Leafy vegetables get high marks for their health
benefits—and for their versatility in the kitchen.
by Corinne Garcia
Kids try to quietly slip them off their plates to the waiting family dog, but green vegetables—including the leafy ones health authorities always tell us to eat more of—have become a hot item in the culinary world. “The popularity of greens is part of a general rediscovery of the joys of the real, earthy flavors and visual beauty found in fresh, seasonal produce,” say Barbara Scott-Goodman and Liz Trovato, authors of Eat Greens: Seasonal Recipes to Enjoy in Abundance (Running Press).
“People’s eyes have been opened to the greatness of greens, and they are ready and willing to try new recipes.”
One reason for this revival is the increasing availability of greens throughout the year and in greater variety than ever before. That makes getting them from market to table in good condition crucial to preserving peak flavor. “It’s best to buy greens the same day you plan to use them or at most the day before,” says Nava Atlas, author of Wild About Greens (Sterling). “The more delicate the greens, the more perishable they are.” Atlas recommends looking for firm, evenly colored leaves with no wilting or off colors. If you aren’t using your greens right away, Atlas suggests wrapping them in paper towels and storing them, refrigerated, in a tightly sealed plastic bag.
Why do leafy greens get a bad rap? As Atlas puts it, “Nothing ruins a good dish like a mouthful of sand.” She says the best way to avoid grittiness, especially with crinkly-leaved varieties, is to chop them and place them into a large bowl of cold water. Swirl them around and then let stand for a few minutes; the soil will fall to the bottom. Scoop out the greens, and repeat until the water looks clean. “I’m not content until I give the greens a final rinse in the colander,” adds Atlas.
Nutrition Notes: As a cruciferous vegetable, bok choi (also known as Chinese cabbage) shares the anti-cancer benefits of this plant family by supplying high levels of antioxidants, phytonutrients and glucosinolates. At only 13 calories per cup, plus significant nutritional benefits, it has made its way into weight-loss plans for its strong nutrition-per-calorie ratio. Bok choi has more vitamins A, B6 and K, and more carotenes, than traditional cabbage, along with significant levels of vitamin C, calcium and potassium (a mineral shown to help lower blood pressure).
Kitchen Tips: Both the dark green leaves and the lighter-colored stems can be cooked, according to Atlas, who says bok choi is a hit in Asian-inspired recipes and salads. “I love to combine it raw with very lightly steamed snow peas, thinly sliced red cabbage and green sprouts, dressed with a sesame-ginger dressing,” she notes. “And it goes well with Asian-style noodles, rice, stir-fries and tofu dishes.” Atlas also recommends cutting bok choi in half and cooking it on the grill or in a lightly oiled pan for a tasty side dish.
Nutrition Notes: A king among the crucifers, cabbage is full of cancer fighters including glucosinolates, substances that boost the body’s detoxifying enzymes, and a high fiber
content that helps lower cholesterol. Not surprisingly, cabbage is a popular addition to detox diets. Although each variety—red, green and Savoy (a curly type)—has a different nutritional profile, they all contain vitamins B6, C and K, along with folate and calcium. Red cabbage contains additional protective phytonutrients, which are visible in its vibrant color.
Kitchen Tips: Coleslaw is the mainstay cabbage dish, and thin strips of red cabbage can enhance the color and nutrition of any salad. But that’s not the end of cabbage’s usefulness. “Throw green cabbage into smoothies, stews and soups,” says Julieanna Hever, MS, RD, CPT (www.PlantBasedDietitian.com). Atlas loves to trick out coleslaw with fruit and thinly sliced kale or to stir-fry cabbage shreds in dark sesame oil, sesame seeds, soy sauce and red pepper flakes. (You can also ferment cabbage to create your own sauerkraut.) Shorter cooking times, such
as steaming or stir-frying, allow cabbage to better retain its nutrients.
Nutrition Notes: Where has kale been all our lives? Although cultivated for more than 2,000 years, this rugged green seems to have suddenly emerged onto the fashionable kitchen scene. “I sometimes say that kale is the new broccoli,” says Atlas. “About a decade ago, broccoli was touted as the must-have veggie, but kale is even more packed with nutrition and is super versatile.” Like its cousin broccoli, kale is high in calcium and it reaches superfood quality with extremely high levels of antioxidant vitamins, including A, C and K, along with carotenoids, fiber, flavonoids, folate, iron and protein. It’s also very low in calories, about 34 calories per cup.
Kitchen Tips: Kale’s wild and curly leaves should be pulled away from the tough stems; they can be finely chopped and added to raw salads. Kale leaves can also be lightly sautéed or stir-fried (alone or mixed with other veggies), baked into crispy chips and even blended into smoothies. “A kale smoothie really makes you feel like you can move mountains, and it’s delicious besides,” Atlas says.
Nutrition Notes: Better-known butterheads include the Bibb and Boston varieties, characterized by a head of loose, tender leaves described as resembling a blooming rose, with a flavor and texture often described as sweet and buttery. Among the most popular lettuce varieties in Europe, butterheads are making a comeback in the US at farmers’ markets, in the reintroduction of heirloom varieties and with chefs at high-end restaurants. Sporting bright green outer leaves with yellowish interiors, butterhead lettuces are a great source of vitamins A, C and K, as well as calcium, fiber, folate and protein.
Kitchen Tips: Butterhead lettuce has an air about it; those delicate leaves tend to rub elbows with the gourmet crowd. “I would imagine using the leaves of the butterhead lettuce for a simpler salad that lets its flavor shine through,” Hever says. “Maybe one with fruit or served with one other vegetable or nuts and a light, sweeter vinaigrette.” The creamy texture of butterheads also makes them good for sandwiches.
Nutrition Notes: Although it’s still the most popular lettuce in the US, iceberg has gotten a bum rap over the years as a nutritional flop compared with its darker green relatives. But don’t ban the berg, advises Hever, explaining that iceberg is still extremely low in calories and high in nutritional content. The idea “that darker greens have more nutrition is a myth,” she says. “Even iceberg has nutritional value.” This lettuce type, also known as crisphead, provides vitamins A, B6, C and K, along with fiber, folate and iron.
Kitchen Tips: Iceberg lettuce is known for its mild flavor, which is probably why children seem drawn to it. Its super-crispy leaves resemble those of cabbage, making iceberg a great crunchy addition to chopped salads. “I would recommend mixing iceberg in with other leafier lettuces, and maybe some other crispy vegetables for a good nutritional blend,” Hever suggests. Iceberg has also made its way back onto restaurant menus as the main ingredient in wedge salads with bacon and blue cheese dressing; at home, a creamy dressing based on Greek yogurt and either lemon juice or a flavorful vinegar would be healthier.
Nutrition Notes: With roots in western Europe and the Mediterranean, romaine is known for its crisp texture, adding a nutritional, low-calorie punch to a salad or sandwich with high levels of vitamins A, C and K, and fiber, folate and iron. Researchers believe romaine helps lower cholesterol levels by preventing the waxy substance from becoming oxidized, a process that makes it more likely to wind up in arterial walls.
Kitchen Tips: “I stick everything on a salad, and romaine is one of my favorites,” Hever says. “It’s crispy, light and more flavorful than some others.” Romaine and Caesar salad go hand in hand, and romaine’s Mediterranean roots come out in a variety of salad recipes in which it is complemented by olives, feta and roasted red peppers. Unlike other lettuce varieties, which wilt under heat, romaine can be cooked (although Hever prefers it raw and crisp). It can be tossed with a light dressing with just about anything on top of its sturdy leaves, including roasted vegetables and meats such as salmon, chicken or grilled steak.
Nutrition Notes: Popeye ate spinach to prepare for his battles with Bluto, due to its high levels of strength-promoting iron and protein, but little did he know he was fighting cancer as well. According to a Japanese study, spinach is “the most cancer protective of all” vegetables that exhibits “the strongest inhibitory effect on human cancer cell proliferation” (The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry 10/05). Spinach also offers hearty helpings of vitamins A, B2, B6, C and K; fiber, folate and potassium; and a blend of anti-inflammatory and brain-boosting phytonutrients.
Kitchen Tips: “Spinach is the most versatile of the leafy greens,” Atlas says. “You can throw it into just about anything: grain and bean dishes, stir-fries, salads, scrambles, casseroles, lasagna, smoothies and juices.” She suggests adding raw leaves to wraps and sandwiches, and combining spinach with parsley or basil to make a great pesto. The mild flavor makes it easy to disguise spinach in a child’s meal.
Other Great Greens
Nutrition News: In addition to its healthy micronutrient profile, collards have been found to contain anti-cancer properties and to help reduce cholesterol levels.
Kitchen Tips: Wide-leafed greens with a cabbage-like flavor, this staple of Southern cookery is at its peak during the winter months. For a healthier take on a classic dish, serve steamed collards (sliced into 1/2” pieces to promote quick cooking) with black-eyed peas and brown rice, or simply drizzle them with olive oil and lemon juice. They can also be seasoned with chili peppers, garlic, ginger or onion. Look for firm leaves with no yellowing and wash them thoroughly by swishing them in several changes of cool water.
Nutrition News: As a member of the crucifer family, mustard greens contain substances that provide antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and detoxifying benefits.
Kitchen Tips: Mustard greens, which come in red and green varieties, have a sharp, peppery taste. Young leaves can provide a radish-like note in salads, including pasta salads. More mature leaves benefit from slow cooking to mellow their stronger bite; adding vinegar or lemon juice to the end of the cooking time tames them even more. Mustard greens can also be blanched and added to purees, sautés and soups.
Nutrition News: A handsome beet relative with its red stalks and leaf veins, Swiss chard provides magnesium and vitamins A, C and K, along with substances that fight oxidation and help regulate blood sugar.
Kitchen Tips: You can take some of the acid out of Swiss chard’s broad, crisp leaves by boiling them for three minutes and discarding the water. They can then be used as spinach, including as a filling in vegetarian lasagna, or added to egg dishes.
Nutrition News: Provides calcium along with vitamins A, C and K. Turnip greens also contain more cancer-fighting glucosinolate than most other crucifers.
Kitchen Tips: Turnip greens and pork is another classic Southern dish. Healthier options include steaming the greens for five minutes and sautéing with tofu and sweet potatoes or in extra virgin olive oil with plenty of garlic.