When Martha Stewart was doing hard time, there were reports that she voluntarily pulled up weeds outside in the prison yard each day. Was she just trying to get out early for good behavior? Not quite. Martha was actually taking an unconventional approach to good nutrition. She would harvest the leaves of dandelions, wash them and then eat the nutritionally dense greens as a side dish to balance out her bland prison fare.|
Martha couldn’t have picked a better side dish, from a nutritional standpoint. Foraging for foliage provided her with a rich source of beta-carotene, vitamin C, calcium, iron, folate and magnesium. Besides these vitamins and minerals, dandelion greens also contain Lutein and zeaxanthin, which may help prevent cataracts and macular degeneration. Fiber and potassium are also abundant in the greens.
But you don’t have to become a weed eater to enjoy the benefits of greens. There are lots of nutritious choices of greens that you can pick up at your local grocery store or farmer’s market. You could try collard, turnip, broccoli rabe or mustard greens—all of which, like dandelion greens, are strong-flavored and slightly bitter. Or you could enjoy popular greens like spinach, chard, beet greens and bok choy, which are mild and tender. And then there’s kale, which lies somewhere in the middle of the flavor spectrum.
When purchasing or harvesting greens, look for leaves that are perky, lively and deeply colored. Generally, small leaves will be mild, sweet and tender compared to larger leaves. Stay away from greens that are wilted, yellowed or spotted—these will certainly be bitter, even when cooked. When you bring your greens home, store them inside a plastic bag in the refrigerator and use them within a few days.
Greens are versatile when it comes to cooking. You can heat them as a side dish, add them to soups, chop them to fill calzones or lasagna and eat them raw in salads. Although greens can be delicious when they're properly prepared, most people who don't know how to do that, and wind up with a slimy, wilted pile of vegetable mush on their plates.
Here's a quick introduction to cooking and enjoying some of the most common greens:
Most people have tried spinach at least a few times. This green is very versatile and can be eaten raw or cooked. When eating raw spinach, be sure to choose leaves that look dry and not slimy, and wash the leaves thoroughly. Toss a handful into your salad to boost its nutritional content, or put the leaves inside a wrap with cheese, tomatoes, grated carrots, romaine lettuce and Caesar dressing. You can also sauté fresh spinach with olive oil over medium heat until wilted, adding salt and pepper to taste. Frozen spinach can be added to lasagna, pasta sauce, soups or egg dishes (like omelets or frittatas). Skip the canned spinach, unless you’re going for slimy and flavorless cuisine.
There are two types of chard, green and red, which are distinguished by the color of their stalks. Sometimes you’ll find them packaged together and marketed as "rainbow" chard. Look for hearty, perky, crinkled, dark-green leaves, attached to upright stalks. If the stalks are large, they should be cooked separately from the leaves, which cook much more quickly. Try cutting the stalks into 3-inch lengths and sautéing in olive oil until almost tender, adding salt and pepper to taste. Just as the stalks are almost done, add the leaves (sliced or torn) to the pan and cook just a few minutes more, until the leaves are wilted and the stalks are tender.
Similar to chard, bok choy is made up of large leaves and succulent stalks. The stalks cook pretty quickly compared to other greens, so the leaves and stalks can be cooked together. Try adding chopped bok choy to a stir-fry, or sauté in olive oil and minced fresh garlic until tender.
These are the leaves that grow from beets. They can be cooked much like chard and bok choy.
These big, flat, matte leaves take much longer to cook than other greens, and if they aren’t fresh, they can be very bitter. Raw collards are almost always bitter. The stems and tough ribs aren’t edible, so the leaves must be torn or cut away. Try boiling them for 10 minutes, and then braising them in garlic butter and some of their cooking water, covered, for 30 minutes, salting to taste.
These have curlier leaves than collards, but the handling instructions for turnip greens are the same as collards.
Peel the tough lower stalks of this Italian vegetable, and then boil until almost tender. Drain and sauté in garlic butter or olive oil.
The curly leaves of mustard greens look like light-green kale (see below), but taste nothing alike. Mustard greens have a spicy, horseradish-mustard flavor and can be very pungent. Remove the stems and tough ribs, and boil for one minute before sautéing in garlic butter or olive oil until tender.
Kale is versatile and its mild flavor goes well in soups and hearty stews. Just rip the leaves away from the stems, tear the leaves into bite-sized pieces, and toss them into the stew when there is five minutes of cooking time left. Steamed kale can be eaten as a side vegetable. To steam, rip the leaves away and discard the stalks. Steam leaves for 4 to 5 minutes until tender. Drizzle with a scant amount of toasted sesame oil and soy sauce.