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Once forgotten by cooks in the rush to go gourmet, common greens like kale, chard and collard greens are now back in vogue and on the menus of upscale restaurants. Their new popularity is an outgrowth of two changes on the American scene - greater interest in how foods affect our health, and new farming techniques that get more varieties to market with greater frequency.
According to Nora Pouillon, chef and owner of the celebrated Restaurant Nora in Washington, DC, "Greater seasonal availability and exotic new varieties have attracted the attention of gourmet food lovers." Russian kale, Australian Rainbow chard and cavolo nero, or black kale, are just some of the many new varieties now available.
Chef Michael Altenberg may be greens' biggest fan. He says he uses "tons" of perhaps a hundred different kinds of greens at his Italian restaurant, Campagnola, in Evanston, Illinois. Altenberg says that "they're coming into vogue as more and more health research is being done."
Greens are low in calories, high in fiber and low in fat, but they offer more than these basic benefits, as Altenberg is well aware, in part because a member of his family is a cancer survivor.
Powerful Health Protection
According to nutritionist Melanie Polk, R.D., Director of Nutrition Education at the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), "Over the last few years, our understanding of how greens protect our health has greatly expanded. We now know that they are powerful arsenals in the fight against cancer."
In addition to being rich in vitamins A and C, greens contain naturally occurring substances called phytochemicals, which are part of our front-line defense against cancer.
One family of phytochemicals with the tongue-twister name, isothiocyanates, contains some of the most effective cancer-prevention agents. Isothiocyanates are partially responsible for the pungency of some leafy greens. Also abundant in greens are indoles, thought to help protect against the risk of hormone-dependent breast cancer, and flavonoids, which fight against carcinogens.
Just one serving of leafy greens is estimated to contain over 100 different phytochemicals. Scientists don't yet understand exactly how they all work, but they do know that we can maximize their benefits by including a wide variety of these vegetables in our daily meals.
New Cooking Techniques
Explaining the dramatic changes in how greens are prepared today, Pouillon notes that years ago, greens were "cooked to death" until they turned an unappetizing color. Today, more delicate handling is the general rule.
Pouillon believes in simple, light-handed techniques - a brief blanching to tenderize, if necessary, followed by a quick steam, sauté or gentle braising. Altenberg uses a wide range of methods, from a simple, quick turn on his restaurant's wood-fired grill to sophisticated treatments, like Ligurian potbellied ravioli of farm greens with green walnut pesto.
Getting Started: Selecting and Storing Greens
The greater variety of greens in today's markets could be confusing for those only vaguely familiar with collard greens, kale and chard. A little guidance, however, can smooth the process of selection. For example, although part of the same family, kale and collard greens look quite different. Most varieties of kale have ragged or frilled leaves that range widely in color, from bluish or almost black to magenta, yellow and gray. Collard greens, which have large, cabbage-like leaves, are a muted, occasionally blue-tinged, green.
Chard, sometimes called Swiss chard in America, has long, flat, celery-like stalks with large, coarse leaves. Most varieties have medium to very dark green leaves and white stems, but some are far more colorful, ranging from pink and brilliant red to blue.
The taste of each type of greens also varies. Kale has a delicate, almost cabbage taste. Collard greens taste like a cross between cabbage and kale. Chard varieties vary in taste. Some have a rich, almost sweet flavor, and others have been described as "minerally" or earthy. Their "meaty" taste makes kale a perfect candidate for main entrees.
Greens should be young, crisp, free from blemishes and have a good color. The darker the color, the higher the nutritional value. Coarse, fibrous, discolored, wilted, browned or yellowed leaves should be avoided.
Leafy greens are highly perishable and should be used within a few days of purchase. Shoppers should also keep in mind that greens "cook down" considerably - one pound of fresh greens will result in 1 1/2 - 2 cups of cooked greens. About 1/2 cup of cooked greens per serving is usually recommended.
Most food professionals recommend storing greens unwashed, in the refrigerator, if they are not to be used immediately. They should be stored lightly wrapped in damp paper towels inside a plastic bag that has a few air holes (to allow the vegetables to "breathe"). The toweling should be checked periodically and re-dampened as needed to prevent it from drying out.
Greens must be washed carefully just prior to cooking, with particular attention to hidden crevices since soil and grit can stubbornly cling to the underside of leaves. They should be drained well and dried quickly because excess water promotes leaf decay.
Countless Ways to Cook Greens
Greens can be steamed, braised, sautéd, stir-fried, stewed or baked. One caution, however: It is important to use cooking pans that aren't made of aluminum, which causes greens to take on an unpleasant appearance and taste.
Greens work well in every kind of dish, from soups - both hot and chilled - and side dishes to main courses. They can be paired with a starchy vegetable like pasta or potatoes or, in the case of large leaves, wrapped around portions of fish or stuffed with meat fillings, like stuffed cabbage. Nora Pouillon says this last technique "is a nice way of using leftovers. It gives them a new look."
With mild-flavored greens like chard, Pouillon likes to cut them into small pieces and lightly steam or sauté them until barely tender. When cooked in stock, chard has an added advantage - it won't produce an off-putting grassy taste, like spinach will.
The ribs of chard can also be eaten, but should be cooked differently. Their more delicate taste, similar to celery, is set to better advantage when steamed or stir-fried.
"Collard greens," advises Pouillon, "need to be treated differently than chard or kale - they need longer cooking because the leaves are thicker." She first blanches them about 1 1/2 times longer than she does for kale, and then braises them. This slow cooking technique gives them a softer texture and brings out a milder, sweeter flavor.
Introducing Greens into Family Menus
Because she is as experienced a mother as she is a chef, Pouillon understands that some family members, especially young children, are not always receptive to new vegetables. She recommends starting with chard and slowly introducing greens in every-day dishes.
Pouillon recommends adding chard to mashed or sautéed potatoes as an introduction to the family menu. She first cuts raw greens into thin strips, steams or blanches them for one or two minutes, tosses them with a little olive oil and then mixes them into the potatoes.
Using greens in soups is another technique Pouillon recommends to ease greens into the family diet. "There is a classic Portuguese soup, a mixture of potatoes and kale," she suggests. "I think it's a great introduction to greens because mixing them with potatoes sort of tempers the flavor, makes it soft."
A Wide World of Dishes with Greens
Greens are popular ingredients in the dishes of many cuisines, from Latin America and Europe to Africa and Asia. Today, greens are being combined with every possible meat, game and fish, and even paired with foie gras, duck confit and toasted cheese.
Less extravagant dishes work just as well at providing a tasty introduction to greens, as the following easy recipes illustrate. The first is inspired by Nora Pouillon's advice that newcomers to greens should try chard first. The slightly exotic ambiance of the few seasonings in this dish is well matched to chard's distinctive taste.
Red Potatoes and Wilted Greens
Serves 4. Each serving contains 117 calories and 4 grams of fat.
Greens play a major role in Italian cooking, as exemplified by chef Michael Altenberg's culinary approach. The colorful ingredients of "Tri-Color Pasta" pay tribute to the national flag of Italy, while their hidden nutritional powers belie the sophisticated balance between mild and zesty flavors.
Serves 6 as a first course or 4 as a main course. Each main course serving contains 297 calories and 8 grams of fat.
Shanghai Green Rice
East Asian cuisines make great use of greens and other vegetables. This may be why people in this part of the world enjoy a comparatively low incidence of the types of cancers that afflict Americans. Asian cooking also offers interesting techniques and ingredients that are easily adapted or duplicated in American kitchens. "Shanghai Green Rice" is a fine first step in adopting an Eastern approach - and creating a new family favorite.
Makes 4 main course servings. Each contains 223 calories and 4 grams of fat.