So it’s greens season! Here’s a little info to help you dive in and enjoy what’s out there this spring.
First, figure out what kind of greens you’re dealing with (or just looking at). Knowing which plant family your greens belong to gives you a clue about their flavors and complementary seasonings and preparations. If you know you like spinach prepared a certain way, you’re likely to be able to substitute chard. The only trick here is to sort out the vegetables that aren’t as enjoyable in their raw form (cooked vegetables are generally a direct substitution, with attention to when the vegetable is cooked to your liking). Bold words are the plants’ taxonomical family, followed by the most popular leafy foods within that family.
Brassicaceae (brass-ih-kay-see-ee): “Mustard” greens, kale, arugula, bok choi, pak choi, komatsuna, mizuna, anything labeled “asian greens,” radishes, turnips (the tops of Haukeri/salad turnips are a great addition to your greens collection); the brassica family also includes broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and kohlrabi.
The brassicas all have a bit of a spicy/mustard-y bite to them, which is mellowed in cooking. Growing conditions (heat and rain/drought) greatly impact flavor, so one bunch is never like the next bunch! Because of this, many farmers will let you try before you buy (and if you received a mess of greens from a CSA or subscription box, just get to work sampling!). All are safe to eat raw, but cooking might be more pleasant for the novice greens-eater. Pair well with: sesame, soy sauce, miso, black pepper, hot pepper, mixed vegetable sautees, garlic and onions.
Chenopodiaceae (keen-oh-poh-dee-ay-see-ee): Chard, spinach, beets (thus, beet greens), lambs quarters, quelites
This family of greens (which translates to “goosefoot” because the leaf supposedly has a similar look as a goose’s foot) cooks from often-giant raw form into just a fraction of its size. So don’t be alarmed at what seems like too much vegetable for you or your family–cooking will wilt it significantly. The stems of chard and beet greens, as well as the “crowns” of spinach are worthy edibles, but need a good chopping and cooking to tenderize their fibers. They pair nicely with creamy-textured foods, so try a nut butter sauce or salad dressing; or stir in yogurt, cream or cheese to cooked greens; of course, they’re a natural fit for making a few eggs into a main dish (and a great way to make your breakfast healthier).
Asteraceae (ass-ter-ay-see-ee): Lettuces, dandelion greens, endive
Though we tend to only think of lettuce as a raw food, give grilled or stir-fried versions a try. The lower and inner parts of a head of lettuce are often sturdy enough to hold up under a quick, high-heat cooking situation. Lettuce that’s harvested when it’s hot mimics its more bitter relatives, the dandelion and endive–all of which can be mellowed out with good olive oil, salt, pepper and a little sweetness (think of a honey or fruit vinaigrette and a wilted salad). With an abundance of lettuce greens, it’s time to perfect a house salad dressing.
Storage: According to sources like How to Keep Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Longer with Less Spoilage, by Tracy Frisch, greens will keep up to two weeks (and we notice that they keep even longer when they’re very fresh) under high humidity and very cool temperatures. Some great advice can be found at the blog Food in Jars. In short, keep the atmosphere around the greens moist using damp cloth or paper towels, but avoid directly wetting or compressing wet leaves. Store greens and the damp towels in containers or the drawers of your fridge to contain the moist air.
Recipe Resources: New York Times’ Recipes for Health: Chard, Beet Greens; Food52’s Greens Contest; Saveur’s cooked greens recommendations; one amazing recipe for getting greens at breakfast (or any time of day you want to eat eggs: Alexandra Cooks Crustless Quiche, Loaded with Kale)