The Green Guide

How to buy, prepare, store, and cook with leafy greens
By Dreena Burton

I understand how intimidating bunches of kale, chard, and collards can look on those grocery shelves. The only lettuce I ate growing up was some iceberg drowned in Thousand Island.

I also was daunted at first by buying, cleaning, prepping, eating, and cooking greens. But now I love them: I buy heaps of kale and collards every week, and I grow chard and kale in my garden during the summer. So I’m here to tell you—it’s doable.

Leafy greens are packed with vitamins; minerals such as iron and calcium; antioxidants; fiber; phytonutrients; and chlorophyll. Plus they are a source of omega-3 fatty acids, have anti-inflammatory properties, and help the body detoxify!

A Guide to Greens

When buying greens, make sure they are very fresh. Look for vibrant, dark green leaves that are crisp and full, not wilted or yellowish. Go organic when possible; nonorganic spinach, kale, and collards are high in pesticides. Certain vegetables are worth buying organic, and greens are in that class.

In general, lettuces—romaine, red leaf, green leaf, butter, and so on—are considered milder and sweeter tasting. Spinach is more bitter than lettuces with what some might describe as a mineral flavor. Swiss chard (all colors) and beet greens taste a little more “assertive” with a slight salty undertone. Although some like to eat them raw, you may prefer to cook them very lightly to balance that salty flavor and slightly chewy texture.

Collards and kale have a stronger cabbage flavor because they are part of the cruciferous family, but they also have more absorbable iron and calcium than chard, spinach, and beet greens. They are excellent greens to include in your plant-powered diet.

There are quite a few varieties of kale with different taste profiles. Curly (green) kale is most common: Some think it has the mildest, most easily accepted flavor. Then there is lacinato (dinosaur or black) kale. Although it has a stronger flavor, I enjoy the texture and look of dino kale. Purple (Red Russian) kale is another option, and it has a slight floral undertone. Kale works well raw in smoothies and salad, but also lightly cooked in different entrees.

There are “spicy greens” such as arugula, mustard, and dandelion greens, which I think of as more aggressive than assertive. Their flavors are strong and peppery with some heat or bite, so they aren’t always accepted by younger eaters—or adults.

Finally, we have the fresh leafy-green herbs, which are often forgotten when discussing leafy greens. Fresh parsley (flat-leaf or curly-leaf), cilantro, and basil are all bursting with nutrition and flavor! I eat fresh parsley daily, adding it to smoothies, wraps, or salads: I’ve come to love it, and it’s one of the most nutritious greens. Find that parsley love!

Selecting and Buying Greens

It is common in greens for younger, more tender leaves to be sweeter than more mature, robust leaves. I prefer to use mostly spinach, chard, collards, and kale, because they are best accepted by my whole family. But if you like those peppery greens, by all means rotate them in.

Kale and collards are hardier greens, so I find that they are often fresher in the store and refrigerate better. But some days the chard is the freshest at the store—or the spinach—so shop with freshness in mind. After buying your greens, keep them refrigerated in a plastic bag (unless already packaged). If they aren’t in a plastic bag, they will dehydrate quickly and become limp.

Preparing and Storing Greens

When you are ready to use your greens, give them a good wash. Get them submerged in a sink full of cool water (unless you’ve bought triple-washed spinach, which just needs a quick rinse and whirl in the salad spinner). Separate the leaves and agitate with your hands to remove any soil, debris, and any little buggers. (Kale especially can house little critters, so get a good wash through those leaves.)

Then shake off the water and transfer the greens to a salad spinner. (You can use other methods to wick away the water, but I find a salad spinner most effective.) Spin until mostly dry, then they’re ready to use. If not using the greens right away, remove as much moisture as possible, then refrigerate. I keep lettuces and spinach in my salad spinner. For hardier greens such as kale and collards, I lightly wrap them in a clean tea towel and pop them in a Ziploc bag, leaving it open. This helps prevent the leaves from drying out or wilting from excess moisture.

If you want to freeze greens like kale and collards for smoothies, you can do so (I prefer them fresh, but it’s up to you). Remove the leaves from the stems (as described coming up), tear in pieces, and store in Ziploc bags to freeze.

For sturdy greens with tough stalks such as kale and collards, you will want to remove the leaves from the fibrous stalk. You may also want to remove some of the lower portions of the stalks from chard and larger spinach leaves (not from baby spinach), where it becomes thicker and more fibrous.

You can do this by “stripping” the leaves. Hold the base of the leaf at the stalk in one hand. Then use your other hand to run your fingers from the base of the stalk to the tip to strip off the leafy portion. You can then discard the stalks, or use them in stock bases if you make homemade vegetable stock. Now that you have the leafy portion separated you can use the leaves whole for smoothies or sandwiches, or chop some to use in salads or soups. I like to julienne leaves for salads, and roughly chop them for soups or sautés. You’ll get the feel for it once you get going, based on how you want to use the greens, how large the leaves are, how tender, how bitter, and so on.

Keep Trying

I know it took a little time for me to get used to working with greens and eating them daily. If you’re frustrated, keep at it and try another technique or another recipe. As I always say about eating new healthy foods … keep on keeping on. You will get the leafy-green-vibe sooner or later!