What's In Season: Leafy Greens
The last time I went to the eye doctor he asked if I ate much of what he called "leafy greens." My opthamologist knew that I have a big interest in cooking and here he was -- asking me for recipes.
Turns out that greens like Swiss chard, kale, and broccoli rabe are particularly great for eye health. And they also have wonderful flavor. A New York Times article quoted nutritionist Jonny Bowden, author of The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth, as saying that Swiss chard was one of "the 11 best foods you aren't eating." (You want to know the other 10? Beets, cabbage, cinnamon, pomegranate juice, prunes, pumpkin seeds, turmeric, frozen blueberries, and canned pumpkin.)
Thankfully many leafy greens -- especially the more familiar spinach and broccoli rabe -- are available year-round, but if you're new to eating them or want to try a new variety, you'll have a happier introduction if you buy them locally grown during their summer and autumn growing seasons and then cook them simply.
Buying, Storing and Cooking With Leafy Greens
While available year-round, the fall is the best time to buy greens from our grocery markets and Greenmarkets and farmers' markets. Here are a few tips for cooking them.
- Some leafy greens cook very quickly. Spinach is the best example. But others, like kale, are more hearty and need a longer time to boil or steam. The first time I cooked kale I assumed it was like spinach but I learned through trial and error to not eat it raw and to give it about 10 minutes in generously salted softly boiling water to make it tender. Collard greens also take a long time to cook. But like spinach, Swiss chard and beet greens cook very quickly and reduce notably in volume from their raw to cooked states.
- Don't cook Swiss chard in an aluminum or other non-acid resistant pan because it contains oxalic acid, the same as in rhubarb, and it will discolor the pot. It won't hurt you, however.
- The stalks may be too woodsy and coarse to cook. An easy way to cut off the stalks without inadvertently chopping up the leaves is to use a pair of kitchen scissors. Just slide the scissors up one side and down the other of the stalk, leaving the leaves large and thus more versatile to cook with.
- Because they can have big flavor, I generally cook and serve leafy greens very simply, meaning with just a little olive oil and maybe garlic and a pinch of red pepper flakes. But if you want variety, here are a few other ways to cook with leafy greens:
- Use them as the filling for homemade ravioli, with or without ricotta or goat cheese.
- Steam until tender. When cooled, wring out any excess water (I just put them in my clean hands and squeeze), give them a rough chop, and then quickly sauté with olive oil and garlic and toss with rigatoni or ziti.
- If you've bought small, tender leaves, just add some to your favorite green salad. I do not suggest this for kale or collard greens, however, as their raw taste is not wonderful.
- Use cooked and chopped kale as a topping on grilled bread for a bruschetta. Add a few drops of olive oil and a pinch of salt and black pepper and serve at room temperature.
- Use cooked and chopped greens as the base for a parchment paper-baked packet of fish. Cook Swiss chard, spinach, beet greens or kale until tender. Squeeze out any excess water, and put a small mound of greens on a square of parchment paper. Place a serving-size boned fillet of sea bass, snapper or other white fish on top, sprinkle with drops of white wine and add a sprig of thyme, close up the packet and cook in a 450° F oven for about 8 minutes. Don't be afraid of cooking with parchment paper. It's very versatile, needs little to no added fat, it's unexpectedly easy, and your guests will be very impressed. Just wrap the fish up as if it were a gift, folding the ends under to close the packet.
The recipe databases like Epicurious.com and FoodAndWine.com have lots of recipes for leafy greens so the next time you see a bunch of something unfamiliar at the Greenmarket or grocer, take some home and give it a try. The nutritionists and eye doctors may call them super foods for their nutritional power, but I'll call them super foods for their flavor.