Eat your greens

Highly valued for their nutrients, green, leafy vegetables are delicious and easy to prepare.

By FAYE LEVY
October 26, 2011 16:15
spinach salad with walnut peaches and goat cheese

spinach salad with walnut peaches and goat cheese 311. (photo credit: gourmetkoshercooking.com)

Leafy greens are so highly valued for their nutrients that nutritionists at the World’s Healthiest Foods website recommend eating them once or twice a week. But as Aliza Green points out in her book Starting with Ingredients, spinach and its cousins have an image problem. “Many people find spinach mundane, at best, and hardly a vegetable of romance,” writes Green. “In spite of, or perhaps because of, the fact that Popeye ate spinach to make him strong, spinach is still a vegetable famously despised by children.”

In the Middle East, however, spinach is treasured. Green noted that the Persians cultivated spinach as early as the fourth century CE, and “the Arabs... showed their high regard for this mild-mannered green by designating it ’the prince of vegetables.’”

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“Spinach is one of the favorite vegetables of the Mediterranean,” writes Clifford Wright, author of Mediterranean Vegetables. Spinach is popular in North Africa, for example, in a hot and spicy sauce with garlic, eggs, olive oil, tomato paste, red chili pepper and cumin. “In Andalusia (Spain), you could have your spinach in the style of Cordoba, made with garlic, onion, paprika, olive oil, vinegar and cinnamon.... In Almeria (also in Spain), cooks... make an unforgettable pureed soup of spinach, potatoes, rice and salt cod. In Anatolia (Turkey)...spinach is fried with olive oil and onions.... In the Levant... spinach is cooked with bulgur pilaf.”

Chard, also called Swiss chard, another easy-to-find leafy vegetable in our markets, is loved by Mediterranean cooks. Usually chefs separate the leaves from the stems and use them in different preparations. “Typically, in the Mediterranean, the stems are used in soups and the leaves are eaten as cooked greens or used for stuffing,” writes Wright.

In Lebanon and Syria, people stuff chard leaves like grape leaves, while in North Africa chard is used in ragouts because it can cook for a long time without disintegrating.

When cooking greens, I often use the “boil, rinse, squeeze method” that I learned at cooking school in Paris. You boil the well washed greens briefly in boiling salted water in an uncovered pot for a few minutes until they are just tender, rinse them immediately with cold water and squeeze out the excess liquid so the greens are quite dry.

This technique keeps the leaves bright green with a texture that is not mushy. It works well not only for mild-flavored greens like spinach and chard but for most other leafy vegetables as well, including wild greens and Chinese cabbage. If you find radishes, kohlrabi, turnips or beets with their leafy tops, you can cook their greens the same way. Tougher greens with stronger flavors like kale and collard greens, which you can occasionally find through specialty growers, take longer to cook than spinach. When cooking them, taste them every few minutes until you like their texture. Sorrel and meloukhia have different characteristics, and each has special methods for preparing it. So does Belgian endive, although it can be cooked like spinach.

Some distinguish between salad greens and cooking greens, but this is not a rigid division. Greens like arugula (rocket) and dandelion greens are used raw when young and cooked when they are mature.

Mark Bittman, author of How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, recommends steaming spinach and chard because this technique is fast, efficient and preserves much of the vegetable’s vitamin content. If you don’t have a steamer, you can put the vegetables in a fold-up basket, a colander or a bowl and set it in a pot with a cover. You add about 2.5 cm (an inch) of boiling water to the pot, add the basket of vegetables, cover and cook them over steadily bubbling water. Checking often is important so the vegetables don’t overcook.

A technique that is good for small amounts of spinach is cooking it in a covered pot with only the water adhering to its leaves after you have rinsed them.

After the cooked greens are drained, they can be sprinkled with vinaigrette or heated with butter or oil and seasonings such as garlic, hot peppers or coriander. Baking them in cheese sauce as a gratin is another favorite way to use them.

To make a salad from any kind of cooked greens or from a mixture, Bittman recommends preparing them the simplest way possible – in the Greek style. You cook the washed, trimmed greens until they are tender, drain them, rinse them with cold water, squeeze them dry and chop them. Before serving, you toss them with extra virgin olive oil, salt and freshly ground black pepper, and accompany them with lemon halves.

An even easier way to cook tender greens is to add them directly to a soup, stew or sauce. Alain Braux, author of How to Lower Your Cholesterol with French Gourmet Food, cooks sliced baby spinach briefly in his lentil soup flavored with onions sauteed in olive oil, garlic, tomatoes and dried oregano.

Instead of cooking greens by the moist heat methods of steaming or boiling, some cooks, like Domenica Marchetti, author of Rustic Italian, saute their greens. To make kale with chickpeas, she cooks thin slices of garlic in olive oil, adds the shredded kale and sautes it, and then covers it and lets it wilt. The dish is finished with chickpeas and chopped hot peppers.

Marchetti bakes her spinach pizza with a topping of sauteed spinach layered over garlicky tomato sauce along with fresh mozzarella cheese, red onion slices and halved black olives.

In Europe and North America, the usual style is to cook spinach quickly so it is just wilted, but this is a matter of taste. Bittman notes that you can cook it longer for extra tenderness and adds, “long- and slow-cooked spinach in butter is dreamy.”

BASICS:

Choosing greens:
Spinach, chard and other greens should have deep green leaves without blemishes or yellowing leaves.

Storing greens: Greens can be kept in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for about three days. I find they keep best if I leave the bag open at one end or use a perforated bag. Some prefer to keep them in the refrigerator’s crisper drawer.

Washing greens: Don’t simply rinse greens in a colander; sand or bits of mud hiding between the leaves might not be rinsed off. Instead, put the leaves in a large bowl of cold water. Lift the leaves from the water and put them in a colander. If the water in the bowl is sandy, replace it with new water and rinse the greens again. Repeat until the water is clean.

SPINACH WITH PINE NUTS
Makes 2 or 3 servings

A favorite in Italy, this easy dish often includes raisins or currants in addition to the pine nuts. For this dish, the leaves are not chopped.

✔ 700 gr. fresh spinach (weight with stems) or 300 to 400 gr. packaged spinach leaves (6 to 8 cups)
✔ 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil or olive oil
✔ Salt and freshly ground pepper
✔ 1 Tbsp. dark raisins (optional)
✔ 1 to 11⁄2 Tbsp. pine nuts Rinse spinach well; discard large stems.

Add spinach to a saute pan with the water clinging to its leaves. Cover and cook over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Uncover and cook, stirring often, 1 or 2 minutes or until wilted. Drain in a colander, rinse with cold water and drain well. Squeeze gently to remove excess water.

Heat oil in same pan over medium heat. Add spinach, salt, pepper, raisins and pine nuts. Stir for 2 or 3 minutes over medium heat and serve.

SIMPLE BUTTERED SPINACH
Makes 4 servings

This is a tasty, quick and easy way to prepare spinach and illustrates the “boil, rinse, squeeze” cooking method. Instead of butter, you can use extra virgin olive oil. If you like, cook 1 or 2 minced garlic cloves in the butter or olive oil for a few seconds before adding the spinach.

✔ 900 gr. fresh spinach, large stems discarded, leaves rinsed thoroughly
✔ Salt and freshly ground pepper
✔ 2 Tbsp. butter Add spinach to a large saucepan of enough boiling salted water to cover the leaves.

Boil uncovered over high heat for 3 minutes or until spinach is wilted and just tender. Drain in a colander, rinse with cold water and drain well.

Squeeze spinach by handfuls to remove as much liquid as possible. Chop spinach coarsely with a knife.

Melt butter in a saucepan or skillet over medium heat. Add spinach and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Taste for salt, and season with pepper. Serve hot.

Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning book Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.


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