Dark green leafy vegetables, also known as edible plant leaves, or simply “greens,” are everywhere these days. Everyone knows they’re good for you. Some people actually like to eat them. Here’s how, and why.
Leaves contain the most chlorophyll of any plant part (though green peppers, peas and any other vegetable material that’s green has chlorophyll, too). One of the most important molecules in the world, chlorophyll converts solar energy into biological energy.
There’s a strong biochemical similarity between chlorophyll and another important molecule—hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in our blood. Research has shown that chlorophyll, especially in crude form—as in, not purified in a lab—can speed up blood-replacement in people who’ve lost or given blood.
For those of us who have enough blood, there are other reasons to eat chlorophyll. Most leaves contain an array of other goodies: vitamins, anti-oxidants, enzymes, minerals, etc. Meanwhile, all that leaf fiber will polish your pipes like a jolly green intestinal Brillo pad.
Ideally, the greens you eat will vary with the season and your location. Your bounty could include the likes of amaranth, arugula, beets, broccoli, bok choy, cabbage, chickweed, collards, dandelion, endive, fennel, garlic mustard, kale, lambs quarter, lettuce, mustard, nettle, plantain, purslane, radicchio, seaweed, sorrel, spinach, turnip and watercress, to name just a few varieties, both wild and tame.
There’s reason to believe that some nutritional benefits of greens are enhanced when the leaves are consumed raw. Salad is nice, but I like just hanging around my garden with bowl in hand, and a little salad dressing covering the bottom of the bowl. Pluck a leaf, dip in dressing, place in mouth and repeat.
Sometimes, I mix and match leaves to contrast the bitter leaves (dandelion, radicchio), sweet leaves (lettuce, spinach, purslane), and spicy leaves (garlic, arugula). Chewed together, these combos deliver a potent flavor.
This pick-and-eat technique is best right after watering the garden, when the leaves are nice and clean. It’s also a fun way to hang out with your friends outside—everyone with their own bowl, close to the earth, munching on minimally refined sunshine.
Here’s a dressing I’ve been playing around with lately to help maximize your leaf-picking experience—it’s rich, tangy, thick as pudding and if you bring some out back, watch out you don’t graze that garden down to the nub. Use equal parts oil and balsamic vinegar (the oil is equal parts olive and safflower), plus 4 to 8 cloves of chopped garlic per cup. Put everything into the blender and liquefy until you smell the blender’s motor heating up.
Most greens can also be cooked, as well, though each will have different tolerances and requirements. Spinach wilts with barely a hard stare, while the tough ones, like kale, can use the tenderization. With the tough leaves, people often remove the central vein, which is even tougher and takes longer to cook.
One thing you can do is simply add greens to whatever you were already cooking—from scrambled eggs to soup to lasagna. Many culinary traditions combine greens and pigs. From the bacon bits at the salad bar to the ham hock in a pot of southern-style collard greens, pork and greens, like pork and beans, seem to bring out the best in each other.
The other day for breakfast I made a dish of greens, eggs and ham, and it went something like this.
In a hot pan, I placed a few chunks of frozen fat from Ben and Julie’s pig. (Okay, not really ham, but it worked. And if none of your friends have pigs, use chopped bacon. Non-bacon-eating readers, use the cooking oil of your choice, adding butter later, if you wish.)
With the pan on medium and bacon browned, add onions, pepper flakes and garlic (or garlic flowers if you can get them). When these have cooked together, turn the heat to high for a minute, and add the greens of your choice—the other day it was chopped dandelion, lambs quarter and pea-greens.
The water from the just-washed greens dripped and sizzled in the pan, wilting the greens. Then I gave it a shot of sherry (or cider vinegar, Japanese mirin, pickled pepper brine, etc.), for some flavored steam. At this point, you want the pan just a little wet, steaming furiously, and on schedule to dry out—but not burn and stick—by the time the eggs are cooked. Season with salt (or soy sauce) and pepper.
Give the greens a final stir, and crack in your eggs, sunny-side up. Replace the lid, turn down to medium, and steam-fry until the egg tops are as dry as you like ’em, and serve.
For a different finish, instead of adding those eggs, add oyster sauce (or soy and fish sauce), and raw garlic. Stir-fry ’til dry but not burning, and serve over rice.
There are so many ways to eat greens, and so many times to do it— including now. And there’s no reason not to eat them until your blood runs green.
Ask Ari: Hold the mustard greens
First, a shout-out to the brand new Thompson Falls Farmers’ Market, which makes its debut this Saturday, June 28, next to the Thompson Falls Motel. Expect fresh produce, hot food, cool music, and fun from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., every Saturday through September 13. Direct any questions—or kudos—to Katrina, the event organizer, at email@example.com.
Q: We have a bodacious amount of mustard greens in the garden. There are only so many salads one can consume that are made solely with mustard greens. What else can we do with them? Is there a nice soup perhaps with Spanish chorizo, or a stir-fry with tofu?
A: Dear MM,
It’s nice to have enough mail these days (equal parts good questions, love letters and hate-mail) that I can pair questions with appropriate column topics. Mustard greens, of course, are greens. And they’re incredibly spicy—eating a salad of raw mustard greens would almost be like eating a jar of mustard. So here are my rules for mustard green use.
Rule 1: One mustard plant per garden is sufficient for most families, since a little goes a long way.
Rule 2: One spicy mustard leaf per dish is usually plenty. If it’s a salad, cut the leaf very small and mix with a majority of sweet and bitter leaves. In the stir-fry recipe above, one leaf, chopped, would have contributed some nice spice to the dish without overwhelming it.
Rule 3: If using more than one mustard leaf per stir-fry, add more pork.
Rule 4: When cooking mustard greens with tofu, cook the tofu first, slowly, until crispy. Then follow the stir-fry recipe above.
I have no rule about greens and Spanish chorizo. I do fear the spices of the greens and chorizo would clash. I’d eat that chorizo with something mellower, like collard greens.
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