Cooking With Early Spring Greens

By Chef Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD

Cabbage, cilantro, parsley, Swiss chard, green peppers, chilies, leeks, scallions and chives, snow peas, petit pois (young green peas), spinach, kale, collards, mustard and beet greens, romaine, and endive are some of the greenery we can use to brighten our spring menu! It certainly is easy eatin' green.

Fennel Flavors

You can call it Florence fennel, you can call it sweet anise, you can even call it finocchio; however you name it, spring is the time to enjoy fennel. Learn to recognize fennel by its white Disney-esque celery stalk, tapering off to skinny (like the diameter of your index finger) stalks and ending with feathery leaves, reminiscent in shape of fresh dill. Fennel has a mild licorice aroma and flavor. Used correctly, it is absolutely intoxicating.

Fennel can be eaten raw. Just de-string the bulb and the stalks with a vegetable peeler and crunch on it as you would celery. Or, buy a bagged salad, slice some fresh fennel, and toss in some walnuts, and you have an upscale salad with no fuss.

Fresh Beans for Spring

Think you need a vitamin pill to get vitamin C, vitamin A, folic acid, thiamin, iron, potassium, magnesium, and calcium? You don't! You just need a plate of fresh beans. Over 7000 years ago, civilizations in Mexico and Peru were cultivating beans. Eating beans is a good recommendation that has stood the test of time.

When we're talking fresh beans, we're talking about all the varieties of green beans, wax beans and fresh flageolet, lima, butter beans (baby lima beans), and black-eyed peas harvested in the spring. Think that lima beans are too starchy and grainy for you? Try to round up some fresh limas or butter beans before they are dried (or frozen or canned.) You'll find they are sweet, soft, and oh-so-good.

Fresh green beans vary in color, texture and size, depending on the variety of seed used and growing region. There are the snooty haricots verts, Greyhound slender green beans used in salade Niçoise, and stocky snap beans. Green beans can be purple, striped, or dotted with red. Wax beans can be pale beige to sunny yellow. Both green and wax beans can be eaten uncooked as a snack or tossed into any kind of salad. They can also be steamed or grilled and served as a side dish.

Cookin' Green Cabbage

Fresh tender heads of green spring cabbage are a versatile ingredient for your spring menu. Separate leaves for wrapping savory mixtures of cornbread or whole wheat stuffing, or stuff with rice, chopped veggies and nuts. Try shredding green cabbage for use in stir-fries, soups, and stews.

Green cabbage holds up just fine to light steaming and a toss with soy sauce and sesame seeds. Bok choy (Asian cabbage with a sweet-tasting stalk and leaves that resemble spinach) and Napa cabbage (a pale green cabbage that resembles Romaine lettuce), are also agreeable to being steamed or tossed with seasoning or salad dressings of your choice.

Cabbage is known for its prominence in Irish dishes, and the traditional Irish dish, colcannon, can easily go vegan. Mix sautéed onions and cabbage into mashed potatoes and serve as is, or shape into potato cakes coated with breadcrumbs and bake. The cabbage adds texture and nutrients to the mashed potatoes. The addition of silken tofu or Ener-G egg substitute to colcannon brings you to a colcannon croquette, once formed into triangles and baked in the oven. If you're in a time crunch, prepare colcannon with pre-shredded bagged cabbage and instant vegan mashed potatoes.

Hunting the A-lusive Asparagus

Asparagus can be found as a green, purple, or white vegetable. Green asparagus usually has the most flavor and is the most robust of all three. Purple asparagus looks pretty when raw, but will convert to mostly green when cooked. Asparagus does not like to sit around for very long. If you plan to keep your asparagus in the refrigerator for more than a day, place the asparagus in a clean vase or glass, fill with water, and store as an asparagus "bouquet" in the back of the refrigerator, where it is coldest.

Asparagus doesn't benefit from a great deal of handling. For perfectly cooked asparagus, fill a frying pan with water and bring it to a boil. Trim a small amount of the stem ends, wash, and plunge into the boiling water. Turn constantly, and in about three minutes you'll have perfectly cooked asparagus. Remove from the water, rinse quickly under cold water, or place in an ice bath (equal parts cold water and ice) until the heat is removed. Serve immediately as a warm vegetable, or chill in the refrigerator to be used as a cold snack or salad ingredient.

To create a cream of asparagus soup, you'll want to peel the asparagus first, just like you peel a carrot.

The cellulose exterior gives asparagus great "chew," but does not blend very well. Cook, then blend the asparagus. Then simply add your blended cooked asparagus to your favorite potato soup recipe for subtle color and flavor.

Fennel Salad

(Serves 4)

Take a break from lettuce and dive into this crunchy, aromatic salad.

  • 1½ cups peeled fresh fennel, leaves removed, and cut into thin strips
  • 1 cup deseeded and cut into thin strips red bell peppers
  • ¼ cup balsamic vinegar
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons cracked black pepper

Toss fennel and red bell peppers in a medium bowl.

In a small bowl, whisk together vinegar, oil, and pepper until frothy. Pour evenly over fennel and mix to coat. Cover and refrigerate at least one hour before serving.

Total calories per serving: 143 Fat: 14 grams
Carbohydrates: 5 grams Protein: <1 gram
Sodium: 10 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Green Pea MockaGuacamole

(Serves 12)

Take advantage of young spring peas for this recipe.

  • 2 pounds fresh or thawed frozen green peas (about 4 cups)
  • 1 Tablespoon ground cumin
  • ½ cup chopped sweet onions
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 Tablespoons lemon juice
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
  • 3 teaspoons black pepper

Place the peas, cumin, onions, and garlic in a food processor or blender. Process until smooth.

Add lemon juice and olive oil, and process just to blend. Season with red pepper flakes and pepper to your taste. Blend just to combine.

Serve with veggie chips or sticks, bread sticks or crackers, or tortillas.

Total calories per serving: 107 Fat: 5 grams
Carbohydrates: 12 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 6 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Spring Greens and Lentil Sauté

(Serves 2)

  • Vegetable oil spray
  • ½ cup cooked or canned, drained lentils
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 cups (packed) fresh mustard greens, kale, or chard

Heat a large frying pan and spray with oil; allow to heat. Add lentils. Season with pepper.

Cook and stir until lentils are coated and warm, about 2 minutes.

Add greens and cook and stir until greens are wilted, about 2 minutes. Serve immediately.

Note: Frozen or canned greens will not work well with this recipe.

Total calories per serving: 72 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 13 grams Protein: 6 grams
Sodium: 15 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams

Smoky Collards

(Serves 5)

Cooks frequently add meat to collards to give them a smoky taste. Vegans do not have to buy liquid smoke to attain a similar taste. Instead, you can add vegan "bacon" strips or smoked tofu.

  • 4 pounds collard greens (or collards, mustard and turnip greens mix)
  • Vegetable oil spray
  • 8 strips vegan "bacon" strips or ½ cup diced smoked tofu
  • 6 cups water

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste Wash greens well, picking them over to remove any brown spots or blemishes. Drain well. Discard the discolored outer leaves and cut out the thick ribs. Tear the greens into pieces.

Spray a large frying pan with oil, allow to heat and add vegan 'bacon' strips or smoked tofu. Stir and toss for one minute to heat.

Add greens and the water and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and continue to cook until the greens are tender. Note: Traditional collard condiments include chopped fresh onions and hot sauce.

Total calories per serving: 162 Fat: 3 grams
Carbohydrates: 26 grams Protein: 13 grams
Sodium: 323 milligrams Fiber: 15 grams

Grilled Romaine Salad with Vinaigrette Dressing

(Serves 5)

Yes, Romaine is a "green veggie" and it holds up well to light grilling!

  • 1 head of romaine, heart only, cut in half lengthwise
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • ¼ cup diced smoked tofu or ¼ cup chopped roasted almonds
  • ½ cup sliced green or red apple
  • 3 Tablespoons prepared vinaigrette dressing

Brush the romaine halves with olive oil. Place them cut side down on a gas grill for about 30 seconds or until they have grill marks.

Arrange the halves on a plate topped with the tofu or almonds and apple. Drizzle the dressing over the top and serve.

Total calories per serving: 90 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 6 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 203 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Vinegary Green Beans with Dill

(Serves 4)

This dish can be served warm or cold, and can be prepared ahead of time on the stove or in the microwave.

  • 1 pound very thin green beans, fresh or frozen (thawed), long-cut or French cut, cleaned (about 2½ cups)
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 2 Tablespoons cider vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon lemon zest
  • ½ teaspoon white pepper
  • 4 teaspoons minced fresh dill, or 2 teaspoons dried dill
  • 3 Tablespoons chopped green onions
  • 1 Tablespoon sesame or vegetable oil

For microwave preparation, place the green beans in a 1½ quart microwaveable bowl (try not to cut the beans, as the long beans make a good appearance and help to keep a pleasant texture.)

In a separate bowl, mix the remaining ingredients together.

Pour the mixture over the beans and toss to combine. Microwave uncovered on HIGH for 3 minutes, or until just soft.

Serve hot, or allow the beans to chill for 30 minutes and serve as a cold side dish.

Note: If you are preparing this dish on the stove, place the beans in a medium pot. Combine the remaining ingredients in a bowl and pour over the beans. Cook, constantly stirring, over medium heat for about 5 minutes, or until the beans begin to just soften.

Total calories per serving: 68 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 9 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 8 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Think Green - Think Nutrition

Here are some nutrition notes to use as "selling" points for a 4-ounce serving of green spring veggies:

Romaine lettuce has 2600 IU of vitamin A, 24 mg of vitamin C, and 36 mg of calcium (as opposed to iceberg lettuce, which has 330 IU of A, 4 mg of C and 19 mg of calcium.) Romaine isn't just for Caesar salad; try braising it in a small amount of veggie stock and serving as a side dish, or using it to replace your pasta "bed" in an entrée.

Endive (also known as chicory, or if it's red, radicchio) has 4000 IU of vitamin A, 24 mg of vitamin C, and 100 mg of calcium. Shred it and use it in green, pasta, or tofu salads or as a crunchy garnish for soups or stews.

Kale is the king of green, boasting 8900 IU of vitamin A, 120 mg of vitamin C, and 135 mg of calcium. Kale can be chopped raw and added to salads, or used as a garnish for soups, stews and casseroles. Steam it quickly with a small amount of garlic and chopped onion and serve as a side dish.

Escarole (broad-leafed chicory) has 2000 IU of vitamin A, 6 mg of vitamin C, and 187 mg of calcium. It's very high in fiber, with a peppery, astringent taste. Escarole is a good counterpoint to mild lettuce in green salads, or shred it for topping stir-fries and soups.

Boston or Bibb lettuce is a sweet green with 970 IU of vitamin A, 8 mg of vitamin C, and 35 mg of calcium. Use in salads or as a wrapper for spring rolls stuffed with cooked rice, barley, and chopped greens.

Nancy Berkoff is the author of Vegans Know How to Party and Vegan Meals for One or Two. She is also The Vegetarian Resource Group's Foodservice Advisor.