Part of the Eat Your Greens series. See all the delicious ways you can eat your greens!
We’re supposed to eat our greens. As the Popeye tune goes, “I’m strong to the finich cause I eats me spinach!” I think greens are fascinating. They are universal: people worldwide use and appreciate greens in the various forms they take. Those in North America may be familiar with spinach, lettuce, mustard greens, or collard greens. But there are SO many more.
Wherever they are used, greens are often a symbol of nutrition and health. To some, that implication of “health” is precisely what turns them off—we’ve all heard of the person who refuses to eat anything green. If only they knew all of the delicious ways to enjoy greens! Not only are these some of the most nutritious plants, they are abundant, versatile, and used in endless though familiar ways across cuisines, whether in salads, soup, condiments, and more.
What are Greens?
GREENS ARE: Green* leafy plants. Leaves from plants. That’s it. According to Wikipedia there are “nearly one thousand species of plants with edible leaves.” There is a clear distinction between raw greens and cooked greens. Raw greens are eaten in salads or as raw toppings for other dishes; cooked greens become fillings for pastries, ravioli, and so on; additions to stews or soups; or side dishes all on their own.
*I make exceptions for some greens that are technically not green, such as red lettuce, amaranth, radicchio, and so on.
Greens appropriate for salads tend to be those that taste good raw, such as lettuce, spinach, baby greens, certain mustard greens, and fresh herbs like dill, parsley, and so on. But salads comprise a small portion of the many ways that greens are eaten worldwide.
There are many greens around the world suitable to different climates. Spinach is of course the quintessential green, which might be why so many greens have some variation of “spinach” in their English-language name: Examples include mountain spinach, strawberry spinach, Malabar spinach, Okinawa spinach, mustard spinach, water spinach, Ceylon spinach, Lagos spinach, tree spinach, New Zealand spinach, and hibiscus spinach.
Greens in the mustard family are a major category of greens. They are most commonly represented by collard greens or mustard greens, but it doesn’t stop there. The leaves of many popular mustard family vegetables are edible, such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts, Savoy cabbage, kohlrabi, and gai lan or Chinese broccoli (ALL of which are the same species, Brassica oleracea). An interesting relative is Ethiopian kale, a recent addition to my garden. Asian cuisines use mustard family greens abundantly, including turnip leaves; napa or Chinese cabbage, bok choy or pac choi, tatsoi, mizuna, mibuna, and komatsuna to name some (all of which are the species Brassica rapa).
Bitter greens comprise another major greens category. They are most popular in Europe and particularly the Mediterranean, where people are familiar with all kinds of (often wild) greens. In Greece, “at least 80 different kinds of greens are used, depending on the area and season, including black mustard, dandelion, wild sorrel, chicory, fennel, chard, kale, mallow, black nightshade, lamb’s quarters, wild leeks, hoary mustard, charlock, smooth sow thistle and even the fresh leaves of the caper plant,” according to Wikipedia. In Italy and elsewhere, mixtures of boiled greens are used to stuff ravioli or added to frittatas and minestrone-style soups.
The diverse continent of Africa has a whole host of greens wholly unique to its wide-ranging environments, including the edible leaves of cowpea, pumpkin, sweet potato, okra, cocoyam, cassava, bitter tomato, and African eggplant as well as African cabbage, amaranth, roselle, bitterleaf, jute mallow, and others. Chopped and cooked leaves feature prominently in condiments and stews.
Clearly, “greens” are a worldwide phenomenon. Thus, it is no wonder that you can use greens interchangeably (as you can alliums, greens in their own right). However you define them, leafy greens are among the most nutritious things we can eat and are packed with nutrients. They are especially notable for their Vitamin K content, are high in protein (per calorie), fiber, vitamin C, vitamin B6, and manganese. In many cultures, green vegetables are prized for their nutritive content. Think of greens as the dressing, the color, the nutrients—the special guest to your meal.
Cooking Your Greens
Across cuisines, cooked greens make familiar appearances in lots of places, whether in soups, as sauces or pestos, or as fillings in tasty dumplings, pastries, pies, and so on. And it is often the case that you can substitute one for the other. You can make a green sauce or pesto that has practically any type of green you like.
Soups and Stews
1 lb diced potatoes
A few young lovage stalks (or 1 stalk of celery to substitute)
Handful of chopped chives
1 lb greens such as stinging nettle, spinach, sorrel, or others
½ cup chopped onions, shallots, garlic
1/3 cup cream or half & half
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 tbsp butter
Few sprigs of dried thyme
Juice from one lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
Blanch the nettles to get the sting out. Blanch in boiling salted water for a minute and strain; let cool. Saute onions, shallots, garlic for a few minutes. Add in the chopped potatoes, stock, thyme and simmer until potatoes are soft (5-10 minutes). Add in chopped nettles and chopped lovage (stems only) and simmer a few more minutes. Blend everything to a smooth consistency; add in the lemon juice, cream and chopped lovage and chive leaves. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Stir Fries and Braises
Stir fries and braises are especially good ways of preparing greens that have a bite, whether mustard-y greens or bitter greens. Examples include stir-fried Korean spinach, twice-cooked chard, Ethiopian greens, southern collard greens, sauteed Asian greens, and dandelion greens.
Greens are also chopped and folded into various batters and starches. For example, greens are added to egg dishes like omelets and frittatas or to starches like corn (greens cornbread), potatoes (colcannon, spinach patties, onion pancakes), and rice (spinach rice) not to mention green pasta.
Greens make a great filling for all manner of tasty, flaky, crispy, fatty pockets, whether they are dumplings, crusts (tarts, pies), or pockets (pasties). Perhaps it’s all just an excuse to eat delicious things in puff pastries with cheese. Anyhow, you might as well fill them with greens.
Condiments, Sauces, and Pestos
The real greens lovers cannot be sufficed with hiding their greens in a soup, filling, or batter. They want to pour the greenness all over their food, and they will have nothing less than green sauce. Look no further than the endless variety of green condiments, sauces, and pestos. Examples include green purees such as spinach or lamb’s quarters, spinach sabzi, green sauce, and various pestos like the tasty kale pesto or scallion pesto. Many greens can be made into a “pesto” aka blended green, nut, cheese, and oil. Marc Williams demonstrates this well with his pesto video: At its most basic level, pesto requires garlic (or other pungent alliums like wild onions or shallots), greens, nuts (think pine nuts, pumpkin seeds, walnuts), olive oil, and cheese.
|Lemon Sorrel Cream Sauce
2 cups chopped sorrel leaves (or spinach, chard, or other greens)
1 cup cream or half & half
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
2 tbsp butter
Juice from 1 lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
Simmer cream and stock on low heat until reduced by half. Melt the butter and sauté chopped sorrel until wilted. Puree in food processor with cream-stock mixture. Add lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Add to pasta, rice, mashed potatoes, or other starchy foods.
Have I convinced you of the Power of Greens? Let me know in the comments or shoot me an email!