With some notable ethnic exceptions like Asians, non-Italians are real Johnny-come-latelies when it comes to appreciating hearty greens like broccoli raab and dandelion. But I’ve enjoyed these greens—which I call “cooked” greens to distinguish them from “salad” greens—since I was a kid.
As soon as the snow cleared in Buffalo, New York, which sometimes wasn’t until Easter, my mother, Anna Gugino, was on her hands and knees, digging up dandelion on the front and back lawns. She used an old rusty knife with a broken wooden handle. It wasn’t exactly a weed cutter but looked more like a relic from an exhibit at the historical society featuring primitive tools from the Bronze Age. (Legendary greengrocer Joe Carcione says old women – I assume Italian – could be seen gathering dandelion along the fairways of golf courses.)
The dandelion was trimmed on newspapers spread out on the kitchen table and washed in several changes of water. Then it was boiled and dressed with oil and garlic, or put in omelets, a very popular meat substitute during Lent. And like Southerners with their “potlickker,” Mom encouraged us to drink the liquid in which the dandelion was cooked.
For years I felt a little weird about some of the foods our family ate, like dandelions. But today, as with so many other foods, cooked greens are a big deal. Sometimes, too big. Enough already with the kale variations. What’s next, kale creme brulee?
Cooking greens are not easily put under one roof. The biggest grouping is the brassica or cabbage family which includes kale, collards, broccoli raab and mustard greens. Brassicas are native to Europe and Western Asia. Kale and the closely related collard greens probably originated somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean at least 2,000 years ago though some believe collards may have originated in Asia where they still grow wild. Kale also grows wild, but in northern Europe and England. Both kale and collards resemble the original cabbage, which did not form a head.
Ancient Greeks and Romans farmed kale and the Romans may well have introduced kale to the French when Romans controlled what was then Gaul. The French eventually introduced kale to the British. The English also ate collards but how collards found their way to England is unclear. However, the English did give collards their name. It’s a bastardization of coleworts an old English word for the cabbage family. Collards and kale were mainstays of the American South where they were usually cooked with copious amounts of smoked or salted pork.
Mustard greens were also popular as a part of the “soul food” repertoire of Southern cuisine sometimes combined with turnip greens. Mustard greens may have origins in India, though reference was made to them in ancient Rome. Turnip greens are thought to have originated in Eastern Europe, perhaps Russia. Since turnips came to the New World with Jacques Cartier in 1541, so did their green tops.
Dandelion gets its name from the French dent de lion or lion’s tooth, because of the saw-toothed edges of dandelion leaves. Dandelions were looked forward to by early settlers because they were usually the first greens of spring and because they were thought to have numerous curative powers for such maladies as rheumatism.
Broccoli raab (also called broccoli rabe, broccoli di rape and rapini): Sold in tight bunches looking like a cousin of more traditional broccoli but with smaller stalks and florets. Pleasantly bitter, peppery flavor.
Chard or Swiss chard: Has a tart quality that sets it apart from other greens. Comes in red and green varieties. The green has white veins running through the leaves and a white or creamy white stem. Red chard has a red stalk that is often thinner than the stalk on green chard and red veins which may run through green or red leaves. Red chard is sometimes called Rhubarb Chard which is one of the several varieties of chard.
Collard Greens: White veined, wide green leaves whose leathery texture (and often size) can be reminiscent of elephant ears. Large bunches require long cooking, so look for ones with leaves as small as possible and stems that are not too thick. More of a cabbage-like flavor than other greens.
Dandelion Greens: The local wild and field grown versions of this pleasantly biting green have smaller, more severely saw-toothed leaves than the mass-produced, nationally distributed varieties. Larger dandelion greens can be tough and quite bitter, needing more cooking (up to 10 minutes) than the young varieties which should be cooked quickly (as little as 3 minutes).
Kale: This sturdy green loves the cold and is often displayed outdoors because of tolerance to cold weather. There are two commercial types. Scotch kale has curly-edged leaves with color that can range from spruce green to bluish or grayish green color, depending on the variety. Smooth-leafed kale has leaves with very little curl. When small and tender kale can be used in salad mixes.
Mustard Greens: Most common variety is light, almost lime green with softer and more delicately ruffled leaves than kale. Some varieties have deep red or maroon leaves with green highlights. As the name implies it has a tangy, mustard-like flavor. Smaller leaf varieties such as baby red mustard greens are often found in salad mixes now common in supermarkets and specialty stores.
Turnip Greens: While most are attached to turnips as an afterthought, some varieties of turnips are grown especially for their thin, dark greens. As with mustard greens, their sharp flavor (as well as their coarse texture) mellows with cooking. Can be cooked like mustard greens or collards or added in strips to stir frys and soups.
Thanks to companies like D’Arrigo Brothers, broccoli raab, which was previously available from August through March, has become a year round vegetable. Chard is available April through November with most supplies coming June through October. Collards are available all year with peaks December through April and shorter supplies from June through August.
Dandelions are available virtually year round (much of it grown in hot houses), though supplies dwindle from December through February. The best are local wild and field-grown varieties which peak in April and May. Kale is available year round but supplies are best from December through February. Mustard greens are most abundant from December though April and less available in July and August. Turnip greens are generally available October through March.
SELECTION, HANDLING & STORAGE:
With all greens, choose those that have good, green color with leaves that show no or little yellowing, withering or blemishes, and with stems that look freshly cut and are not thick, dried out, browned or split. Often greens are bunched so that the inner parts of the bunch are subject to decay and slime.
For broccoli raab, look for bunches with few flowers on top and even, deep green color. Turnip greens should have very firm leaves which have been kept moist. Kale leaves should be frilly and bright (though a gray-green cast is fine). Collards are often sold too large and tough. Seek out bunches with smaller leaves and thinner stems. Leaves should be free of insect holes.
Locally grown dandelion is light and delicate with thin stems and pronounced saw-toothed leaves. It is often sold with roots attached. Other varieties can be tough so be careful to select more tender bunches. Mustard greens should be bright, though color may range from lighter to darker green. Leaves are delicate and frilly. Be wary of evidence of slime. Swiss chard should be firm with good color. Avoid bunches with leaves and stalks that are too large and with leaves that are decaying.
Once home, discard any bruised or yellow leaves and remove any bands or ties that hold bunches together. Wash greens in plenty of cool water, drain and store loosely in plastic bags (preferably perforated) gently wrapped in paper towels. Keep moist (but not wet or they will rot) and cool (as low as 32 degrees) in the lower part of the refrigerator. Local dandelions, beet and turnip greens should be used within 2 days. Other greens will last up to 4 days.
Most greens are very high in vitamin A with dandelion greens leading the pack at a whopping 14,000 IU for 31/2 raw ounces, almost three times the RDA for vitamin A. Kale is next with about twice the RDA for vitamin A followed closely by collards, mustard greens, chard and turnip greens.
Greens have fair amounts of vitamin C. Kale is way ahead of the pack with 120 mg, twice the RDA. Turnip greens have 100% of the RDA, collards about 75%, and dandelion and chard about 50%. In terms of fiber, kale leads again with 6.6 grams of dietary fiber, followed by turnip greens and dandelion. Dandelion and turnip greens each have just under 20% of the RDA for calcium, collards about 15% and kale 13%. In iron dandelion leads with 3.1 mg, about 17 % of the RDA. Kale is the best source of potassium followed by dandelion. Broccoli raab is a good source of vitamins A, C and potassium.
All this for between 20 calories (turnip greens) and 53 calories (kale) in a 31/2-ounce serving. As if this weren’t enough, dark, leafy greens, particularly those in the cruciferous or cabbage family (kale, collards, turnip greens, broccoli raab) have been shown to have enormous cancer-fighting potential. Kale (and to a lesser extent collards) is particularly high in lutein, an antioxidant that can help lower blood cholesterol and blood pressure, reduce the inflammation of arthritis, increase fertility and minimize the formation of cataracts.
Yield will vary depending on the green. However, it’s best to remember that all will shrink when cooked, sometimes to 1/8 of their original volume. As a rule of thumb, figure about 1/2 pound of raw, untrimmed greens per person if the greens are to be used as a side vegetable. That amount can be reduced if the greens are a component in a soup, stew or pasta.
If you want to gather your own dandelion greens, just like Mom, make sure the area hasn’t been sprayed with pesticides and the dandelions haven’t yet flowered.
Clean greens in lots of cool water. Local dandelions with roots attached are particularly gritty and will need to be washed in two changes of water. Greens can be drained in a colander, spun dry in a salad spinner or cooked with their clinging water as you would with spinach. I often roll stacked, uncleaned leaves and cut them crosswise into ribbons before cleaning.
These ribbons can then be cooked quite easily by boiling, steaming or braising. I usually cook the stems unless they are very thick. Just cut them up into small pieces. Steaming and quick boiling help to minimize nutrient loss. But nutrients can also be retained by saving the cooking liquid for soups, broths or as part of the dish, soaked up by crusty bread.
All of theses greens stand up to assertive seasonings. Broccoli raab goes well in Italian preparations such as pasta dishes, beans, potatoes or polenta with garlic, olive oil, olives, balsamic vinegar, anchovies and pork meats such as sausage and pancetta.
Collards are among the sturdiest of greens. Their common companions are smoked or salted pork. To lower fat and sodium, use smoked pork to flavor cooking broth (smoked turkey can also be used) and then discard or use the meat minimally. Or braise in homemade, defatted chicken stock with garlic and (or) chiles.
Kale is also very hearty but more versatile than collards. Stir-fry or braise in a wok with garlic and oil or a smidgen of cured pork. Excellent as a steamed green vegetable. Great with pasta on its own or as a substitute for broccoli raab. When small and tender it can be used in salads as an accent to other greens. It also makes a superb garnish or liner for salad bowls or trays because it won’t wilt like other greens. (Good salad bars have known this for some time.)
The strong mustard bite in mustard greens will dissipate somewhat with longer cooking. So too will the sharp flavor (as well as the coarse texture) of turnip greens. Mustard greens go nicely with lentils in soups, stews or salads. You can also give them an Asian twist with ginger, garlic and sesame or peanut oil.
Chard can be cooked quickly when young or gently braised if older and larger. Stems – which can be fibrous and trimmed like celery if so – are often cooked separately from leaves. Stems and leaves are often recombined (very popular with the French) in gratins. Leaves can be stuffed like cabbage leaves and stems added to soups or stews.
Though dandelion has a strong flavor, it has a rather delicate texture and tends to be over cooked. Boiling five minutes or less is usually enough. Goes marvelously with garlic, olive oil and freshly ground black pepper. Also very good tossed with bacon fat (pancetta if you prefer) and a little red wine vinegar.
COLLARDS WITH SMOKED PORK
This is normally a high fat dish made even worse by cooking the greens to death. Here, however, the stock is flavored judiciously with pork and the broth consumed along with the greens.
- 2 smoked ham hocks, about 11/4 to 11/2 pounds
- 1 quart defatted chicken stock
- 1 quart water
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 small to medium onion, chopped
- 2 teaspoons corn or peanut oil
- 2 small bunches collard greens, about 1 1/2 pounds total
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Hot pepper flakes or sauce to taste
1) Put hocks, stock and water in a large saucepan or pot, bring to a boil, cover and gently simmer 1 hour. Remove hocks and set aside. Chill or freeze liquid until any fat rises to the top and can be skimmed off.
2) Trim about 1/2 inch from the bottoms of the collards. Cut crosswise into strips, about 3/8 wide at the bottom and up to 1-inch wide toward the top. Wash thoroughly in a large tub of cool water. Drain.
3) In a large sauce pan or small stock pot, sauté onion and garlic in oil until soft. Add collards and stock and bring to a boil. Simmer, uncovered about 25 minutes or until thickest stem pieces are tender. Season with salt and pepper and hot pepper to taste.
4) Meanwhile, remove all the fat and skin from the hocks and dice about 1/2 cup of the lean meat. Remove collards with a skimmer to 4 shallow bowls or soup plates. Add 1/2 cup of broth to each plate and sprinkle on diced pork. Make sure good country bread is on hand for dunking. Serves 4.
Sam’s Cooking Tip: You can make this dish somewhat Mediterranean by using the ends of a prosciutto instead of ham hocks. Delis will sometimes sell these ends at a lower price than the center portion of the prosciutto.
POTATO AND KALE SOUP
This is a lower fat version of a well-known Portuguese dish.
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 4 ounces turkey kielbasa
- 1 small onion chopped
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 pound small red potatoes, quartered
- 6 cups defatted chicken stock
- 1/2 bunch kale, about 1/2 pound
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Hot pepper sauce to taste
1)Slice sausage thinly, then halve each slice. Put oil in a Dutch oven or similar pot over medium heat. Add sausage. When the meat is nicely browned and slightly crisped, remove with slotted spoon to dish lined with paper towels.
2)Add the onions and garlic to the pot. Cook until onions wilt. Add potatoes and cook a few minutes, stirring. Add stock and bring to a boil. Simmer, covered, 20 minutes or until potatoes are soft. Mash coarsely in the pot with a potato masher or large fork.
3)Meanwhile, roll kale and cut, crosswise into thin strips. Put in a colander and rinse thoroughly. Add to pot and stir well. Add salt and pepper. Cook 15 minutes or more, depending on how tough the kale is.
4) When kale is just tender, add sausage and hot pepper sauce to taste and cook 5 minutes more. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serves 4 to 6.
DANDELIONS WITH GARLIC AND OLIVE OIL
The best dandelion greens are local varieties. They don’t last long so don’t dally before you enjoy them.
- 1 pound dandelion greens
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 large cloves garlic, chopped
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1) Trim off the roots and the very bottoms of any tough stems. Remove any leaves that are bruised or yellowed. Plunge leaves into a sink of cool water. Swish around and drain on a colander. Repeat process.
2) Bring a 4 to 5 quart pot of water and a tablespoon of salt to a boil. Add the dandelions and cook 5 minutes. Remove with a skimmer (if you want to save the cooking liquid) or drain in a colander. Gently squeeze out any excess moisture.
3)In the same pot, heat oil and add garlic over medium heat. When the garlic is just turning golden, add the dandelion. Toss well coating with oil and garlic. Add salt and pepper and toss again. Serves 3 to 4.
MUSTARD GREENS WITH LENTILS
A welcome addition to any buffet table as well as a terrific vegetarian entree.
- 1 bunch mustard greens, about 1 pound
- Kosher salt
- 1 bay leaf
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed
- 2 cups lentils
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 2 tablespoons minced shallots
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 3 ounces crumbled low-fat goat cheese
1) Cut off the bottom 1/2 inch of the mustard greens. Then, with the bunch on its side, cut crosswise into strips, no more than 1/2-inch wide at the bottom and about 1-inch wide at the leafy top. Wash in a tub of cool water. Drain.
2) In a 4-quart pot, bring 2 quarts of water and 2 teaspoons of salt to a boil. Add mustard greens, cover and allow to return to a boil as quickly as possible. Cook 7 minutes total, stirring once or twice to cook evenly. With a skimmer, remove greens to a colander to drain, saving the cooking water. Run cool water over greens to retain color.
3) Add bay leaf, garlic, 1 teaspoon salt and lentils to mustard green broth. Bring to a boil and lower heat to simmer. Cook 20 to 25 minutes or until just tender. Drain, removing garlic and bay leaf.
4) Meanwhile, gently squeeze out some of the moisture from the mustard greens. Put in a mixing bowl. In a small bowl, mix olive oil, vinegar, shallots, 1 teaspoon salt and the black pepper.
5) Add cooked lentils to the mustard greens. Pour dressing over and toss. Sprinkle with goat cheese. Serve warm. Serves 8.
Sam’s Cooking Tip: Coach Farms in New York makes a marvelous low-fat goat cheese that has only 2.5 grams of fat per ounce. If you can’t find such a cheese where you live, try a farmer’s cheese or regular goat cheese that is as low in fat as possible.
SWISS CHARD AND WHITE BEAN SALAD
- 2 bunches Swiss chard, about 11/2 pounds
- 2 15-ounce cans cannellini or great northern beans, rinsed and drained
- 3 tablespoons lemon juice
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 clove garlic, finely minced
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1 teaspoon herbs de Provence
1)Separate chard stems from leaves. Stack and roll leaves, cigar style, into 1/2-inch strips. Cut stems crosswise into 3/8-inch wide crescents. Wash in lots of cool water. Drain.
2)Put stems in a steamer basket over 1/2-inch of boiling water in a large saucepan. Cover and cook 5 minutes. Add leaves and cook 5 minutes more. Drain and gently squeeze out any excess moisture from the leaves.
3)Put chard in a bowl with beans. Combine remaining ingredients in a small bowl and pour over chard and beans. Toss and cover with plastic wrap 1 hour before serving. Serves 6.
SWISS CHARD AND GRILLED POLENTA
This makes a satisfying lunch dish or a hearty first course for dinner.
- 11/4 cups cornmeal
- 3 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1 quart skim milk
- Butter flavored cooking spray
- bunch Swiss chard, about 1 pound
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 6 ounces wild or domestic mushrooms, sliced
- 3/4 cup dry red wine
- 1 28-ounce can plum tomatoes, drained and chopped
- 1/4 cup chopped parsley
- 11/2 tablespoons fresh sage or 2 teaspoons dried
- 3/4 cup grated Parmesan
1)Prepare polenta by combining cornmeal, 2 teaspoons salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper and milk in a microwave-safe, 2-quart casserole. Cook at full power, uncovered for 12 minutes, stirring once. Let stand 3 minutes. Spray an 8×8-inch baking pan with butter flavor spray and pour polenta into it, spreading out evenly. Put in the refrigerator to cool. When completely cooled, cut into 6 equal pieces.
2)Meanwhile, separate chard stems from leaves. Stack and roll leaves, cigar style, into 1/2-inch strips. Cut stems crosswise into 3/8-inch wide crescents. Wash in lots of cool water. Drain.
3)Put oil in a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Add onion and mushrooms and cook, stirring until onions and mushrooms begin to soften. Add garlic, cook few minutes more, then add wine, tomatoes and paste. Bring to a boil, add chard and season well with remaining salt and pepper. Reduce heat and simmer 25 minutes. Add parsley and sage during the last five minutes. Preheat broiler.
4)Spray a small baking sheet with butter-flavor spray. Distribute polenta pieces evenly and spray the tops. Broil about 5 minutes on each side or until nicely browned. To serve, put a piece of polenta on each of 6 plates (preferably soup plates), top with chard and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of Parmesan. Serves 6.
Sam’s Cooking Tip: Polenta, soft or firm, is so much easier when microwaved, but if you’re one of the few who doesn’t have a microwave oven, you can make polenta on top of the stove by adding the cornmeal in a stream to a saucepan of boiling salted water or milk. Stir with a wooden spoon until it comes away from the sides of the pan, about 20 minutes.