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Fresh greens are the flavor of spring

Greens add texture and flavor to your diet. (Photo provided — Yvona Fast)

Yes, I know the calendar says it’s still winter. But… the days are getting longer, temps are getting warmer, snow is melting, and shoots are coming up from the soil. I’ve heard Canada geese are arriving, as are robins and cardinals.

Although the first day of spring is still a few days away, I’m hungering for fresh local greens. Fortunately, I don’t have to look far. Juniper Hill Farm at our Saranac Lake Winter Farmers’ Market offers lettuce, spinach, and Swiss chard grown in their greenhouse.

Traditionally, winter salads have consisted of root veggies like carrots and hardy cabbage, kraut and pickles. About 50 years ago, greens shipped from California became widely available in supermarkets. But this year, thanks to the Winter Farmers Market and Juniper Hill’s greenhouses, we’ve been able to enjoy fresh local organic lettuce, spinach and Swiss chard all winter long.

Greens have been traditional fare in the Mediterranean region since prehistoric times. Lettuce and spinach were common in ancient Babylon, Persia and Egypt. Beet greens are native to the sandy shores of the Mediterranean, from Northern Africa to southern Europe, and both Greeks and Romans were familiar with chard.

These leafy vegetables provided these ancient cultures — and offer to you and me — many nutritional benefits. They have few calories (lettuce has just 9 per cup; one cup of raw spinach has 7) and are excellent sources of important antioxidants as well as fiber. While the nutritional value varies — chard and beet greens are considered “super-foods” by some –most greens provide varying amounts of important vitamins and minerals, in particular potassium, calcium, iron, copper, vitamins A and C. Generally, the spine and ribs contain the most fiber, while vitamins and minerals are concentrated in the leaves. The darker the leaves, the higher the concentration of beta carotene (vitamin A). Many greens (like spinach and chard) are high in lutein, which helps prevent age-related macular degeneration and may impede the adhesion of cholesterol to blood vessel walls, guarding cardiovascular health.

For optimal nutritional value as well as best flavor, greens should be eaten as fresh as possible. They wilt quickly, so seek out fresh, crisp leaves that show no signs of wilting, yellowing or browning. Store unwashed greens in the refrigerator to keep them cool – but don’t keep them there too long.

The assortment of smooth and crinkled leaves and range of colors from pale to dark green and red creates attractive salads. For a basic salad, tear the leaves, add other veggies — thinly sliced or shredded carrots, sweet onion, sun-dried tomatoes, olives — croutons, a little crumbled cheese, or crumbled bacon, then toss with some fresh herbs and a little oil and lemon or vinegar or season with salt, herbs and plain kefir. I prefer to make the dressing in the bottom of the salad bowl and then toss the salad into it, rather than the other way around. Simplicity is the key; you want to complement, not overpower the taste of the greens.

Fresh chopped spinach is wonderful in salads. I like to mix it with sweet onion, thinly sliced watermelon radish, salt, and a little kefir for a delicious and simple salad. Sometimes I add a hard-boiled egg, crumbled feta cheese and / or crumbled bacon.

Spinach and chard are also great mixed with eggs in a variety of dishes including quiches, omelets, casseroles, soufflés and frittatas. You can stir them into lasagna, risotto, other pasta or grain dishes, and soups.

If you’re not eating them raw, cook greens like chard or spinach just until barely wilted. Overcooking changes the texture, dulls the color, and diminishes the flavor. Here are a couple salad recipes and one for cooked greens to get you started.

Fresh spring salad dressed with kefir

or yogurt

Ingredients:

1 cup fresh torn spinach leaves

1 cup fresh torn chard or beet greens

1 cup fresh torn lettuce leaves

1/2 teaspoon salt (or more, if you wish)

1/2 sweet onion, thinly sliced

1 watermelon radish, thinly sliced

1 hard-cooked egg, grated

1 Tablespoon crumbled feta cheese

2 – 3 Tablespoons plain kefir

Directions:

Cook egg till hard-boiled.

Combine greens in salad bowl; sprinkle with salt and toss. Slice radish and onion; add and toss again. Add hard-cooked egg and feta; fold in kefir. Serve.

Serves 2.

Fresh spring salad

with vinaigrette

Ingredients:

1 – 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 – 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar or fresh-squeezed lemon juice

1 – 2 teaspoons prepared mustard, like maple mustard or Dijon

1 small clove garlic, crushed

1/2 teaspoon salt

Some herbs — basil, oregano, marjoram, paprika

1 bag washed, torn fresh greens

Other optional ingredients: thinly sliced carrot; thinly sliced sweet onion; sun-dried tomatoes; olives; garbanzo beans; thinly sliced radishes; other veggies of your choice

1 – 2 Tablespoons shredded cheese (like Parmesan)

Directions:

Find a large bowl, and pour a little extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar or fresh lemon juice into it. Then crush a small garlic clove with a bit of salt in a mortar. Add a little prepared mustard like Dijon and perhaps some herbs, like basil, oregano, marjoram or paprika. Blend with a fork. Proportions are up to you; I find a couple teaspoons of olive oil and about a tablespoon of fresh lemon juice or vinegar is enough for me, but some people like more.

Now toss in the prepared fresh greens, and mix well to coat with the dressing – you can use a spoon but I find hands work best. Next add any other ingredients: shallots, scallions or sweet onions; a handful of garbanzo beans; a few black or green olives; thinly sliced radishes; or anything else you have on hand that strikes your fancy. Top with some coarsely grated pecorino romano, parmesan, and toss lightly to combine.

If you want to make it a heartier meal, add chopped cooked eggs, chicken or ham. Find a fork and dive in. May be enjoyed anytime, day or night.

Serve with French baguette or fresh crusty wholegrain bread.

Serves 2 – 3.

Greens and sausage skillet

Ingredients:

1 pound Swiss chard or spinach

1/4 – 1/2 pound sweet Italian or breakfast sausage

1 onion

1 clove garlic

4 oz. Portobello mushrooms or green bell peppers

1 can (14.5 ounces) diced tomatoes

Shredded sharp cheese (optional) for serving

Directions:

Wash and chop greens coarsely. Set aside.

In large skillet, brown the sausage to release it’s fat. Peel and chop the onion, add, and cook about 7 minutes. Slice mushrooms and / or peppers, and add. Peel and mince the garlic, and add, along with the reserved greens. Cover, and cook 3 – 7 minutes, stirring occasionally, until greens are tender.

Drain tomatoes, stir in, and cook about 2 minutes more. Serve over pasta or rice. Top with shredded cheese, if desired.

Vegetarian option: omit sausage. Use a little olive oil to grease skillet. Add a can of black beans or garbanzo beans along with the tomatoes.

You can also make this with other greens (like kale, collards, dandelions or mustards) when available

Serves 2 – 3.

Author of the award-winning cookbook Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market, Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Facebook as words are my world or Author Yvona Fast.