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Vegetarian Journal May/June 2001

How to Cook Mouthwatering Greens

By Cynthia Lair


Everyone wants to look good, feel better, and have more energy. Billions of dollars are spent buying supplements each year toward this end. Yet we often overlook simple dietary changes that can provide our bodies with the nutrients they need to achieve the goals we want. Some of the most nutrient-dense foods available on the planet are dark leafy greens—the superheroes of the vegetable world. Eating a helping of delicious, dark leafy greens each day can help keep you in tip-top shape. Popeye was right. So why isn’t everybody putting greens on their must-have lists for the grocery store?

Lots of people are unfamiliar with how to prepare them, especially how to cook the more mature greens, like collards and kale, so they are not bitter. Once the basics of cooking greens are demystified and you see the results of including them in your diet, you’ll want them to make a regular appearance at your dining table.

HOW TO PICK GREENS

Arugula, beet greens, bok choy, collard greens, dandelion greens, kale, lamb’s quarters, mustard greens, spinach, swiss chard , and watercress are only a partial list of the kinds of these superheroes. I also like to in-clude green leafy herbs like basil, Italian parsley, cilantro, and mint, which provide many of the same benefits. Greens are easy to grow, so if you have even a small yard, consider sowing some seeds. Most greens can be planted in spring after all frost is gone, and harvested July through August. Kale, collards, and mustard greens can be planted again in the fall. They overwinter nicely and produce fresh growth again in early spring. If growing is out of the question, your local farmers’ market or local natural foods market is your best option for purchasing fresh greens. Look for bright-colored, perky-looking greens. Pass by any bunch with brown spots, yellowing edges, or limp-looking leaves, and choose the more vitalized ones. Smaller leaves indicate a more immature plant, which means the greens may need little or no cooking. Their flavors will be milder and more delicate. Larger , thicker-leaved greens require a little more care but will have more robust flavors. Choose organic greens for the best possible flavors and to keep your ecological conscience clear.

HOW TO STORE GREENS

Vegetables are alive! They are respiring, which means that they need moisture and air to survive. If you store wet greens in a sealed plastic bag, they will rot quickly. If you toss a bunch of greens onto the bottom shelf of the fridge without a bag , they will dry out and wilt due to moisture loss. The best way to store them is slightly wet in an open or perforated plastic bag in the refrigerator. Fresh herbs do well if you trim off about 1/2-inch from the root ends, place them in a jar of water with a plastic bag over the top, and store them in the refrigerator. Stored properly, greens should keep about 3 days.

HOW TO PREPARE AND COOK GREENS

Fresh herbs and tender leaves like arugula, spinach, and watercress can be chopped raw and added to soups, salads, and grains , or lightly steamed. More mature greens like bok choy, kale, dandelion greens, and collards, taste bitter if you serve them raw, and often the texture is too tough for easy chewing. Steaming these greens actually intensifies the bitterness. They need to be cooked in liquid where the bitter flavor can be dispersed.

First you need to prepare the greens. Remove large stems or break off small ones. Fill a sink with cold water and submerge the leaves. With herbs, leave the stems and hold on to them as you give the leaves a dunk. If there is sediment in the water, drain the sink and repeat. If you plan to put the greens in a salad, spin them dry. Leaves destined for cooking can have excess water shaken off and be placed on a towel or chopping board.

The issue at hand is how to cook the greens so they lose as little nutritional value as possible while shedding their bitter flavors. There are three cooking techniques that I like to use when cooking the more mature, bitter greens: quick-boiling, simmering, and sautéeing.

To quick-boil greens, bring two quarts of water to a boil. Do not chop the leaves, but submerge them whole into the boiling water. Use a wooden spoon to move them from top to bottom. To tell when they are done, use your senses. The leaves should begin to lose their perkiness and wilt slightly, but the bright green color will still be present. At this point, bring a leaf up with your spoon, tear off a piece, and chew it. If the flavor is bitter, let them cook more. The greens are just right when chewing a piece releases sweet juices in your mouth. If the color is gone or there is no flavor left when you chew it, they’ve cooked too long. The amount of time depends on the maturity of the green and the amount of leaves you’re cooking. For something like tender mustard greens, it should be a thirty- to sixty-second dip, while mature collard greens can take about five minutes. Once you test the green and get a sweet flavor, pour the contents of the pot into a colander. Save the water, which is called pot-likker. Many cooks like to drink this nutrient-filled broth, but I like to use it to water my plants. Gently run cool water over the greens to halt cooking. Once they are cool enough to touch, gather them into a ball and gently squeeze out the excess water. Chop them on the cutting board and they are ready to dress and serve.

To simmer greens, bring about one inch of liquid (water, broth, wine . . .) to simmer in a large skillet. Chop the washed greens into strips. Place the strips in the simmering liquid and keep them moving with a wooden spoon. You are looking for the same results as described above: a bright green color and a sweet flavor; but since the greens have been chopped, the cooking time will be shorter.

When sautéeing greens, it is good to work with just-washed greens. The water helps with wilting and releasing bitterness. Heat 1-2 Tablespoons of oil in a skillet. Add a minced clove of garlic if desired. The garlic will tell you if you have the heat right. Too hot and the garlic will burn, too cool and the garlic will just sit there. If there is too much water on the greens or the oil is too hot, the oil will sputter, so take care. Chop the greens you are using into bite-sized pieces. Stacking the washed leaves is an easy way to make efficient, uniform cuts. Place cut leaves in the skillet and keep them moving. Stay with the process and test every minute or so for doneness. When the leaves are still full of color and tasting proves not bitter, but sweet, they’re ready!

HOW TO DRESS THEM UP

Once you have a heap of cooked greens in front of you, there are limitless possibilities. Frankly, I like to keep things simple and give them a dash of vinegar and a sprinkle of tamari, toss, and eat. Cooked greens can be added to soups, grain dishes, and salads to add color, flavor, and nutrients. You can prepare a heavenly peanut sauce to drizzle over greens, or toss them with toasted sesame oil and toasted sesame seeds for an Asian flavor. A squeeze of lemon is fine, but how about a little orange juice with garlic and a touch of chipotle sauce? Serve it over slices of polenta and it’s fit for company.

Following are some of my favorite greens recipes. I’ve included recipes that exemplify various preparation techniques , using greens raw and cooked. Another easy way to include greens in your meal is to take a less bitter green like chard or watercress and let it steam on top of an already prepared dish, as described in the Szechwan Tempeh with Swiss Chard recipe. Whatever way you choose to use them, let these superheroes rescue your next meal from the nutritional doldrums. Don’t be fooled by an antacid tablet claiming it’s your best source of calcium. Look! It’s a Vitamin C pill! It’s a digestive aid! No. It’s Captain Dark Leafy Green, ready to help you engage your warp drive and go!

WATERCRESS SALAD WITH CREAMY GINGER DRESSING

(Serves 6; makes 3/4 cup dressing)

This salad is quick, light, and nutritious. Watercress is rich in minerals and is usually free of pesticides, as it grows easily and abundantly. The ginger salad dressing is a favorite of mine.

Salad:
1 bunch watercress, tough stems removed
1/2 head red leaf lettuce
1 cucumber, thinly sliced

Dressing:
2 Tablespoons chopped ginger
2 teaspoons chopped celery
1/2 teaspoon maple syrup
6 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 Tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1/8 teaspoon celery seed
1/2 teaspoon catsup
3 Tablespoons soy sauce
3 Tablespoons brown rice vinegar
3 Tablespoons water

Wash watercress and lettuce by placing leaves in a sink full of cold water. Drain and repeat. Spin or pat dry. Tear greens into bite-sized pieces and place in a large salad bowl. Add cucumber and set aside. Place ginger, celery, maple syrup, oil, sesame seeds, pepper, celery seed, and catsup in a blender and blend. Add soy sauce, vinegar, and water; blend again until creamy. Before serving, toss salad with 1/4-1/3 cup of the dressing. The remainder of the dressing will keep in the refrigerator for at least a week.

TOFU-KALE-MUSTARD-DILL SUPPER PIE

(Makes 8 slices)

This recipe is an adaptation of the tofu quiche found in Annemarie Colbin’s book The Natural Gour-met. This version utilizes super-nu-tritious kale and carrots. Umeboshi vinegar, made from umeboshi plums, gives a sour-salty zip to the filling. Equal amounts of lemon and salt can be substituted. This dish is a perfect combination of grains, beans, and vegetables. Serve with a salad of wild greens for a super-green meal.

Crust:
2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1/3 cup cold-pressed vegetable oil
1/3 cup water
1/4 teaspoon sea salt

Filling:
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, chopped
Pinch of sea salt
2 carrots, thinly sliced into half moons
1 bunch kale leaves, about 1 pound, stems cut away
1 pound firm tofu
1 Tablespoon umeboshi vinegar
1 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tablespoon mustard
2 teaspoons tamari or shoyu
1/2 teaspoon dried dill or 11/2 teaspoons fresh dill

To make crust:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put flour in a bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk oil, water, and salt together. Slowly pour liquid into flour, blending with a fork. Gather dough into a ball; it should be moist and pliable. Roll out into a crust on a floured surface or a piece of waxed paper. Transfer to an 8- or 9-inch pie pan. Trim edges. Prebake for 10 minutes in the oven.

To make filling:
Heat 2 tsp oil in a large skillet. Add onion, salt, and carrots; sauté until onion is soft. Set aside. Wash kale leaves and remove stems. Stack several kale leaves on top of one another and roll up. Cut into very thin strips. Repeat until all kale is cut. Add to the onion mixture and sauté until kale begins to wilt but retains its rich green color. Set aside. Blend the tofu, vinegar, 1 Tbsp oil, mustard, tamari, and dill in a blender or food processor until smooth. Since firm tofu can make this very thick, you may need to add a little water.

To assemble pie:
Layer the blended tofu mixture, then the sautéed vegetables, ending with tofu in the prebaked crust. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, until the top of the pie begins to turn beige at the edges. Remove from heat and let rest 10-20 minutes. Cut and serve.


Good source of iron

BOK CHOY AND BUCKWHEAT NOODLES IN GARLIC GINGER BROTH YAKI-SOBA

(Serves 4)

This traditional Japanese dish (pictured on the front cover) makes a quick, healthy family meal. Soba is a hearty noodle made from buckwheat and wheat flour and can be found in natural foods stores and Asian markets. Bok choy is a beautiful vegetable that has big dark green leaves with a thick white stem.

8-ounce package soba noodles
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
1 onion, cut in thin half moons
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 carrot, cut into matchsticks
5 shiitake mushrooms, cut into bite-size pieces
2 cups chopped bok choy, leaves and stems
4 cups water
1/3 cup tamari or shoyu
1/2 pound firm tofu, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 Tablespoon freshly grated gingerroot
2 scallions, cut into thin slices

Prepare soba noodles according to package directions. Drain and set aside. Heat oil in a 4-quart soup pot. Add onion and garlic; sauté over medium heat until onion begins to soften. Add carrot and mushroom pieces; sauté a few minutes more. Add bok choy, water, tamari, tofu, and gingerroot. Bring heat up until mixture begins to simmer. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Serve this dish by placing a handful of noodles in each serving dish. Ladle broth and vegetables over the noodles. Garnish with scallions.


Good source of iron and zinc

SZECHWAN TEMPEH WITH SWISS CHARD

(Serves 3)

This is one of my favorite quick meals. The sweet and salty qualities of Szechwan Tempeh are nicely balanced by serving it atop some basmati brown rice or quinoa.

1/4 cup cold-pressed, high oleic safflower oil
8-ounce package tempeh, cut into 1/4-inch strips
2 Tablespoons white miso
1/4 cup water
2 Tablespoons tamari or shoyu
2 Tablespoons mirin
2 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 Tablespoons brown rice syrup
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil or hot pepper oil
1 bunch Swiss chard (about 1 pound)

Heat 2 Tablespoons of the safflower oil in a 10-inch skillet. Place half of the tempeh strips in the skillet and let them quick-fry, turning them so that both sides brown. Remove fried tempeh onto a paper towel and repeat the process with the other half of the tempeh strips. In a small bowl, mix miso and water together with a whisk until the miso is dissolved. Add the tamari, mirin, vinegar, syrup, and sesame oil to the miso mixture and whisk again. Lower heat on skillet. Place fried tempeh back in the skillet and pour sauce over the top. Wash chard leaves carefully. An easy way is to fill your sink with cold water and submerge the greens. If the water has sediment, drain the sink and repeat. Cut away thick stems or ends. Shake off excess water from leaves and stack. Make vertical cuts across the leaves, chopping them into strips. Place chard strips on top of gently simmering tempeh. Cover skillet with a lid. Heat until chard is bright green and slightly wilted and Szechwan sauce begins to thicken. Remove from heat and serve immediately.


Good source of iron and zinc

HIZIKI PÂTÉ

(Makes 21/2-3 cups, about 9 servings)

Hiziki, of all the sea vegetables, is the richest in calcium. By combining it with dark green parsley and sesame seeds, you create a mineral-laden delicacy. The strong “sea” taste can be moderated by cooking hiziki in apple juice and by combining it with other vegetables. I have seen two-year-olds, as well as adults, gobble this pâté up with glee.

1 cup hiziki, dry
1-11/2 cups water or apple juice
1 Tablespoon tamari or shoyu
1/4 cup sesame seeds, toasted, then ground
1/2 pound firm tofu, crumbled with a fork
2 Tablespoons white or mellow miso
1/2 bunch parsley, finely chopped
2 scallions, thinly sliced

Soak hiziki in water for 5 minutes and chop finely. Put hiziki in a medium-sized pan and add water or apple juice to cover; bring to simmer. Cover pan and cook until juice is absorbed, about 20 minutes. Toward the end of the cooking time, season hiziki with tamari. While hiziki is cooking, prepare other ingredients. Sesame seeds can be toasted in a skillet on the stove for 5-8 minutes, then ground. Gently mix tofu, sesame seeds, miso, parsley, and scallions together in a bowl. Let the hiziki cool and then add to the mixture. For a more puréed texture, put mixture in a food processor and pulse a few times. Serve with whole grain crackers or bread, or as a side dish. This pâté will keep 3 days in the refrigerator.

GOLDEN POTATO AND COLLARD GREEN SOUP

(Serves 6)

A smooth way to enjoy the goodness of collards. Broccoli rabe also works well in this recipe. Serve this creamy non-dairy soup with grilled tofu sandwiches. This is a simple feast for a hungry family.

1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
4 cups chopped onions (about 2 large or 3 medium onions)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups diced potatoes (about 2 medium potatoes)
1/2 cup chopped celery (about 2 ribs)
1 large carrot, diced
31/2-4 cups water
2 Tablespoons cashew butter
2 Tablespoons tamari or shoyu
1 bunch collard greens
1 teaspoon brown rice vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Heat oil in a 3-quart pot. Add the onions and salt. Cover and simmer on low heat, stirring occasionally, until onions cook down to a nice mush (about 15-20 minutes). Add potatoes, celery, carrot, and water to the onion mush; cover and simmer until potatoes are soft (about 15-20 minutes). Put soup mixture into a blender with the cashew butter and tamari. Blend until smooth. Run the soup through a strainer to remove celery strings. Return soup to pot. Remove thick stems from the collard leaves by pulling leaf off with one hand while holding onto the stem with the other. Fill your sink with cold water and submerge the collard leaves. If the water has sediment, drain the sink and repeat. Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil. Submerge leaves. Remove a piece and test every minute or so. You are looking for a slightly wilted leaf that still has a bright green color and (most important) a succulent, sweet flavor. Pour cooked greens into a colander in the sink. When you can handle them, squeeze out excess water with your hands. Clip into bite-sized pieces or thin strips and stir into soup. Add vinegar. Taste soup, and adjust salt and pepper. Gently heat before serving.


Excerpts from the May/June 2001 Issue


The Vegetarian Journal published here is not the complete issue, but these are excerpts from the published magazine. Anyone wanting to see everything should subscribe to the magazine.



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April 20, 2001

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