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Greens, cooking
Why Eat It
Varieties
Availability
Shopping
Storage
Preparation
Nutrition Chart


Why Eat It

Plant leaves and stems are the basic makers of nutrients. Many types of leafy plants--especially kale, collards, and others in the cabbage family--are rich in beta-carotene, vitamin C, and other substances that may protect against cancer. They are also good sources of fiber and of various minerals, particularly folate and calcium.

For years, "cooking greens"--a term referring to a group of leafy green vegetables from several different plant families that are distinguished by their pungent bite and abundant nutrients--have been appreciated mainly in southern-style cuisine. It's odd that until recently they have not had more widespread appeal. Perhaps they seem difficult to cook, but they aren't. Some varieties can be eaten raw; others are easy to prepare.

Varieties

Now that greens are gaining greater recognition for their nutritional benefits, they are no longer considered a regional item, and have become available throughout the country. Those listed below come from several different plant families, chief among them the cabbage family. Most of these greens can be eaten raw when young and tender, but as they mature, their strong flavors benefit from a brief cooking.

Beet greens: These are the green tops of a root vegetable, and they may be sold attached to full-sized or baby beets, or in bunches by themselves. For more information, see Beet greens.

Broccoli rabe: Also called broccoli rape or raab, rapini, and Chinese flowering cabbage, this green resembles thin broccoli stalks with small clusters of buds. For more information, see Broccoli rabe.

Collards: A cruciferous vegetable with anticancer potential, collards, along with kale, are among the oldest members of the cabbage family to be cultivated. For more information, see Collard greens.

Dandelion greens: Whether wild or cultivated, these greens come from the common lawn weed, which is a member of the sunflower family. The leaves--pale green with saw-toothed edges--are picked before the yellow flower develops, and they have a faintly bitter taste, similar to chicory. The dandelion greens sold in markets have been cultivated for eating and are longer and more tender than wild greens; before picking wild dandelion leaves from lawns or meadows, be sure that the area has not been treated with weed killer or fungicides, and that it is not close to a heavily traveled road, where exhaust pollutants are likely to have tainted it.

Kale: Kale is a sturdy green with a wonderfully mild flavor. It is also a nutrition powerhouse. For more information, see Kale.

Sorrel: This relative of rhubarb has small, smooth, arrow-shaped leaves and a lemony (some would say sour) taste that provides a good accent to salads. Most often, sorrel is pureed and used to flavor cooked vegetable dishes. The paler the leaves are, the gentler the flavor. The stems are tough and should be removed.

Spinach: Perhaps American's favorite green. For more information, see Spinach.

Swiss chard: Also known as chard, these greens come from a variety of beet grown for its tops, not its root. For more information, see Swiss chard.

Turnip greens: The leafy tops from turnips are one of the sharpest-tasting greens, and like mustard greens, they are generally too assertive (and tough) for eating raw. Don't expect to find them with turnip roots attached: Most varieties grown for their tops don't develop full-grown roots. If you find roots with their tops attached, the greens are perfectly edible, but they may be too bitter and tough to eat unless they are quite young.

Availability

All of the greens discussed here are available year round, except Swiss chard, which is available from April through November. Most greens have seasonal peaks: Collards, dandelions, and mustard greens are at their best from approximately January through April; beet greens from June through October; and turnip greens from October through March.

Shopping

Greens should be kept in a chilled display case or on ice in the market, as they will wilt and become bitter if left in a warm environment. Whatever the type of green, it is best to choose smaller-leaved plants for tenderness and mild flavor, especially if the greens are to be eaten raw; coarse, oversized leaves are likely to be tough. Look for a fresh green color--leaves should not be yellowed or browned--and purchase only moist, crisp, unwilted greens, unblemished by tiny holes, which indicate insect damage.

When buying greens with edible stems, select those with fine stems. Make sure that dandelion greens have their roots attached, and that broccoli rabe has small buds and no open flowers. Check that mustard greens are free of seed stems.

Storage

Wrap unwashed greens in damp paper towels, then place them in a plastic bag; store them in the refrigerator crisper for three to five days. Sturdy greens, such as collards, are better keepers than delicate ones such as sorrel.

Preparation

Whether serving them raw or cooked, wash greens before using, as they are likely to have sand or dirt clinging to them. Trim off any roots, separate the leaves, and swish them around in a large bowl of cool water; do not soak. Lift out the leaves, letting the sand and grit settle; repeat if necessary.

Pinch off tough or inedible stems, and also the midribs (the part of the stem that extends into the leaf) if they are thick and tough. You can easily stem tender greens by folding each leaf in half, vein-side out, and pulling up on the stem as you hold the folded leaf closed. Tougher stems, such as those on kale leaves, may need to be trimmed off with a paring knife.

Dry greens well in paper towels or a salad spinner if serving them in salads; for cooking, leave them damp.

Whenever possible, use the cooking liquid from greens in a sauce or add it to a soup; a significant percentage of the nutrient content of greens is released into the liquid as they cook. Don't heat oxalate-containing greens, such as sorrel and Swiss chard, in aluminum pots; otherwise, the pot will discolor. When cooking the stems and leaves of Swiss chard, heat the stems for a few minutes before adding the leaves.

Cooking greens quickly will help to preserve their color as well as their nutrients, and for members of the cabbage family, such as collards, it will prevent them from releasing odorous compounds.

The relatively wide range of cooking times given below reflects the variety of greens covered here: Small, young, tender greens, such as sorrel, require minimal cooking time, while large collard leaves or mustard greens need considerably longer to become tender.

Blanching: To soften greens and mellow their flavor, or to prepare them for sauteing or braising, drop them into a large pot of boiling water and cook just until wilted. (This is unnecessary for softer greens, such as spinach, sorrel, or Swiss chard.) Drain and cool before squeezing out excess moisture (cool under cold water if not serving immediately or continuing with another cooking process). Cooking time: five to 15 minutes.

Braising:To make greens more tender, after sauteing, add a little broth, cover the pan, and continue cooking the greens, then uncover the pan and cook, stirring, until the liquid evaporates. Cooking time: 10 to 30 minutes.

Microwaving: This method is a good substitute for blanching, as a preliminary step before sauteing or braising greens. Place 1/2 pound of greens (washed but not dried) in a microwaveable dish; cover loosely and cook until tender. Cooking time: four to seven minutes.

Sauteing: If greens are blanched first, they can be sauteed quickly in a small amount of oil. Whenever you use a nonstick pan, 2 teaspoons of oil should be sufficient for 3 cups of chopped greens. In addition, greens can be sauteed in stock, if you are careful to stir and toss them constantly; be prepared to add more stock to the pan as it evaporates. A generous quantity of finely chopped garlic is the traditional seasoning for sauteed greens; chopped onions or leeks are tasty alternatives. Cooking time: three to 15 minutes.

Simmering: This method works well with such fairly sturdy greens as collards. Simmer the greens, covered, in seasoned broth until tender; to preserve nutrients, after the greens are cooked, set them aside and reduce the cooking liquid to use in a sauce. Cooking time: 10 to 30 minutes.

Steaming: Tender greens cook quickly enough to be steamed in just the water that clings to the leaves after washing. Steam greens whole or coarsely chopped. Place the washed greens in a heavy skillet (for sturdier greens, add 1/2" of water or broth to the skillet); cover and cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until the greens are wilted. Sorrel heated in this way reduces almost instantly to a puree and is usable as is for a sauce. Greens can also be steamed in a vegetable steamer over boiling water. Cooking time: anywhere from two to 15 minutes.

Nutrition Chart

Collard Greens/1 cup cooked

49
Total fat (g)
0.7
Saturated fat (g)
0.1
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0.1
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.3
Dietary fiber (g)
5.3
4
Carbohydrate (g)
9
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
17
Beta-carotene (mg)
3.6
Vitamin C (mg)
35
Folate (mcg)
177
Calcium (mg)
226
Manganese (mg)
1.1

Dandelion Greens/1 cup cooked

35
Total fat (g)
0.6
Saturated fat (g)
0.1
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.3
Dietary fiber (g)
3
2
Carbohydrate (g)
7
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
46
Beta-carotene (mg)
7.4
Vitamin C (mg)
19
Calcium (mg)
147

Turnip Greens/1 cup cooked

29
Total fat (g)
0.3
Saturated fat (g)
0.1
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.1
Dietary fiber (g)
5
2
Carbohydrate (g)
6
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
42
Beta-carotene (mg)
4.8
Vitamin B6 (mg)
0.3
Vitamin C (mg)
40
Folate (mcg)
170
Calcium (mg)
197
Copper (mg)
0.4
Manganese (mg)
0.5


Date Published: 04/20/2005
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