Trend Spotting: Leafy Greens Get the Spotlight
Unlike many people I’ve spoken to, I was never a greens-adverse kid. In fact, many of my favorite childhood foods centered around leafy veggies.
On cold Michigan days, I’d be haunting the kitchen until the soup my mom made was done - a spinach, white bean, and sausage soup she served with buttered toast or a grilled cheese sandwich for dipping. When Easter came around, the spinach souflee’ my dad made did what was almost unthinkable - it actually beat out the deviled eggs for the title of dish I most looked forward to (Seriously, no small feat!). And from my grandparents, I got the southern greens tradition – each New Years a humble, yet soul-satisfying meal of black eyed peas and rice with a side of tender, slow-cooked collard greens, swimming in a broth with bacon offered us good luck. As they explained, the beans were like coins and the collards were like folding money - you had to eat them all if you wanted to be sure you’d have plenty in the next year! I’m sure my budding foodie eyes went wide – not only were they tasty, greens were magic.
Despite somewhat of a head start though, I’ve realized since moving out, starting to cook for myself, and getting a job in the health industry, there's still a lot I didn’t know about greens. Kale? Arugula? Chard? They’re all recent friends of mine; introduced by health-hip colleagues who gushed over their benefits and the ways they’d personally been enjoying them.
Now suddenly, greens are new for me again and as it turns out, they’re new again for many other people too.
Who Says Greens are a Trend?
“Seaweed beyond sushi … in bread, in flavored salt, in crackers, in breakfast cereals, in butter, toasted and sprinkled on fries, fish and pasta also in packaged snacks flavored with wasabi, olive oil, sesame seeds. Greens beyond seaweed: Kale trickles down to mass-market feeders beet greens, chard, turnip greens, mustard greens … rejected only five years ago, finding favor. (Someone’s testing a “better burger” topped with bbq flavored kale chips.)” – Baum & Whiteman
“Michael Ferraro, executive chef at Delicatessen in New York City and a former competitor on Iron Chef America, is also a fan. ‘Collard greens are a very classic comfort food ingredient, but they're making a comeback in a big way with new, lighter preparations,’ he says. ‘They're not just for fried chicken anymore.’” – Details.com
“Boomers will control more than half the dollars spent on grocery foods by 2015, look for more heart-healthy antioxidant-rich foods including oily fish such as salmon, as well as green tea, sweet potatoes, dark leafy greens…” – Forbes.com
“’It's not always easy to convince a consumer, especially a mainstream consumer, that a vegetable dish is going to have flavor and interest and innovation,’ says Mary Chapman of Technomic, a food service research and consulting firm. ‘But then you look at a menu like the Cheesecake Factory that has kale on one of their salads (and patrons think), 'Maybe I would be willing to try it there, and then I’ll know what to do with it.’” – Chicago Tribune
“A few months ago, Sargento hired Rick to develop a list of the top 10 food trends. The company also hired a group of food writers and recipe developers, myself included, to create recipes over the coming year incorporating one or two of the as yet unassigned trends and, you guessed it, cheese…
… Ten years ago, kale was merely a bitter garnish. As it came into vogue more recently, this dark, leafy green became available to people who tried it and liked it. Now, many people consume this nutrient-rich vegetable regularly and often have a choice among several varieties; some even grow it in their gardens. So, if trendy translates to accessibility and variety, I am jumping on board….
… Just as spinach was once the bridge to kale, kale will now serve as the gateway to such options as collard and beet greens.” – The Fountain Avenue Kitchen
A Guide to Leafy Greens
The following is just a brief introduction to the wide array of leafy green vegetables ready and available for your culinary exploration. A few notes:
Flavor: Most are somewhat bitter, earthy, and mineral in flavor – good things because they add wonderful richness, complexity, and depth to a dish.
Nutrition: Most are also extremely good for you too. As you’ll see leafy greens are a potent source of vitamin K (important for blood clotting and bone health) and vitamin A (antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and important for eye health and cell communication). Big flavor, big benefits, low calories – win, win, win!
Raw or Not? Some of these veggies are tender enough to grace your salad bowl, while others are a little bit too waxy and stiff for most people. This said, even greens I wouldn’t personally recommend for a raw preparation are safe to eat that way if you so choose. Another good thing to keep in mind with the texture – in comparison to greens with a firmer texture, softer greens lose a lot more of their volume when cooked. This means you’ll want to buy a lot more spinach than you would kale to get a similar amount of cooked greens.
A very quick grow time, and milder flavor compared with other greens, has helped make Spinach the most common and best loved of all leafy veggies over time. There are three main types of spinach - savoy, has the most deeply crinkled leaves, semi-savoy is slightly less crinkled, and smooth leafed spinach which has almost none. “Baby” is even milder in taste than mature spinach leaves are and so it may be well suited to pickier palates.
- Flavor: Earthy and Just Slightly Bitter
- Nutritional Needs Met in 1 Ounce of Raw Spinach: 169% Vitamin K, 53% Vitamin A, 14% Folate, 13% Vitamin C, 12% Manganese, 38.6 mg Omega 3, 6 Calories
- Also Good Raw? You bet!
Though its very firm texture makes most kale (excluding immature varieties) unsuitable for a salad, like spinach, kale has a more mild taste among greens that makes it well suited to hesitant pallets. Added bonus – it won’t lose its shape or turn to mush like some other greens can when you cook them. In fact. kale is firm enough you can make kale “chips” from it.
- Flavor: Peppery, but Not Aggressively So
- Nutritional Needs Met in 1 Ounce of Boiled Kale: 286% Vitamin K, 76% Vitamin A, 19% Vitamin C, 28.8 mg Omega 3, 8 Calories
- Also Good Raw? Yes.Baby Kale is available for fresh uses, though even there, I must say I prefer it cooked.
Arugula has a similar texture to spinach, but a more pronounced flavor. It’s a veggie I’d recommend to anyone considering organic gardening – the spiciness of the leaves may be enticing for people, but it repels the pests that will gladly eat the romaine or head lettuce next to it. It’s also my favorite lettuce for a sandwich or wrap.
- Flavor: Spicy and Bitter
- Nutritional Needs Met in 1 Ounce of Raw Arugula: 38% Vitamin K, 13% Vitamin A, 47.6mg Omega 3, 7 Calories
- Also Good Raw? Yes. In fact, it’s one of my staple salad greens!
A show stopper among greens, chard comes in a wide variety colors that add pretty and pleasant crunch to a dish. Cook stems first to avoid overcooking leaves, but don’t toss them! They’re good to eat too.
- Flavor: Mild and Ever So Slightly Sweet
- Nutritional Needs Met in 1 Ounce of Boiled Swiss Chard: 115% Vitamin K, 34% Vitamin A, 6 Calories
- Also Good Raw? Not so much. While it won’t hurt you to eat it fresh, it can be a little tough this way so most people prefer it cooked.
Though collards are available year-round, according to experts, the best time of year for these green is after the first frost of the winter. Collards are favorite among Southern cooks and classically pairs well with salty meats like ham or bacon.
- Flavor: Like a Slightly More Flavorful Cabbage
- Nutritional Needs Met in 1 Ounce of Boiled Collards: 154% Vitamin K,45% Vitamin A, 26mg Omega 3, 7 Calories
- Also Good Raw? Not really.The leaves may be OKAY fresh, but they are much better cooked and most of the stems are too tough for any reasonable person to enjoy raw.
Curly leaves add interesting texture to food and help mustard stand out among the sea of green leafy competitors. Like the condiment these plants help produce, mustard leaves offer a bold assertive flavor for your dishes. The smaller the leaves, the spicier you should expect them to be.
- Flavor: Radish-Like, Spicy
- Nutritional Needs Met in 1 Ounce of Boiled Mustard Greens: 105% Vitamin K, 35% Vitamin A, 12% Vitamin C, 4 Calories
- Also Good Raw? Yep! Just remove those stems first.
The extremely high calcium content in these greens is the reason for their intense bitter flavor which pairs so well with salty meat and cheese. To turn down the intensity, boil first, then strain and discard to water before adding the leaves to their final preparation.
- Flavor: Bitter and Spicy
- Nutritional Needs Met in 1 Ounce of Boiled Turnip Greens: 129% Vitamin K, 43% Vitamin A, 13% Vitamin C, 17.9 mg Omega 3, 6 Calories
- Also Good Raw? Not really. They wouldn’t kill you, but they’re too tough and bitter for most people when fresh.
Sturdy enough to withstand the heat, yet soft enough to round out a salad green mix, many people are surprised to hear the tops of those root veggies they’ve been tossing out are actually great to eat and perfectly matched, I might add, to the beet below them!
- Flavor: Taste Like Beets Would Taste If They Were Greens
- Nutritional Needs Met in 1 Ounce of Boiled Beet Greens: 169% Vitamin K, 43% Vitamin A, 12% Vitamin C, 8 Calories
- Also Good Raw? Yep!
This will be the third time I’ve written on the subject of dandelion greens, but I’m happy to bring awareness to this sustainable, local, organic, and abundant free food stuff once more! Dandelion green are mildest in flavor as immature leaves – plucked before a flower even develops, ideally – though their stronger, more bitter adult flavor can be tempered with similarly pronounced flavors – citrus, salt, or spice.
- Flavor: Bitter and Slightly Tangy
- Nutritional Needs Met in 1 Ounce of Boiled Dandelion Greens: 193% Vitamin K, 38% Vitamin A, 9 Calories
- Also Good Raw? Yes, but stick to the immature leaves that grow in spring. The older leaves may be too bitter.
Napa, red, savoy – there’s a variety for nearly every culture of this important, historical staple food. Whether stir-fried, served fresh as slaw, or cooked into a hearty soup, cabbage offers a little bit of spice and a pleasant texture that’s not too flimsy or stiff.
- Flavor: Mild, Earthy and Slightly Sweet
- Nutritional Needs Met in 1 Ounce of Boiled Savoy Cabbage: 8% Vitamin C, 7 Calories
- Also Good Raw? You bet!
Green Not Khaki: A Basic Guide to Blanching Greens
Okay, kids. Science time!
Because leafy greens are mainly made up of carbohydrates and water -one of which changes the leaf’s texture with heat (the carbs) and one of which retains heat well (the water) - cooked greens require some care in order to maintain their optimal color. Too much heat or acid before the leaves are ready to meet their final preparation will cause the magnesium atoms in their chlorophyll to be replaced with hydrogen, resulting in a swampy brown rather than lovely vivid green color you started out with. Luckily, understand why the browning happens gives us the key to preventing it.
Because acidic water has more chlorophyll-damaging hydrogen than alkaline water, we can simply add a very small pinch of alkaline baking soda (in addition to a generous pinch of ph neutral, yet flavor-enhancing salt) to the liquid we intend to boil our greens in. (WARNING: More baking soda is not better in this case. Use only a tiny pinch. Too much will turn your veggies to mush!)
With an ice water bath ready to receive them at completion, boil your chosen green in the salted and baking soda’ed water for the appropriate amount of time (or until tender). Approximately:
- Spinach: Two Minutes
- Kale: Four Minutes
- Arugula: 30 Seconds
- Chard Stems: 3 Minutes
- Chard Greens: 2 Minutes
- Collard Greens: 3 Minutes
- Mustard Greens: 3 Minutes
- Turnip Greens: 3 Minutes
- Beet Greens: 2 Minutes.
- Dandelion Greens: 1 Minute
- Cabbage: 1 ½ Minutes
Once the appropriate amount of time has elapsed, put your leafy greens in their ice water bath to cool for about the same amount of time you had them in the hot water. Once cooled, drain thoroughly and your greens will be ready for their final destination whether that’s onto pasta, into a sandwich, or blended into a pesto! Just warm before serving.
My Leafy Green Recipe:
Golden Beet and Rainbow Chard Greens with Wood Smoked Golden Beets, Red Onions, and Blackened Butterflied Shrimp
Food I Used Need:
2 Organic Golden Beets with Greens Attached
1 Bundle Organic Rainbow Chard
10 Raw Medium Size Shrimp, Defrosted and Butterflied
2 Small Organic Red Onions, Cut in 1/8
6 Cups Organic Vegetable Stock
½ Bottle of Beer
2 Tbsp Smoked Paprika
Blackening Seasoning to Coat
Pinch of Baking Soda
Tools I Used:
Large Stock Pot and Cover
Large Bowl and Ice
Optional: Hand-Held Camping Grill
One of the challenges of cooking greens is the uniformity of their appearance and color. Since we eat first with our eyes (A lot of our enjoyment of food really is in our mind!) this can set an expectation of boring flavor to match it. My go-to greens recipe, a classic collard preparation that I honestly learned by following the directions on the back of a pre-cut package of the greens, relies on bell pepper to add a punch of color, but this time I was in the mood for a little experimentation.
To avoid the blahs in my greens experiment, I opted for the most colorful greens I could find, rainbow swiss chard ribbed in magenta, red, and yellow, and because I was pretty intrigued by the idea of cooking beets with their own greens and I had never tried that particular variety before, two beautiful golden beets.
To round out the dish, as a pescatarian, I added shrimp in place of the more classic greens partner, bacon, and an aromatic, red onion, for even more color and flavor.
STOCK: Though I don’t really like to work with pre-made stock if at all possible, time constraints left me with no choice this time. So besides the sea salt and pinch of baking soda, I put my touch on it with 2 tbsp of my family’s new favorite spice, smoked paprika, and half of a beer I purchased to compliment the meal – Short’s Brew Nicie Spicie, an American wheat ale with orange zest, lemon zest, coriander and peppercorns.
BEETS: While waiting for my stock to start boiling, the golden beets (which would need the most time on heat) had their skins peeled, tops removed, were sliced in thin horizontal slices, and were tossed with a little olive oil and sea salt.
I had planned to boil them at this point, but since Nick (boyfriend) already had a bonfire going, and I have this theory that anything cooked tastes better when cooked over wood smoke, I was determined to find a way to cook my veggies this way. It was a bit tricky because of their size which was too small to lay on our grill without falling through and I really wanted them to have good contact with the smoke, so a regular ol’ frying pan was out of the question. The method I devised was to use a large colander we had for steaming and to set that on a couple bricks as close to the bonfire as I could get them. I used tin foil on the top to prevent cinder from getting in there and gave Nick the task of keeping an eye on them.
GREENS: Beets now cooking, I chopped my greens in inch-thick strip horizontally, tossed them into the stock pot once the stock began to boil, prepared an ice bath while I let them boiled covered for three minutes, then scooped them into their ice bath, and let the broth continue reducing down. I wanted it to act more like a sauce than a soup stock.
SHRIMP AND ONIONS: Since the stock and beets required the most cook time, and the greens could be re-heated just before serving, I saved prep on the shrimp and onions for last. Shrimp were butterflied, (cut vertically down the middle of the back down their tail, almost, but not quite all the way through), laid out on tin foil inside our hand-held grill, and sprinkled with blackening seasoning. The onion I cut roughly, like you would for a shish kebob. Then they were then ready to join the beets on the fire.
Shrimp were cooked in the hand held grill and onions were stirred into the colander with beets which were by now starting brown up nicely.
END RESULT: I wasn’t timing things out, measuring, or working from a recipe while cooking. I just relied on what I knew, kept an eye on things, and tasted my work as I went along often. ( A good approach when working with a wood fire which can be a little unpredictable and requires some flexibility!)
This said, I’d estimate that everything was done on the fire about 5 minutes or so after we mixed in the onions, which meant it was time to strain and squeeze the water out of my now cooled greens, toss them back into the stock post with the now reduced stock to warm them back up, mix in a little olive oil (Always add olive oil last. Heated, it loses flavor!), and bring them out to meet the wood-smoked beets, shrimp and onions. Voila!
Alongside the greens, we had blackened catfish over a bed of arugula…
…. a white bean salad with bell peppers, baby cucumbers, red onion, thyme, and smoked paprika Nick had made before I got home…
… and bottle of Short’s Brew Nicie Spicie.
Everything, the whole meal, was delicious. Nick’s catfish, perfectly cooked, Nick’s bean salad, full of fresh flavors, and my greens, the best I’ve ever made. Theircolor was eye-poppingly vibrant and the salty shrimp, earthy beets, bitter beer, spicy onions, and wood smoke through it all each mimicked and enhanced a subtle flavor characteristic the greens had naturally in them already. We did end up with a good amount of leftovers, but I’ll admit that had nothing to do with dietary restraint . We ate till we were well full and we WILL be doing this again!