After the long, hard winter, Tompkins County has finally turned green again. And that means it’s time to enjoy fresh greens in our meals!
The variety of fresh greens available to us here is amazing. Local farms grow them from early spring to late fall, either out in the fields or in high tunnels or hoophouses (unheated greenhouses). We think of greens as a sign of spring, but there is actually a greater variety of greens available in the fall than in the spring.
What are greens? – Basically, any edible leaves are referred to as greens. Many of the most commonly eaten greens are members of the genus Brassica, the mustards—which also includes broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. These plants are also known as Crucifers for the cross shape made by their four-petaled flowers.
Kale, tat soi, arugula, collard greens, bok choy, and more are tasty Brassica greens. Local farms are experimenting with unusual Brassica varieties and hybrids such as Mizuna, Mizspoona, and Bekana.
Other types of greens include lettuces; escaroles and frisees (both members of the chicory family); chard (a member of the beet family); and of course spinach, a member of the Amaranth family.
Greens are often available in a mix called Asian braising greens, which contains very young plants of many different varieties, mostly Brassica.
How to cook greens – Greens are completely versatile: they can be the star of a meal, or they can play a supporting role. Lucy Garrison of Stick and Stone Farm has a simple rule of thumb for using unfamiliar greens. First, try them raw. If you don’t like them raw, then cook them just a bit and try them again. If you still don’t like the taste, cook them more!
Braising is one of the best ways to cook many greens. It sounds complicated, but it’s actually very simple and quick. Braising is searing in hot oil, followed by slow simmering in liquid. So just wash your greens, tear up any large pieces, and put them in a skillet where you’ve heated some oil or butter. Usually the liquid that the greens release is enough to keep them moist. If not, you can add some water or broth. Tender greens like spinach will be done in a minute or so; tougher greens like kale will take longer. Keep sampling and cook them to taste, adding salt, pepper, and your favorite seasonings. A splash of lemon juice or vinegar at the end is a tasty touch.
Of course, greens can be added to almost anything you’re cooking: soups, stews, stir-fries. A classic, nourishing vegetarian dish combines “a bean, a green, and a grain”. Just add your favorite spices and you have a complete meal containing protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals.
Greens to avoid – Most greens are amazingly healthy eating, high in vitamins and phytonutrients yet low in calories. So it’s tempting to think that any greens are good for you. But in fact, there are a couple that should be avoided. (And of course, any plant that is unknown to you should never be eaten!)
Most people know that while rhubarb stalks are edible, the leaves are not. They contain oxalic acid and other toxic compounds, and their ability to make people sick is well documented. Carrot greens, while beautiful, should probably also be avoided. There is controversy about whether they are harmful to humans, and hard evidence one way or the other is lacking. However, they do contain alkaloids and are related to some plants that are highly toxic on contact, such as the giant hogweed. With the incredible variety of healthy greens available to us, avoiding carrot and rhubarb greens isn’t exactly a hardship.