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Hearty Greens Can Chase Away the Winter Blues

Learn to manage the tender or tough personalities of delicious leafy greens like kale, spinach, and Swiss chard

Fine Cooking Issue 42
Photos: Steve Hunter
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Every time I walk through the produce section of the grocery store, the wavy plumes of leafy green vegetables beckon to me, begging to be bought. Invariably, I wind up in a wrestling match with those too-small plastic produce bags, because I can’t resist picking up an extra-large bunch of crisp, curly kale, a frilly thatch of mustard greens, or a clasp of the new electric-hued “Bright Lights” Swiss chard. The truth is, these greens not only look beautiful, but they’re also incredibly satisfying to cook with (and, yes, really good for you, too: they’re high in vitamins A and C, as well as folic acid and calcium).

“Wilt” tender greens; braise heartier ones

I used to get home and wonder what in the world I was going to do with all those greens, but not any more. Working away in my warm kitchen on chilly days, I’ve developed a little repertoire of recipes (side dishes, soups, and light suppers) for cooking these cool-weather greens. In the process, I’ve discovered that greens have different personalities. Some—like beet greens, Swiss chard, and spinach—are so tender that they need only a touch of heat to be cooked. Overcooking them, in fact, tends to alter their flavors in an unpleasant way. While these greens are best “wilted,” the heartier greens, like kale, mustard, collards, and turnip greens, will be tough and leathery unless patiently simmered. The assertive flavors of these greens also mellow with cooking and blend with the aromatics with which they’re cooked.

There are a few cooking greens that can be wilted or braised. You might think of escarole or dandelion greens as hearty lettuces best suited for warm salads, but both of these greens (especially older, larger leaves) are delicious braised or added to soups, though cooking them too long, unlike the very hearty greens, will not improve their flavor.

To “wilt” tender greens, pile them in a skillet (preferably nonstick), turn the heat on, and toss the greens with tongs until they’re all collapsed and moistened. If your greens are very dry at the start, you’ll need to add a tablespoon or so of water to your pan, but usually the little bit of moisture left clinging to the leaves after washing is enough. Even then, some greens (like spinach) will give off a lot of moisture when wilted, and you’ll need to drain them in a colander before proceeding with your recipe so that water doesn’t dilute your finished dish. For the simplest dishes (like Wilted Tender Greens with Orange & Ginger), I take the drained, wilted greens and add them back to the skillet, where, in the meantime, I’ve sauted a few flavorful tidbits in a little oil or butter. Tossed together, the result is delicious. Wilted greens are also a handy base for baked gratins, pasta fillings, or quiches and tarts.

Use only the moisture clinging to the leaves after washing to help wilt tender greens. Toss them with tongs over the heat until they’re all collapsed.

To braise heartier greens, wilt them first in a little fat and finish cooking in liquid. To start the process, sauté aromatics like garlic and ginger or onions and pancetta in a little oil or butter. Add your greens and stir until they’re all wilted; then add just enough liquid (like chicken or vegetable stock) to cover the greens. Simmer the greens, covered, until you like the texture. Depending on the age of the greens and your taste, this could be anywhere from 8 minutes to half an hour (or more if you’re cooking with tough, older greens). After braising, you can uncover and boil off the remaining liquid if you want to serve the greens alone, as a side dish (see Garlicky Braised Kale). Or you can add cooked pasta, rice, potatoes, beans, or meat to the liquid for a full meal (I add sliced beef to Spicy Mustard Greens with Asian Noodles).

Add a little chicken stock to wilted kale flavored with garlic and sun-dried tomatoes. Then cover and braise until tender.

Greens love bold flavors, so don’t hold back

The flavors of cool-weather greens range from intensely earthy, with almost a mineral-like taste (beet greens, Swiss chard, spinach) to mildly cabbagy (kale and collards) to slightly bitter and spicy (mustard greens, dandelion greens). The one thing they all have in common is a perfect marriage with assertive flavors, which seem to mellow their earthiness and enhance their robustness. Try to include at least one or two of the following types of ingredients when preparing greens:

  • Something smoky or meaty: pancetta, bacon, chorizo, kielbasa, any cured meat.
  • Sweetly pungent aromatics: garlic, onions, fresh ginger (be generous with amounts).
  • An acid or anything spicy: vinegar, lemon juice, hot sauce, red pepper flakes, chile or curry paste, minced hot peppers.
  • Anything creamy (and fatty): heavy cream, sour cream, goat cheese.

This last category—cream—has an especially magical effect on the slightly rough flavors of some greens, smoothing them out with delicious results. In fact, the Creamy Parmesan Swiss Chard Gratin is an excellent way to introduce greens to people who think they may not like them.

Clean greens before storing and you’ll use them sooner

To stem tender greens like beets or spinach, simply grab both sides of the leaf and gently pull the stem up and out.
Separate—but don’t discard—chard stems from the leaves by running a sharp knife along both sides of the stem.

Before you start cooking, though, you have to come to terms with cleaning and storing your greens. While it’s tempting to cram the greens into some remote corner of the refrigerator when you get home, you’ll be really glad if you take the time to clean them first. While greens tend to last longer unwashed, you’re ten times more likely to use the greens before they go bad if you make them recipe-ready before storing them. And as long as you store your greens properly, they’ll last anywhere from one to three days in the refrigerator; some of the heartier ones, like kale and collards, can last four to five days. If you choose the freshest, most unblemished greens you can find at the market (or out of the garden), you’ll find they last longer at home. For some helpful tips, see How to clean and store leafy greens.

How to clean and store leafy greens

When you get your greens home, remove any wires or rubber bands from the bunch and discard any yellowed or slimy leaves; trim away tough stem ends. You can also remove tough stems at this point with scissors, a sharp knife, or your hands, or you can leave the stems on and remove them before cooking. If you remove chard stems, reserve them for cooking.

Fill a large bowl or the sink with cool water and swish the greens around in it. Lift out the greens and empty the silty water from the bowl or sink. Repeat this one or two more times, depending on how dirty the greens are. Let the greens drip-dry on dishtowels and then spin them in a salad spinner (in batches if necessary).

Line the largest zip-top bags you can find (I recently bought jumbo ones for just this purpose) with paper towels. Lay the greens in the bags between the paper towels, close the bag tightly, and refrigerate. The paper towels help absorb excess water to prevent rot, while the sealed bag keeps the greens just moist and crisp enough so they don’t dry out and go limp.


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