Southerners have been cooking up a mess of greens since before Grandma was in a baby bunting. Collards, kale, turnip greens and mustard greens are but a few of the staples of a southern sideboard.
When Martha Stewart was doing her stretch in the “Big House,” it was widely reported that she voluntarily pulled dandelion weeds outside in the prison yard each day. Of course, she’s no slouch in the “big brain” department. While probably earning time off her sentence for good behavior, she was also employing her culinary skills in an unconventional approach to good nutrition. Ms. Stewart would harvest the dandelion greens and serve them up as a nutritionally-dense side dish. She knew what others didn’t — that the greens were a rich source of vitamins, minerals, fiber and potassium, and a welcome diversion from more bland prison fare.
Even a vintage cartoon character, Popeye, was a champion of good greens. He loved two things —
spinach and Olive Oyl — both sure to restore his vim and vigor.
Some of us have always embraced tasty greens, other folks need more convincing.
Leafy vegetables are brimming with elements that help protect against heart disease, diabetes and perhaps even cancer. Even so, Americans are not eating as many vegetables each day as dietary experts recommend.
As a rule, you should strive to eat at least five servings of vegetables daily (about 2 1/2 cups, cooked); and that includes leafy greens. They pack a solid nutritional wallop, with fewer calories than other, more carbohydrate rich, vegetables. In fact, greens are the number one food you can eat regularly to help improve your health.
While homegrown garden greens are comfortably in season as the calendar turns toward fall and cooler temperatures, leafy greens are abundantly available throughout the year at local grocery stores and farmers’ markets.
When buying or harvesting greens, look for leaves that are perky, lively and deeply-colored. Generally, small leaves will be mild, sweet and tender, compared to larger leaves.
Stay away from greens that are wilted, yellowed or spotted; these will certainly be bitter, even when cooked. Store greens in a plastic bag in the refrigerator and use them within a few days.
Experts recommend cleaning greens by swishing them in a water-filled sink, draining the sink, then repeating the rinse until the leaves are dirt free.
Leafy greens are full of vitamins, minerals and disease-fighting phytochemicals. They are rich in fiber, which aids in weight loss and helps lower cholesterol and blood pressure. Some leafy greens, like collards and kale, are particularly rich in calcium and potassium, strengthening teeth and bones, and helping to maintain muscle function.
Antioxidants like vitamin C and E, lutein, zeaxanthin and beta carotene contained in leafy greens may help reduce the risk of cataracts and macular degeneration, and mitigate skin damage from sun exposure. Vitamin C helps the body make collagen too. Collagen is a major component of cartilage that aids in joint flexibility and may reduce the risk of arthritis. It also keeps skin and hair healthy and beautiful. Research shows that Vitamin C may also slow bone loss and decrease the risk of fractures. Greens are also an excellent source of folate, which can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and memory loss. And since folate contributes to the production of serotonin, it may help ward off depression and improve mood.
Collard, turnip and mustard greens are familiar to southern cooks, but largely under appreciated. They tend to be heartier in flavor and texture and work well in slow-cooked recipes. Some southern chefs reserve the “pot liquor,” a richly-flavored, smoky liquid at the bottom of the pot, to use as a soup base, a starter for the next batch of greens, or even as a quick health drink. Collard leaves also make excellent wrappers for other ingredients.
Kale is a versatile nutrition powerhouse which lies somewhere in the middle of the flavor spectrum between strong and mild. It is excellent raw in salads, thrown into soups, sautéed or slow-cooked.
More popular greens like spinach, chard, beet greens and bok choy are mild and tender. Spinach is one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. Cooked spinach is actually better for you than raw, because heat breaks down its cell structure, releasing nutrients. Swiss chard, with red or yellow stems, stalks and veins, has a beet-like taste and soft texture that’s perfect for sautéing. Its colorful leaves make attractive wraps for other fillings. Tender bok choy stems and leaves are often an ingredient in stir-fry dishes.
Salad-style greens like arugula, radicchio, escarole, endive and watercress range in flavor from bitter and peppery to mild and sweet. They add color and diverse flavor to salads and side dishes.
Red and green leaf lettuce, and Romaine, are good “starter” greens and healthier alternatives to iceberg lettuce. In general, the darker the leaf, the more nutrition it has. Although slightly lower in nutrients than their more adventurous cousins, these lettuces are full of fiber and water, helping to maintain digestive and heart health, as well as staving off dehydration.
Getting more greens in your life need not be a daunting task. Greens are versatile when it comes to cooking. Whether sautéed as a side dish, tossed into soups and stews, chopped and thrown into lasagna or burgers, or eaten raw in salads, they provide nutrition, color and flavor diversity. Start simple and then experiment.
Try doing what your Mom always told you — eat
your greens. You’ll thank her later. She might not even say,
“I told you so.”