By Barbara Kobsar | Illustrations by Helen Krayenhoff
Cool winter months bring out a hardy group of green-leafed vegetables that are stars in the nutrition department, and their robust bite-you-back flavors are just what we need to liven up soups, stews, and sautéed dishes. Some of these greens, such as kale and collards, are members of the cabbage family, while others, such as turnip greens, are simply the tops of a root vegetable.
Growers all over the Bay Area fill market stands with an amazing assortment of winter greens worthy of space in your market bag. Some, like young spinach, dandelion, or beet greens, can be used raw and tossed in with other greens in salads, but most need to be cooked to tame their assertive flavors and toughness. A long, slow simmer or steam will do it, but alternately, try parboiling for a minute and then giving them a quick sauté.
More and more varieties of this super-nutritious green are showing up in our markets. All are a form of cabbage, but one in which the central leaves do not form a head.
The most common type is green and frilly, but don’t let the froufrou look fool you: When mature, these leaves are some of the toughest leafy greens around—at least before cooking. Happily, it doesn’t take long to tame them. Remove the tough stem running down the center of each leaf by tearing it out (or use a small paring knife). Stack several leaves together and slice into ½-inch ribbons, pop into an inch or two of simmering water or broth for 5 to 8 minutes, and then drain. Leafy-green kale is great with brown rice, potatoes, pasta, and beans, and even kids can be tempted by this vegetable if you bake it into crispy kale chips: Wash and spin (very) dry 3 handfuls of green kale. Dribble with 1 or 2 tablespoons olive oil, toss and bake on a parchment-lined baking sheet at 350° until crisp—12 to 18 minutes. Season with salt after baking.
A more tender type of kale named lacinato, dinosaur, or black kale has found its niche in the markets. The dark blue-green bumpy leaves are typically sold in neatly bound bunches. It has a slightly bitter, earthy flavor that comes out after a quick sauté with garlic and olive oil.
Make way for the beautiful ornamental or flowering kale, which looks equally good in your garden or on serving platters. Its frilly-edged leaves, ranging in color from pink to magenta to white, are perfect for the buffet table where they’ll hold damp mixtures without wilting.
Light-green curly-leaf mustard greens look like a kale knockoff. The pungent flavor is expected since they’re part of the mustard plant, so use sparingly.
Collard greens are one of the oldest members of the cabbage family and closely related to kale. Their large, paddlelike, dark-green oval leaves feel slightly velvety to the touch and when cooked are milder tasting than kale. Collard greens are a staple in Southern U.S. cuisine, where they are often used with large quantities of other leafy greens in the popular dish known as “mess o’ greens.” (Scroll toward the bottom of this page for a fabulous collard greens recipe.)
Most people consider dandelions to be weeds, but cultivation practices have turned really bitter leaves into not-quite-so-bitter leaves. I prefer to buy them on the young and tender side to mix with less assertive flavored greens, and I’ll use a warm vinaigrette to help reduce bitterness and to tenderize the leaves. When they are grown unsprayed, all parts of the dandelion plant are edible. Flower buds may be marinated, flowers may be used to make wine, and roots can be roasted and ground to make “root” coffee.
TURNIP AND BEET GREENS
Turnips and beets do double duty by producing both the root vegetable and edible leaves. My best chance of finding the two attached is at the farmers’ markets. Fresh-looking leaves means they’re fresh from the farm and have not been given time to wilt. Toss young, tender leaves directly into salads. Steam or sauté more mature leaves for a few minutes in a splash of olive oil and garlic.
The chards are at their best when the weather is cool. Swiss chard is a mild member of the beet family, and a nibble of raw chard confirms that fact. Rainbow chard is my favorite. It really doesn’t taste any different than Swiss chard, but those colorful stems are irresistible.
Broccoli raab or rapini goes by many other names around the world: turnip broccoli, Chinese broccoli, rappone, and rapa, to name a few. In spite of the broccoli-like buds, broccoli raab is more closely related to the turnip.
With all greens, the most efficient way to clean is to plunge the bunch into a sink of cool water. Swish the leaves around to remove the grit, lift out, and drain.
So don’t pass up those leafy greens next time you’re at the market. Remember to blanch the bold, savor the spiciness, and combine to complement.
Enjoy and see you at the market!
Barbara Kobsar is a home economist and 22-year veteran journalist who promotes the enjoyment of in-season produce. She has also authored two cookbooks focusing on traditional home-cooked meals using local produce. She spends part of every week at the East Bay farmers’ markets scoping out fresh produce. When not roaming the produce aisles, she is behind her market stand selling her Cottage Kitchen jams and pepper jellies, which she makes from farmers’ market produce. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
These farms always bring a good selection of winter greens to our East Bay farmers’ markets:
Catalan Family Farm
County Line Harvest
Four Sisters Farm
Full Belly Farm
Happy Boy Farms
Pinnacle Organically Grown Produce
Rio de Parras
Say Hay Farms