Beyond the kale: Give other healthy, leafy greens a chance

06/09/2014 1:34 PM

06/09/2014 1:34 PM

You’re all over the kale trend, baking loads of leaves into crisp chips, sauteing bagfuls with olive oil and garlic. It’s time to break the hold kale has over your kitchen.

With summer’s leafy greens piling up at farmers markets, in your garden and at the supermarket, go ahead and give kale’s botanical cousins a place at your table. Pick one, any one: beet greens, collards, chard, escarole, mustard greens. They all saute up beautifully, but their potential goes way beyond that.

They can add color and texture to, say, a garlicky white bean soup. Young, tender greens can work in salads. One friend mentioned wrapping lightly blanched chard leaves around a savory mix of bulgur wheat, crumbled feta, diced tomatoes and seasonings, then baking them. And after we picked up a handful of mustard greens at a farmers market, we stirred them into a mushroom-shallot saute to wilt, then added a splash of apple cider vinegar before serving with pork chops.

How you prepare leafy greens depends on personal taste, of course.

Maybe your mom cooked collards with ham hocks. Or tossed escarole with pears and hazelnuts as Deborah Madison suggests in her book, “Vegetable Literacy” (Ten Speed Press, $40). Or perhaps, as a friend of Madison does, you’ve tucked mustard greens cooked with ginger, garlic, tamari, sesame and chili oils into round wonton wrappers for dumplings.

With a little coaching from Laura B. Russell, you should be able to improvise with a pile of leafy greens.

Her focus is the family Brassicaceae, whose members include cabbage, kale, collards and Brussels sprouts. It is the subject of her recently released book, “Brassica: Cooking the World’s Healthiest Vegetables” (Ten Speed Press, $23). “You need only three things to make any brassica taste delicious – olive oil, garlic and salt,” she writes, before offering recipes incorporating dozens of flavors designed to balance the character of many leafy greens.

She suggests thinking about a green’s flavor profile from mild (i.e. mizuna) to stronger (collard greens, kale) to peppery (arugula, watercress) and on through pungent, such as many mustard green varieties.

Her strategies for handling the bold flavors of leafy greens include balancing them with starches (potatoes, beans, polenta, rice, pasta) or dairy (say, butter or cheese) or adding a touch of sweetness (honey, caramelized onions or balsamic vinegar). Or taking a bold stance with red pepper flakes, she suggests, or a salty element, such as bacon, capers, pancetta, soy sauce or hard cheeses such as Parmesan or pecorino.

When choosing among summer’s leafy greens, look for bright color and leaves free of blemishes; avoid limp leaves. In general, younger greens will have a milder, almost delicate flavors (like the baby mustard greens we nibbled) and tender leaves. Older greens will have bolder flavors, less tender (or more chewy) leaves that you may want to tear or cut into ribbons to lightly cook by blanching, sauteing, braising or tossing in soups. Depending on the recipe, stems may need to be removed; same is true of the center rib.

Here’s a trio of leafy greens to get you started.

Mustard greens

These may come in colors ranging from green to purple. Popular in the South, throughout Asia and Africa. They’re more pungent than kale and collards, writes Madison.

• Taste: “The older the plant, the hotter and spicier they tend to be,” Madison adds.
• Use: Young greens are good in salads and sandwiches. Consider Russell’s suggestions for using more mature greens: Shredded crosswise then wilted in a pan with caramelized Vidalia onions or used in an egg-and-potato Spanish tortilla (think frittata).

Chard

This leafy green (aka Swiss chard) may boast green, yellow, red or white stems depending on the type.

• Taste: Can be slightly bitter and chewy, though the baby chard we tasted was delicate in texture and taste. Don’t ignore the stems; Madison suggests adding them to soups or braising them with the leaves.
• Use: With lentils (soup) and potatoes (added to a mash). Stems and can be diced and cooked with greens used in a soup. Red stems and veins can bleed like beets. Madison mixes chard with ricotta and saffron into tiny savory cakes for an appetizer.

Escarole

You’ll find that escarole looks like lettuce, a loose-leafed head with thicker outer leaves and pale inner leaves. Unless, of course, you find baby leaves, curly at the edge and tender, piled loosely in a basket at a farmers market or on young plants in your garden.

• Taste: Both the exterior and inner leaves have a tendency to be at least slightly bitter. Madison notes that the inner leaves of escarole can be used in salad – the exterior leaves are usually cooked.
• Use: Darker leaves work in bean soups and with sausages. Madison turns escarole and potatoes into a hash. For a salad, she tosses the inner escarole leaves with radicchio, red mustard leaves, golden beets, avocado and pine nuts.

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