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Healthy Tip: Get Your Greens

I was born in the south and grew up with a mother who was a true southern cook - and that meant plenty of greens like collards, mustard and beet greens. When we moved to California, I was surprised to find hardly anyone eating these "common" vegetables. I soon realized that while southern cooks had been preparing greens for years, the rest of the country hadn't caught on yet. Well, that's certainly changed now! The more we know about good nutrition and how important it is to eat fresh veggies, the more attention we give to leafy greens. In fact, you can't find a list of the "most powerful foods" that doesn't mention kale, spinach or collards. That's because dark leafy greens contain such an abundant source of nutrients and powerful antioxidants, packing plenty of iron, calcium and fiber! They also contain chlorophyll, the pigment that turns the leaf green. Some people think of this as the plant's blood and that makes sense when you also consider that leafy greens contain vitamin K, which helps our bodies with blood clotting abilities. If you are a greens lover like me, chances are you don't need any encouragement to add these to your meal plan. For those who are a wee bit reluctant, I suggest you start out with some of the milder flavored greens and work your way up. Here's a quick reference on some of the most popular greens (find more here.)
  • Arugula: peppery flavor - try raw in salads or sandwiches
  • Bok Choy: sweet, mild flavor - perfect for stir-fries or soups
  • Collards: mild, sweet flavor - steam, braise or sauté until tender
  • Escarole; mildly bitter - eat raw in salads and steam or braise
  • Kale: mildly peppery - boil, steam or sauté
  • Mizuna: tender and spicy - mix with other greens in salads
  • Spinach; soft, sweet flavor - multi-purpose! Raw or cooked in many dishes
  • Swiss Chard: tender, sweet - sauté, braise or add to soups and other dishes
Most leafy greens are generally available year round, but like most plants, they have their peak season. Collards, kale, turnip greens and mustard greens are at their best from October through early spring. Swiss chard and beet greens are best from the spring through the fall. Dandelion greens are available in the spring and summer. With a few exceptions, I recommend cooking your greens until they are tender and bright green. Otherwise, they can be too fibrous and tough to chew, and that can make them hard to digest. Make sure to cut out and discard the tough stem in mature, hearty greens such as kale, collards, mustard, beet and turnip greens and then cook the leaves well. Some greens, such as spinach, chard and beet greens, contain a substance called oxalic acid, which can interfere with the absorption of calcium. However, when cooked, the oxalic acid is broken down. Here are some more ways to get those leafy green benefits:
  • For just about any soup, greens are a perfect match. Just chop and stir in, letting cook until tender. Spinach and chard are super quick options.
  • Mix it up in your salad bowl by adding baby spinach, tender young spring greens and baby arugula.
  • Add chopped greens to a stir fry - try collards, bok choy and broccoli rabe.
  • Make a simple side dish by sautéing onions and garlic in a bit of olive oil, add some greens, a little broth and steam until tender. Great with kale because it doesn't cook down as much as other greens.
  • When making a sandwich or wrap, top it off with baby spinach, arugula or any baby field greens.
  • Want to experiment? In recipes that call for cooked spinach, substitute half the amount with cooked chard.
  • Perfect for warmer months, steam or sauté any leafy green and serve at room temperature tossed with your favorite salad dressing.
  • Never seem to have time for prep? Freeze greens for quick and easy use. Remove and discard the tough stem from mature leaves. Wash, dry and chop the leaves. Then freeze in serving-size freezer bags and add frozen leaves directly to soups, stews, pasta sauces, etc.
  • Serve your favorite soup, beans or chili over a bowl of baby spinach. The heat from the broth will gently wilt the spinach and add great flavor to your meal.
For the more adventurous, here are a few of my favorite recipes featuring leafy greens: Coconut Milk Braised Greens Brazilian-Style Collard Greens Savory Greens Stir Fry Sautéed Greens with White Beans and Garlic Got a great leafy green recipe you'd like to share? I'd love to hear.