Tips For Cooking Greens
When I was a kid, my idea of “eating my greens” was a serving of baby peas. My sister loved spinach, especially creamed spinach but other than that, I don’t think I even knew about the existence of other kinds of greens. If it wasn’t lettuce in my salad, I was clueless. When I became vegan, a whole world of food was opened up to me: whole grains, succulent fruits, colorful vegetables and a slew of dark, leafy greens. I was amazed at how many kinds of greens there are: cabbage, bok choy, broccoli rabe, kale, collard greens, spinach, Swiss chard, and mustard, turnip, radish, beet and dandelion greens, to name just a few. Today, I love them all. I add greens into just about every dish I make though my favorite way of eating them is simply sauteed or steamed.
I think one of the biggest obstacles people face when it comes to eating dark, leafy greens is not knowing how to prepare them and make them taste delicious. Many greens can taste bitter and often, greens are undercooked and tough or overcooked and mushy. Knowing how to get rid of the bitter taste and be left with tender, flavorful greens requires knowing a few tricks. Consider this a crash course in how to cook greens so they taste delicious.
1. Get to Know Your Greens
There are many types of greens and while, for the most part, you can interchange them in recipes, they each have their own distinct flavor and texture. Dark, leafy greens are hardy and can be bitter, spicy or pungent, especially when eaten raw. You may be familiar with kale and how it comes in a curly version and a flat version called Lacinato, Dinosaur or Black Kale that is more flat and tender. Some greens such as broccoli rabe and beet greens can be bitter, mustard greens and dandelion greens tend to be spicy while chard is mellower. Try buying different types of dark, leafy greens and get to know their textures and flavors so you can choose the right greens for your recipes and the right cooking method for your greens. Experiment with different combinations of greens to balance texture and flavor. Buy a lot since greens cook down significantly and what looks like a mountain will shrink down to just a few serving sizes.
2. Wash and Prep Your Greens
Greens can be very sandy and gritty, especially when you get them fresh at the farmer’s market or in your CSA box, so they need to be washed well. Don’t wash the greens unless you are going to use them in a day or two as they will start to wilt. If you do wash them in advance, place them in a storage bag with a clean towel or paper towel to absorb the moisture and keep them refrigerated. The easiest way to wash greens is to fill the sink with cool water and give the greens a bath. Separate the leaves and agitate the water a bit with your fingers to loosen the dirt. Shake the leaves dry of excess water and then dry them in a salad spinner or by laying them between two clean towels.
If the greens you are using have thick stems or stalks, you need to remove them. This is true for kale and collard greens. Other greens such as chard and spinach have edible stems though you can certainly remove those as well. The easiest way to remove the stems from large leaves is by “stripping.” Hold the base of the stem in one hand and run your index and middle finger of the other hand along the stem, from base to tip, stripping the leaves off as you go. The leaves can then be chopped. I like to chop large leaves by rolling them up and cutting them into thin ribbons that will be easier to eat.
3. Blanch the Bitter Away
If you are concerned that the greens will be too bitter, you can remove that bitter taste by blanching them first. You can do this before you chop the greens to make it easier to handle. Bring a large pot of water to a rapid boil and drop the leaves in. Stir them around a bit. In just a few minutes, the greens will start to wilt and become a beautiful, bright green color. Don’t cook them too long or they will lose that color and get mushy. You can taste a leaf to see if the bitterness is gone enough for you. Transfer the greens to an ice bath to stop the cooking process or at least, run them under cold water. When they are cool enough to handle, you can wring the leaves out and remove the excess water. Then continue on to chop them for your recipe.
4. Aromatics and Seasoning
No matter what you are cooking, you want to take every chance you have to add flavor. Start with aromatics like shallots, onions and garlic. Heat a bit of your favorite oil in the pan and saute thinly sliced shallots and minced garlic until they are lightly browned and the smell permeates the air, telling everyone you are cooking something delicious. Add a pinch of red pepper flakes or finely chopped chiles for a bit of heat. Or grate some fresh ginger for an Asian flavor. When you add the chopped greens, toss them so they get coated in the seasoned oil. These aromatics set the foundation for an amazingly flavorful dish.
After you add the greens and they have wilted a bit, it’s time to add more seasoning. You could just add salt and pepper but why not experiment with different herbs and spices? I always add fresh grated nutmeg to my dark greens for a mildly nutty flavor. Thyme, oregano and parsley are also among my favorite herbs while cumin, coriander and paprika are my favorite spices. Of course, season your greens with salt and black pepper.
Balance is important in cooking. If the greens still have some bitterness, you could add agave nectar or sugar to sweeten it a bit. Add a bit of vinegar for some acid; balsamic is fruity and rich and can stand up to the hearty greens though apple cider and red wine vinegar are also good choices. I like to use vegan Worcestershire sauce for complex, savory flavors. Tamari, soy sauce, liquid aminos and seaweed add rich, salty flavor. Play around with your favorites and come up with combinations you like best. You don’t need to add a lot; you just want to enhance the flavor of the greens, not cover it up.
5. Cooking Ideas
There are many ways to use and cook greens, whether they are part of the dish or the main component. Of course, you can eat greens raw as well. There are three ways I use greens in their raw state: salads, pesto and wraps.
Spinach and chard are mild flavors that work well in salads. Kale makes an amazing salad, but if it seems too rough, massage it first. Simply rub a bit of oil on your hands and give the kale some loving until it breaks down and softens. You can also massage other hearty greens like collards to soften them for salads. Try this Raw Massaged Kale Salad with Fresh Figs and Oranges and this lovely Spring Salad with Edible Flowers and Dandelion Greens.
Another way to eat greens raw is by making pesto out of them. I make pesto with radish greens, kale and any other greens I have a lot of. Mix the greens for a balance of flavor as in this Kale-Basil Pesto Pasta with Apple-Sage Sausage and this Ramp and Spinach Pesto over pasta.
Large leaves like collard greens work well as wraps for your favorite fillings. You could also blanch the leaves first to soften them. Learn how with these Raw Veggie Stuffed Collard Wraps .
A common method of preparing greens that I use is barely considered cooking them. Whenever I make a hot dish like pasta, I line the bowl with lots of chopped raw greens. When I top them with the hot food, they instantly wilt and steam a bit. Alternatively, when I am just about done cooking a dish such as my Southwestern Tofu Scramble with Greens, I add the chopped greens to the pot, put the lid on and let the greens wilt until they are soft and bright green. Then I mix them into the food and enjoy the almost-raw texture they add to the dish.
My favorite way to cook greens is to saute them in a pan with olive oil, garlic, shallots and a pinch of red pepper flakes. I don’t cook them long, just long enough to wilt and get bright green. Sometimes I saute one type of greens and other times, a combination of greens. Kale and cabbage is a favorite combination of mine. I love the greens sauteed with just the aromatics but a bit of tamari, vegan Worcestershire sauce or vinegar is also delicious. Try these sauteed Beet Greens with Garlic and Toasted Almonds, Sauteed Broccoli Rabe with Red Chili Flakes and this Sauteed Spinach in Fennel Tomato Sauce. Also add greens to your stir-fries like this Stir-Fried Crunchy Bengali Boy Choy.
Braising, which is cooking food in liquid and fat, is a good method for cooking greens because it softens the leaves and the longer cooking time gets out the bitterness. You get greens that are tender but not soft and mushy. Try my Roasted Jerusalem Artichokes with Braised Garlicky Kale.
Soups and stews are an excellent way to add greens and bulk up the dishes. When I make Minestrone or Pasta e Fagioli, I add a big bunch of collard greens, turnip greens or Swiss chard. My favorite hearty soup is Caldo Verde or Portuguese Kale Soup which has tomatoes, cannellini beans, vegan sausage and, of course, lots of kale. Enjoy all the seasons with this White Bean and Kale Soup in the winter and this Spring Kale and Dill Soup with Rice in the warmer months. Try turnip greens in this Tempeh and Turnip Greens Soup. My stews and chilis also get big bunches of chopped greens in them. In fact, for a long time, the most popular recipe on my blog was an Ethiopian Beans, Greens and Quinoa Stew. Black-eyed peas and collard greens are deliciously featured in this African Groundnut Stew.
Everything tastes good battered and fried and greens are no exception. When I make vegetable pakoras, I always make some with kale and spinach or whatever greens I have in the fridge. Just dip the leaves in a batter of chickpea flour, white rice flour, baking powder, arrowroot powder and Indian spices and fry them until crispy. They get a light and crunchy coating while remaining tender inside.
Top your pizza with a healthy dose of greens. Whether it’s raw as in this Raw Vegan Pizza with Spinach, Pesto and Marinated Vegetables or cooked as in this Kale and Artichoke Pizza, adding greens to your pizza is a healthy and delicious way to enjoy one our favorite foods.
A fun way to eat your greens is to make chips out of them for snacking. You have probably had kale chips but did you know you can make chips out of other greens too? Read How to Make Healthy Veggie Chips of All Kinds or take any of your favorite kale chips recipes suc