Let Them Eat Greens!

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 like 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 leafies 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. While 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 as 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. While it has a stronger flavor, I quite like the texture and look of dino kale! Purple (Red Russian) kale is also available, and it has a slight floral undertone. Kale works well raw in smoothies and salads, but also lightly cooked in different entrees.

There are other “spicy greens” like arugula and 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 also bursting with nutrition and flavor! I eat fresh parsley daily, adding it to smoothies or 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, as 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 and 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 you’re ready to use them. If not using right away, remove as much moisture as possible, then refrigerate. I keep lettuces and spinach in my salad spinner. For hardier greens like kale and collards, I lightly wrap in a clean tea towel and then pop in a Ziploc bag, leaving it open. This helps keep the leaves from drying out but also not getting wilted 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 like 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 you can use them whole for smoothies or sandwiches, or chop some more to use in salads or soups. I like to julienne leafies 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!

 

“Raw” Ranch Dressing

This dressing is creamy and rich, and it takes any green salad from ordinary to extraordinary! Also try massaging it into hardy greens like kale. To make it entirely raw, omit the Dijon mustard and replace the red wine vinegar with lemon juice or apple cider vinegar.

1/2 cup raw cashews

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 1/2 teaspoons red wine vinegar (gives more flavor—can use more lemon juice or apple cider vinegar for a raw version)

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil or other oil of choice (can substitute water)

1 tablespoon raw tahini

1/4 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped

2 teaspoons fresh chives, chopped (optional, and can use more onion powder)

1/8 teaspoon garlic powder

1/8 teaspoon onion powder

1/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard (omit for raw version)

1/2 teaspoon (scant) sea salt

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 teaspoon raw agave nectar (adjust to taste)

1/2 cup water or non-dairy milk (or more to thin as desired)

Using a standing blender or an immersion blender and deep cup or jar, puree all the ingredients until very smooth (it will take a couple of minutes). If you want to thin the dressing more, add water to your preferred consistency.

This dressing will thicken some after refrigeration. You can thin it out by stirring in a few teaspoons of water, or keep it thick and use it as a dip for raw veggies. Makes about 1 1/4 cups.

 

Spinach Herb Pistachio Pesto

Normally for me pesto is all about the basil. But fresh basil is abundant for only a brief period of the year. Still, it is available in modest amounts at grocery stores year-round. Here, I use a smaller amount of basil, along with parsley, to bring life to spinach via pesto. Pistachios offer sweetness to balance the more astringent spinach. While I’m usually loyal to my full-on basil pesto, this recipe competes for my affection!

1 cup raw, unsalted pistachios

2 tablespoons pine nuts (optional, can use more pistachios)

1 - 2 medium-large cloves garlic, quartered (see note)

1 1/2 - 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon sea salt (see note) freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 1/2 - 3 tablespoons water (see note)

3 1/2 cups (loosely packed) baby spinach leaves

3/4 - 1 cup (loosely packed) fresh basil leaves

1/4 cup (packed) flat-leaf parsley leaves

3/4 - 1 pound dry pasta of choice (see note)

extra olive oil, salt, pepper, and lemon wedges for serving (optional)

crushed pistachios for serving

In a food processor, combine the nuts, garlic, 1 1/2 tablespoons of the lemon juice, salt, pepper to taste, olive oil, 1 1/2 tablespoons of the water, and the spinach, basil, and parsley. Purée until fairly smooth: less for a chunkier consistency or longer for a smoother one. Add and blend in additional water if you need for the consistency you desire. At this point, you may refrigerate the pesto in a covered container until ready to use it.

If you are serving this immediately with pasta, set the pesto aside and cook the pasta according to the package directions. Just before draining the pasta, remove and reserve about 1/2 cup of its cooking water. Drain the pasta (don’t rinse it!) and toss with the pesto, using as much or as little pesto as you like. If the pasta is a little dry, add more pesto plus a tablespoon at a time of the reserved cooking water. Season to taste with additional salt, black pepper and fresh lemon juice, as desired. Serve garnished with a sprinkle of crushed pistachios. This pesto is also great to spread on pizza crusts, slather on crusty breads, dollop on soups, or mix with sandwich fillings!

 

Beans n’ Greens Soup

Forget chicken noodle soup! This is the kind of soup that will keep you glowing inside and out, with nutrient-rich kale and plenty o’ beans. Yep, this is proper good comforting soup that laughs in the face of all those “healing chicken soup” theories!

1 tablespoon olive oil or splash of water

1 1/2 cups onion, diced

2 1/2 - 3 cups red or Yukon gold potatoes, cut in chunks about

11/2 - 2 inches thick

1/2 cup celery, diced

1 cup carrots, diced (or 1 cup red pepper, chopped in small chunks, added later—see note)

4 - 5 medium-large cloves garlic, minced

1 1/2 teaspoons dried rosemary leaves

1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

1 teaspoon dried marjoram leaves or dried oregano leaves

1 1/2 teaspoons ground mustard

1 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (see note)

freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 cup brown (green) lentils, rinsed (see note)

2 cups vegetable stock

5 cups water

1 tablespoon red miso

1 1/2 tablespoons blackstrap molasses

2 dried bay leaves

1 can (14 oz) cannellini beans (or other white beans), drained and rinsed

6 - 7 cups (loosely packed) fresh kale leaves, roughly chopped or torn (roughly 1 smallish bunch of kale, can use curly kale or dinosaur kale. Keep fairly large pieces as they will wilt significantly)

In a large pot over medium heat, combine the oil or water, onion, potatoes, celery, carrot (if using), garlic, dried herbs and spices, salt, and pepper. Stir well, cover, and cook for six to eight minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the lentils, stir, and cover. Cook for another few minutes, then stir in the vegetable stock, water, miso, molasses, and bay leaves. Increase the heat to bring to a boil, then lower the heat to medium-low, cover, and cook for 30 to 40 minutes, until the lentils are very soft and fully cooked. (If using the chopped red pepper, add after first 25 to 30 minutes of cooking the lentils.) Turn off the heat, add the cannellini beans and kale, stir, cover, and let the kale wilt in the soup for about five minutes. Remove the bay leaves before serving. Add additional salt and pepper to taste, if desired. Serves five to eight.

Recipes reprinted from Let Them Eat Vegan by Dreena Burton. For more of Dreena’s recipes, visit plantpoweredkitchen.com.