Taming bitter greens
Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and zucchini have been harvested. Crisp autumn days and frosty nights have come.
Now is the time for glorious fall greens: spinach, arugula and lettuce for salads. Kale, collards, Swiss chard, beet greens and turnip greens for cooking. Bok choy, Napa, and all types of cabbage — curly savoy, crimson red, green — are delicious both cooked and raw.
We’ve all heard the advice to eat more dark green, leafy vegetables. That’s because greens are low in calories, high in fiber and chock full of essential vitamins, minerals, over 100 different phytochemicals and many not yet identified micronutrients we’re just learning about. Studies have shown that they may be a powerful weapon against aging, cancer, macular degeneration. The chlorophyll in greens binds carcinogens associated with liver and colon cancers, preventing their absorption. Of course, minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals will vary with the particular green; but usually, the darkest greens contain the most nutrients.
Buy only as much as you can use quickly; tender greens must be eaten fresh (though cabbage can keep a while in your fridge). Select young, tender greens that are brightly colored, crisp and never wilted. Store them in the refrigerator wrapped in plastic so they don’t dry out – but don’t leave them too long! Greens vary in moisture content, size and cooking time. But be aware that they decrease in volume when cooked — a pound of fresh greens will yield just 2 or 3 servings.
No one likes to eat gritty greens, so wash them well, in several changes of water. A little vinegar added to the water helps remove sand and dirt.
Break up tough, old greens by rolling and ripping to break up the tough veins. You don’t need to do this for tender young leaves.
Some people object to greens’ earthy, sometimes bitter flavor — especially as they mature. That bitterness can be tamed with acid, sweetness and fat. Add sweet winter squash, pumpkin or sweet roots for natural sweetness. Use apple cider vinegar or a good balsamic for tartness. For fat, olive oil, bacon and butter all work well.
Like raw salad greens, cooked greens need to be dressed to bring out their flavor. Dress your greens with sweet, colorful veggies — like butternut squash, carrots, sweet potatoes. Like a salad, dress the dish with a little olive oil and mild vinegar, like balsamic or apple cider; or add lime, lemon or orange juice. The acid helps tenderize older, tougher greens. Season with garlic, onions, leeks or olives. You can also stir in raisins, seeds or nuts.
Adding a little olive oil, ham or bacon soothes the bitterness while increasing the nutritional value of many greens, because nutrients like vitamin A and lutein need a bit of fat in order to be absorbed by the body. Other additions that moderate the bitter flavor are cheese, eggs, nuts or avocado. Garlic and onions augment and accent the taste of fresh cooked greens; acids like citrus or vinegar moderate the bitterness. Mix them with sweet veggies like winter squash or top with sweet fruit. The mild flavors of pasta, rice or cornbread pair well with pungent greens. Salty foods like soy sauce or anchovies, and hot flavors like chilies, also go well with greens.
Greens will enhance soups and stews — add them liberally towards the end of the cooking time. Stir steamed greens into casseroles. For a quick main dish, sautee greens with onions and garlic in a little olive oil, butter or bacon fat. Mix with chopped hard cooked eggs and/or diced cooked ham, and fold into a white sauce or cheese sauce. Adding diced apples or stirring in cooked, leftover sweet potatoes or squash also enhances them.
Easy Greens and Sausage Skillet
1/2 pound breakfast sausage (maple breakfast is very good)
1 clove garlic
1 tart apple
1 pound fresh greens
1 egg, beaten
1 or 2 tablespoons shredded sharp cheese
In skillet, cook sausage to brown. Add onion, garlic, mushrooms and apple to drippings, and cook 5 minutes. Add the greens, cover, and cook about 15 minutes, until tender. Stir in beaten egg and cheese; cook, stirring, until heated through. Serve over pasta, rice or potatoes.
Option: add 1 or 2 cups diced, cooked sweet potatoes or winter squash. Or stir in 1 or 2 cups mashed squash or sweet potatoes in place of the egg and cheese.
Braised Greens with Lentils, Apples, and Ham
Braised greens make simple, light fare for busy autumn days. Both greens and garlic have heart-healthy, immune boosting properties.
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic 4 ounces mushrooms, optional
2 apples, peeled, cored and diced
1 pound fresh greens, such as beet greens, radish tops, Swiss chard, spinach, caliloo, bok choy (about 8 cups, shredded)
1 cup lentils
2 cups broth (chicken or vegetable, or part water)
3 tablespoons apple cider
2 tablespoons wine
1 cup finely diced cooked ham, optional
Salt and freshly grated black pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon garlic wine vinegar
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 lemon, cut into wedges and/or apple, cut into thin slices
Prepare the greens by washing thoroughly in several changes of water, and chopping coarsely. Keep separated, since some take longer to cook than others. There is no need to dry them off, as the water will evaporate during cooking.
Heat oil in a large skillet. Peel onion and add; cook 2 to 3 minutes. Chop mushrooms and add, if using. Peel and crush the garlic, add to the skillet, and cook about one minute. Peel, dice and core the apples, and stir them in. Stir in the lentils. Add 2 cups of broth. Stir in kale, if using; it takes the longest to cook. Cover and cook about 7 minutes.
Add the beet greens, if using; stir to coat with garlic and oil, moisten with a little apple cider, broth or water, and cook five minutes more. Now add the more tender greens like radish tops, caliloo, spinach, and chard (you can use chard stems, too), along with the wine, apple cider and broth. Stir. Cover and cook about five or ten minutes, testing the greens for doneness. Stir in the ham, season to taste, sprinkle with vinegar and cheese and cook another three or four minutes to heat through and blend the flavors. Dress with apple slices or lemon wedges and additional Parmesan, if desired. Serve with fresh crusty bread, or over cooked pasta, and add a light fruit dessert.
Option: omit lentils and stir in a can of drained, rinsed beans with ham.
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 found at www.yvonafast.com and reached at email@example.com or on Facebook at Words Are My World.