There are few meals more satisfying in the winter than a simple bowl of sautéed greens, brown rice and maybe a small piece of fish or chicken. Mustard greens are my favorite variety by far and while not the most common they are certainly the most flavorful.
Growing up in the South, greens were always on the menu for my family. Turnip or collard greens were the main attraction then — slow cooked for hours in a giant pot with a lump of salt pork. These days healthier oils (or none at all) have replaced the salt pork and the cooking time has gone from hours to a brief sauté, but my love of greens has not diminished.
I have a professional reason for loving greens too.
Every time I buy a bunch, I feel a surge of pride for the organic growers who produced, harvested and packed the product in a way that sets the standard for quality in the industry.
Greens are a staple commodity grown in season by local organic farmers, large and small, throughout the US. In fact, the higher than average percentage of organic greens available showcases the success of the overall organic industry.Greens are a popular row crop for farmers to grow because the same plant can produce multiple bunches and it continues to produce leaves even after several cuttings.
Greens are also very hardy and prolific, growing well in a wide range of climates all over the US. This makes them a consistent income crop for large and small growers alike. Greens can also weather moderate freezes with little damage, in most cases. This can extend a local farm’s harvest season in parts of the US where the weather is not consistently mild.
Low in calories and high in nutrients, leafy greens are nutritional powerhouses — the darker the better. The availability of cooking green varieties changes depending on the time of year and area of the US where they are grown.
Here are some of the more common varieties:
Swiss chard: Red, green and rainbow Swiss chard are all similar in texture to spinach and have a mild pleasant flavor. Chard is best cooked for a short period of time.
Mustard: Generally considered the strongest “flavored” type of green, mustards have a sharp “peppery” flavor. Green mustard can be either flat leaf or curly and there are several varieties of Asian mustard (like Mizuna) that are milder. There is also a very delicate variety of red mustard that is sometimes seen in farmers’ markets.
Collard: An extremely popular green in the south, collards have broad, flat leaves and a mild distinctive flavor.
Dandelion: Available in both red and green varieties, dandelion greens are delicious mixed with other greens in a salad.
Kale: The most popular cooking green, kale becomes sweeter as the growing conditions get cooler. The most common variety is green kale but there is also a Red Russian, flowering (purple and white), and the popular narrow leaf Lacinato kale.
This time of year, most of the greens sold in the US come from Florida and California. The origin of the greens in your local store depends largely on where you live in the US and how much is being grown in areas closest to you. Conditions this winter have been good so far in Florida but cooler and dryer than normal in the west coast growing areas.
This can be a tense time with less predictable winter weather systems but Mother Nature has been kind to our winter growers so far.
As winter transitions to spring and long distance shipping gives way to regional and local production, greens will be available from a much broader grower and geographic base. In the meantime I’ll continue to give my body what it craves in the winter: a nutritionally dense, simple and flavorful gift from the fields.