It’s Easy Being Green

February 11, 2014

Shakespeare coined the phrase ‘salad days’ in ‘Antony and Cleopatra,’ referring to a time of youth and innocence. In modern days, this same phrase indicates the peak of life, regardless of age. I wonder if The Bard really knew what he was saying, if he knew the value of greens in keeping us youthful and vital.

Leafy green vegetables (often known as winter greens because of their viability in cold weather) are the greatest powerhouses of nutrition we can imagine. Loaded with antioxidants to slow down aging, vitamin C and D for strong bones; vitamin K for proper clotting of blood and liver synthesizing of protein; fiber for digestion; chlorophyll for strong red blood cells, protein (yes, protein…), calcium, iron and other essential minerals and buckets of moisture to keep us hydrated. And did I mention that they are rich in compounds that battle cancer? Whew!

From a botanical standpoint, winter greens are a mixed bag of cabbages, turnips, beets, mustards and lettuces. Interestingly, Southern chefs didn’t need to be ‘sold’ on these verdant beauties. Used for generations, chard, kale, collards, beet greens and broccoli rabe have been more than just a pretty garnish. In the South there is an entire cuisine structured around collard greens, making it the epicenter of cooking leafies! And it’s time the rest of the country caught on.

Inexpensive, versatile and easy to prepare, winter greens are not at all exotic; you’ll find them in just about every produce department…but they are essential to your health and well-being. From red chard, kale and dandelion greens to escarole, arugula and spinach, a virtual plethora of greens has graced healthy tables of the world for generations.

Leafy greens tend to be sturdy, gloriously crunchy and have large leaves that hold up well in cooking, although very young leaves can be used in winter salads. Some winter greens are the delicate edible tops of root vegetables, like beets and turnips; others are tightly furled around tender stalks, like kale, chard, collard greens and bok choy, while others are delicate and feathery in texture, like dandelion, arugula, watercress and mizuna.

Unlike their tender summer counterparts, winter greens can be braised, simmered, steamed, sautéed, stewed, stir-fried, even grilled or roasted. But don’t get carried away…overcooking these babies compromises their valuable nutrients, but we’ll get to that in the recipes.

From side dishes to beds for main courses, winter greens do it all. Mixed into pilafs, stews or soups, leafy greens enliven any dish. It’s like stirring sunshine into dinner.

While spinach is perhaps the best known in America of all leafy greens (thanks, Popeye!), leafy greens have played a role on the world stage of cuisine for generations. Italians cherish escarole and broccoli rabe for their bitter taste. Served braised, sautéed with garlic and olive oil or stirred into pasta and soups, these greens are staples in Italian cuisine.

While overlooked or used as garnish by most American chefs, in other cultures the crunchy leaves of kale inspire classic dishes, like ‘caldo verde,’ a Portuguese soup of potatoes, white beans and kale. In Brazil, kale is slowly braised and served with the gloriously smoky black bean stew, ‘feijoada.’ And there’s red Russian kale with its flat, purple-tipped leaves, tender stems and added magnesium to keep our nerves from getting frazzled…and mixed into stir-fried dishes or salads will change your opinion of greens forever.

Ya’ gotta love the Asian greens: Bok choy (babies and fully matured), tatsoi (a dark green with glossy leaves and an intensely sweet taste), napa cabbage…nothing stirs up a stir-fry like these sweet greens.

Beet and turnip tops, along with chard are prized for their succulence and rich concentration of iron. The crunchy textures and mild mustard flavor makes them the perfect sauté dish. Mustard greens have a strong flavor that loves a quick blanching and a light sprinkle of lemon juice to make them sparkle. And since they are loaded with compounds that can help to cleanse the liver, well, these babies should be on every dinner plate.

There are also delicate winter greens…frisee (French chicory or curly endive), arugula, dandelion, baby spinach, mizuna, Belgian endive and radicchio. Just because it’s cold outside doesn’t mean that a crisp, fresh salad is off the menu. We just change up the ingredients to heartier fare accommodate the chilly temperatures outdoors. There is nothing as refreshing as a salad after a hearty winter feast.