16. June 2014 · Comments Off on A Brief Tale of Verdant Leaves · Categories: Cooking, Food, Ingredients · Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I just realized that I have never written a single word here about greens. Not a whit about those staples that provoke an almost religious debate once you get not too far south of the Mason-Dixon line. With kale being the new nutritional darling, you would be forgiven for thinking that some attention would be paid to the broader topic.

This, people, is a problem. ‘Cause I love me some greens.

Now when I say “greens”, I mean the cooked leaves of certain hearty plants and root vegetables. Not salads, though they’re a worthy subject of discussion for later. I mean turnip greens, mustard, kale, chard, collards, and the like. You know – the things your mother or grandmother probably cooked the living hell out of, that stank up the house and turned up little noses. The plain truth of the matter is that you should be eating more of these, and they can be tasty.

First, let’s look at the common traits of greens. Apart from say, spinach and its tender nature, most greens are hearty as they mature well in cold(er) weather. The leaves themselves are relatively thick and large, sometimes fibrous, with sturdy central ribs that support their weight. Quite a few are cruciform vegetables, belonging to the same family as cabbages, broccoli, and cauliflowers; these plants are sulfur-fixing, which gives them their tendency to clear a kitchen when overcooked.

Nutritionally, however, they are an absolute boon. Loaded with vitamins A, C, and K. Plenty of soluble and insoluble fiber. They’re as a rule rich in calcium, potassium, folate, choline, and iron. They supply substantial quantities of many trace nutrients including selenium, manganese, and magnesium. Some, such as collards, are a surprisingly complete amino acid source – great for vegetarians. Not surprisingly, they’re low in fat, have a high nutrient to calorie ratio, and extremely low glycemic load.

They’re also similar in methods of preparation. All should be washed or soaked in clean, cold water to remove sand and grit and then shaken dry. Most of the time, cooks will remove the largest, toughest central ribs from the leaves. This is especially so with collards and kale, where the center ribs are so fibrous as to be nearly indigestible. In some cases, as with chard, the stalks are tender enough to eat, albeit with a little more cooking time. Most can be shredded and made into slaws, or cooked into soups. Soups using hearty greens gain an earthy sweetness from their addition.

A lot of the greens mentioned are commonly prepared “southern-style”; appropriately, since the use of cooked greens as a supplement to or substantial part of a meal comes to us from the South by way of early African-American slave populations. Almost any cooked green stands up well to this method. Typically, any tough ribs are removed and the greens are coarsely chopped. In the case where the stalks/ribs are used, they are cooked first and the remainder of the leaves are added after the stalks have had a chance to tenderize. Greens are cooked with onion and/or garlic that has been sweated in some sort of fat – olive oil, vegetable oil, bacon dripping, rendered lard, etc. The leaves are tossed with the fat to wilt them, then a flavorful liquid is added to the pot and the greens are simmered/braised until tender. Nearly all braised greens benefit from the addition of some spicy heat and an acid – lemon juice, vinegar, or a vinegar-based sauce.

Now, how are they different? Each have a unique flavor, and they vary in their fiber content and thus the amount of cooking time necessary. Let’s take a look at a few varieties and what makes them stand apart.

Swiss chard is a close relative to common beetroot. In fact, cooking a combination of beet greens and chard yields a tasty blend of bitter, savory, and sweet. The stalks are more fibrous than the leaves, though similar to celery, and are edible. Typically, the bare stalks are cut into bite-size pieces and cooked a bit longer than the tender leaf. The leaves require only a few minutes of gentle saute to be ready to eat. Chard (like rutabaga) contains oxalic acid in all its parts, which can cause an uncomfortable irritation and is only broken down by cooking. So, no raw chard in your dishes, please.

Mustard and turnip greens are similar in consistency, if not flavor. Mustard greens have an assertive spiciness to them, while turnip greens are earthier and slightly sweet. Both have delicately ribbed leaves atop sturdy stems. In general, you’ll want to trim off the stems at the base of the leaf, and then chop into ¼-½” strips for cooking. They do best with a quick wilt over high heat with some oil, and a short braise using a relatively small amount of liquid. Serve when just tender and still bright green.

Kale is the hot green these days, and I have to be perfectly honest – it’s not my favorite. Kale is a challenge. It has the most heavily veined and toughest leaves of almost any green. When I use it, I prefer to chop it in thin ribbons and add to soups, or chop it fine to partially substitute for cabbages in cold salads. In general, sauteed or braised kale is still a very toothsome green. Getting it tender requires getting perilously close to an overcooked, stinky mess. I’ve had the best results removing the leaf parts from the basically inedible central stalk, chopping medium-fine, and sauteing quickly and then a quick braise with both a sweetener (to counteract the bitterness) and an acid. Apart from using in soup, kale that’s been cooked past bright green is generally not worth eating.

Finally, we come to collards – possibly the most stereotypically “southern” green. And, if truth be told, my absolute favorite. The leaves are sturdy and can withstand longer cooking times. When prepared properly, they’re savory and slightly sweet with no objectionable bitterness. You’ll want to cut away the beefy central rib from each leaf, tear large leaves in half lengthwise, and then cut into coarse strips. Collards are traditionally cooked with cured/smoked pork of some sort (bacon, ham hock, fatback), and simmered in a larger amount of liquid for a longer period than most other greens, about 20-30 minutes. The larger liquid volume also yields a flavorful and nutritious broth popularly called “pot liquor/potlikker”. In fact, I like them so much, I’ll give you a detailed recipe.

Southern-Style Collard Greens

2 pounds whole, fresh collard greens
½ pound thick-sliced bacon on the leaner, meaty side
1 medium onion
Water, low-sodium chicken broth, or low-sodium vegetable broth
Red pepper flake (optional)

Stack up your bacon slices and cut into ¼” lardons. Heat a non-stick pan over medium-low heat and cook the bacon until very crispy and all the fat is rendered, stirring occasionally. Do not allow bacon to burn. When done, remove from heat and remove bacon from dripping with a slotted spoon and hold aside.

In the meantime, wash and shake dry your collard greens to remove any grit or soil. Fold each leaf in half, and with a sharp knife cut out the tough center rib. Tear large leaves in half lengthwise, stack, and cut into coarse ribbons (½-¾” wide), then set aside. Peel and dice the onion.

Place a large soup pot or Dutch oven over medium heat until hot, add the bacon dripping, and then the diced onion. Reduce heat to medium-low, season with a pinch or two of salt, and sweat the onion until translucent, stirring occasionally. Do not let the onion brown.

Once the onions are tender, increase the heat to medium high and immediately add the chopped greens. With tongs, toss the greens in the hot fat until they are all covered, and have just begun to wilt – they will start to darken and soften. Add bacon and just enough cooking liquid to come to the level of the greens – about 3 cups, more or less. Optionally add ½ teaspoon of crushed red pepper flake, more or less, depending on how much heat you prefer. Stir, cover, increase heat to high and bring just to a low boil, then immediately lower heat to maintain a steady simmer. Cook for 20-30 minutes until greens are tender. Season with salt to taste.

I prefer to serve the greens in bowls with a ladle-full of potlikker. A squeeze of lemon, a splash of cider vinegar, or a healthy dash of a vinegar-based hot sauce like Tabasco, Texas Pete, Frank’s Red Hot, or Carolina pepper vinegar can be added by each individual to taste.

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