When I first moved to the South and discovered the home style cooking of a meat and three, it cracked me up (and not in a ha-ha way) that the side vegetable choices were mac-n-cheese, creamed corn, squash casserole, mashed potatoes, and collard or turnip greens. The greens were slow cooked with ham hock or salt pork, unarguably tasty; they just didn't jibe with an image of a healthy serving of vegetables. But Southern cooks have long been wise to other methods of cooking greens, beyond a slow simmer with pork -- and the benefits of eating them.
We've all heard the nutritionists' messages about adding greens to our diets. Leafy radish, dandelion, mustard and turnip greens, broccoli rabe, collards, kale, and chard are rich in antioxidants, fiber, and vitamins. Young and tender leafy greens are perfect raw- used as wrappers for fillings or tossed in salads. More mature greens and greens with a bitter edge benefit from cooking, either by steaming, lightly boiling, or sautéing.
Some bitter leafy greens to choose from and tips for cooking
Choosing: For a milder, sweeter flavor and less cooking time, choose greens with smaller leaves, these greens are less mature when harvested than those with large leaves. Avoid greens with chewed or torn leaves, brown or black spots, limp leaves, or yellowed edges. Those limp leaves and yellowing edges are a sign of aging and have an off flavor.
Greens stay fresher stored with a little moisture in a breathable wrapper. Rinse and shake off most of the water, wrap loosely in a paper towel and store in an open or perforated plastic bag.
How to use:
Raw: chopped in salads or stuffed in sandwiches. Use large leaved greens like collards for wraps.
As a side dish: whole or chopped, simply sauté in olive oil or butter, add slivered garlic and cook a minute more, add salt and pepper or crushed red pepper flakes, finish with a dash of vinegar (apple cider or balsamic) or lemon juice.
Add to an entree: remove stems, chop and wilt in soup, stews, or chili at the end of cooking time. Stir chopped greens into a grain, pasta, or legume dish and let them steam from the heat of the cooked ingredients. Add cooked, drained and chopped to ravioli filling. Chop, wilt or sauté and stir into cooked egg dishes or savory tart fillings.
1. Clean: rinse under cold running water. Fill sink with cool water and swish greens in water, then soak until grit settles. Repeat 2-3 times until leaves are free of dirt. Drain in colander. Dry rolled in a clean kitchen towel or salad spinner.
2. Remove tough, large stems (kale, collards) with a knife or cut out with a kitchen shears. Optional-retain and chop stems, cook for 3-5 minutes before adding leaves to cooking pot. Trim bottom stem off tender greens.
3. Depending on dish, leave whole or for large leaves-stack 3 or more leaves and chop into 2 inch squares or roll and slice into ½ inch ribbons. Chopped greens will cook more quickly than whole leaves.
4. Bring a large pot of water (2qrts for 1lb greens) to a boil. Add a teaspoon of salt per pound of greens to boiling water. Cook greens until slightly wilted but still vibrant in color. Cooking time varies depending on maturity, type of greens and desired tenderness- anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes. Mustard and dandelion greens can cook as quickly as 1-2 minutes, mature kale or collards 15-20 minutes. Taste for doneness and flavor. If greens are still tough or overwhelmingly bitter, continue to cook and test again.
5. Drain greens in a colander. Rinse with cold water to stop cooking. With the back of a ladle or your hands press out excess moisture.
6. Serve: Toss with olive oil or butter, season with salt and pepper and a dash of lemon juice or hot sauce. Toss with a splash of soy sauce, toasted sesame oil and top with toasted sesame seeds.
Shorten cooking time: Simmer chopped pieces or sliced ribbons in a large skillet filled with 2 inches of water or broth. Stir while greens cook uncovered.
Sauté: Heat sauté pan. Add 1-2 Tablespoons olive oil, when oil is hot; add greens and seasonings, sauté until tender. Be careful to dry greens before adding to hot oil to avoid splatter.
Some bitter leafy greens to try:
Broccoli rabe: cabbage family, smaller, more bitter than broccoli with small yellow buds and tender leaves. Peel stalks if woody. Trim bottom of stalks and cook whole or chopped. Pungent in flavor, remove bitterness by boiling first in salted water for 3-5 minutes, then sauté as recommended above.
Chard: beet family, varieties with red or orange stems will leach color when cooked. Use in place of other beet greens like spinach and cook accordingly.
Collards: cabbage family, best to remove tough center vein before cooking. Mild in flavor compared to other bitter greens. Use raw as a wrap or quickly boiled until almost tender then fill with rice and vegetable filling, roll up and cook packet in sauce.
Dandelion greens: an herbaceous green, slightly bitter in flavor. A small amount of tender dandelion greens will spice up a green salad. For a more mild flavor, boil as noted above. Good sautéed with sliced onions and a splash of white wine.
Kale: cabbage family, good raw or cooked. Great addition to soups, bean and potato dishes. Try a Phoenix favorite: True Foods Kitchen's Tuscan Kale Salad.
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Mustard greens: cabbage family, slight peppery taste. Grocery store variety may not be true mustard greens but from the lettuce family. Raw they deliver a mustard flavor that remains depending on length of cooking time.
Spinach: beet family, baby spinach is an obvious choice for salads, sandwiches and raw dishes. More mature spinach with thick stems is sold in bunches and is better for longer cooking times. Good wilted, sautéed, steamed or quickly boiled.
Note: Chard and spinach both contain oxalates- that bind to calcium and can be problematic for people with kidney stones.