imagine if he had been trying to convince me to eat chard, or mustard greens, or water spinach, amaranth, or komatsuna. Yikes!
Luckily, there are ways of making greens much more appealing and tasty than steaming them. And most of these greens can even be approached in the same way when you’re experimenting and getting used to them: when in doubt, chop and sautee with garlic and salt and pepper! (In fact, this is the same way you can approach pretty close to any savory food, the only thing that needs to change is the size of pieces you chop it into – smaller pieces for harder foods that take longer to cook – and cooking time.) Just take the greens, whichever kind you come by, rinse them off, and chop them coarsely. No need to worry about making nice slices or very evenly sized pieces, once they’re cooked you can’t tell. Chop the stems as well as the leaves, just getting rid of the bottom parts that are icky. Unless the stems seem really hard or fibrous; if they are, slice the leafy parts from either side of the stems and get rid of the stems. Use 2-3 cloves of garlic for a big bunch of greens, mince the garlic, and cook it for a couple of minutes in a frying pan with about a Tablespoon of olive oil or butter. Once the garlic looks like it is going to turn golden, add the greens on top and stir them around a bit as they cook down. It’s completely astounding the quantity of greens you can fit into a frying pan as they cook down! Once they’ve started to wilt a bit add a bunch of salt and freshly ground pepper. The key with greens really is adding something salty to them because salt reduces bitterness in foods. (Be careful about oversalting though – you can always add more at the table) Instead of salt I’ll often add a couple Tablespoons of soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, or mustard instead. If I add salt or mustard (ie, something that is not already a ‘sauce’), then it’s sometimes nice to contrast the saltiness with something a bit acidic, so I add a splash of lemon juice or any type of vinegar. Just cook the greens until they seem sufficiently wilted to eat, maybe 8-10 minutes? This is a matter of personal choice.
Once your greens are cooked, you can eat them as a side dish with pretty much any meal. Or, if you like savory breakfasts, I like to reheat leftover greens and have them on toast with a fried egg. You could also put them with your choice of cheese in an omelet, on a pizza, into a quesadilla, or on a sandwich. Just the other night, I boiled some pasta, scooped out about ¼ cup of the hot water before I drained the noodles, and then tossed the pasta, greens, pasta water, and a generous amount of grated parmesan (or any strong cheese, like romano, sharp cheddar, or even soft goat cheese to make it a creamy pasta) together. Who knew there were so many possibilities!?