Winter greens to chase away the winter blues

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As the last dreary days of winter drag on, the starchy, cool-weather vegetables that were such a treat during autumn can grow drab and unappealing. After all, one can only eat so much butternut squash or sweet potato pie. What can a cook do to add variety and color to traditional winter fare? Go green.

Chard, kale, and a variety of other greens are often-overlooked gems that can brighten any table. And they're not just a comfort food of the American South. These vegetables are so versatile that they appear in cuisine the world over. Greens can be exotic: They add substance and flavor to stir-fries and curries. Or greens can be simple: They bring subtle tones to soups and side dishes.

Although green, leafy vegetables most often turn up in summer salads, greens usually grow better in colder weather. Chard and beet, turnip and mustard greens can be harvested well into the fall. With a blanket of mulch, kale and collard crops can produce all winter long, and their taste is sweeter after sustained cool or cold weather. Collards can survive temperatures as low as 20 degrees F. Kale can be harvested even under a blanket of snow and can withstand weather as cold as minus 10 degrees F.

Recommended: 22 recipes using kale

Kale, collards, and turnip and mustard greens are all part of the cole, or cabbage, family. Wild cole species are native to the Mediterranean region. Europeans savored ancestors of modern-day cole plants as far back as 4,000 years ago. Ancient Romans so revered these crops that legend has it that the emperor Claudius once commanded the Senate to vote on whether any meal could outshine corned beef and cabbage. The senators enthusiastically voted "no." Greeks cultivated chard, a member of the beet family, as long ago as 400 BC. Beets and their greens also originated in the Mediterranean. Beet leaves were used as food first, and later, folks discovered that beet roots were a tasty treat, too.

Although European explorers and colonists brought cabbage and its cousins to the American continent, African slaves who cooked in plantation kitchens are largely responsible for integrating greens into traditional Southern cuisine.

The leafy vegetables are still most broadly known in the United States as a slow-cooked accompaniment to Southern staples such as beans and corn bread. But greens are catching on in the world of haute cuisine. Coast to coast, renowned restaurants are featuring dishes such as artichoke swiss chard soufflé or cranberry bean soup with chorizo, greens, and fruity olive oil. Greens are easy to prepare and don't require the extensive cooking time that Southern tradition suggests. To ready any greens for use, first fill a large bowl with cold water and plunge in a few leaves at a time, swishing them around to dislodge any grit. Repeat the process once or twice more. When greens are clean and chopped, they're ready for cooking – or eating raw, if they're destined for a salad.

Chard and beet tops are the most delicate of cool-weather greens, and both are tasty uncooked, if the plants are young and tender. Chard is a popular substitute for spinach and can be cooked as such. Its leaves are usually green, but the stems can be white, bright yellow, or different hues of red. Beet greens serve as another, slightly saltier substitute for spinach. Their leaves are green, but beware: Stalks and veins are usually a pinkish red that can stain hands and clothes just as red beet roots do.

Kale comes in a variety of colors, from deep green to purple or white, and it usually has large curly leaves with a mild cabbage flavor. Collards are actually a flat-leafed version of kale, though their cabbage taste is even milder. These greens are best cooked, but they needn't be boiled. Braising or steaming them for a few minutes will do. Often, kale and collard recipes call for cooks to discard the greens' ribs and stems. But chopping these and cooking them with the leaves adds extra texture to the final dish. These hearty vegetables go well in soups, stews, and curries, but they are equally delicious as a side dish. When they stand alone, kale and collards can be jazzed up with roasted garlic and olive oil, ginger, soy sauce, and sesame seeds, or other flavor combinations.

Raw, young mustard greens add a peppery kick to salads, but that spicy quality turns bitter when the greens are cooked. Turnip tops also have a bitter bite when braised or steamed. Cooked, these veggies pair well with Indian and Asian spices.

Besides being delicious in lunch and dinner dishes, winter greens can add pizazz to breakfast. They turn run-of-the-mill scrambled eggs into an extraordinary omelette and an ordinary cheese quiche into a culinary delight.

But the easiest and most satisfying way to integrate greens into your diet may be to whip up a mouthwatering one-pot meal. Above is one recipe that may get your creative juices flowing.

Middle Eastern chard and lentil soup

1 cup dried, dark mini-lentils (such as Spanish pardina or Indian whole masoor dal)
2 quarts light chicken stock (water can be used as a substitute)
1 teaspoon salt
1 medium potato, peeled and sliced paper thin
1 cup chopped onion
3 tablespoons olive oil
8 large Swiss chard leaves
1 pound leafy greens (such as spinach, dandelion, arugula, watercress, beet, kale, or a mixture)
1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro leaves
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

Wash and pick over the lentils. Place lentils in a saucepan and cover with the 2 quarts of stock or water salted with 1 teaspoon salt (if using water, consider also adding 2 teaspoons of vegetable bouillon). Bring to a boil and skim off any foam that surfaces. Add the potato, partially cover, and cook for 20 minutes.

In a large skillet, slowly brown the onion in the olive oil. Meanwhile, wash, stem, and roughly shred the greens. (You should have about 1 packed quart.)

Add the cilantro and garlic to the skillet and sauté for a minute or two, then stir in the greens, cover, and allow them to wilt.

Scrape the contents of the skillet, including the oil, into the saucepan and continue cooking another 20 minutes, or until thick and souplike.

Stir in the lemon juice and serve hot, lukewarm, or cool.

Serves 8.

Source: Adapted from www.foodownunder.com

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