Over the last five or six years, dark leafy greens have taken a more prominent place in my family's diet. I have grown to the love the versatility, color, taste, and ease of cooking these vegetables. From a nutrition point of view, they're awesome - lots of fiber, vitamin C, folate, potassium, iron, beta carotene, calcium, omega 3s, magnesium, manganese, copper, and vitamin K.
Don't be put off by how good for you they are! Have fun shopping. Should I have swiss chard with pale yellow or bright orange stalks, or those giant collard leaves that look more like an antique fan than a vegetable, or sleek lacinato kale, or frilly Red Russian kale, or bold green spinach, or spicy mustard leaves or majestic deep green and magenta beet leaves. My advice - buy what looks fresh! Buy different types - they're easy to mix and match.
There are many ways to cook leafy greens, and I'll give some type-specific hints later. In general, they can be steamed, sauteed, stir-fried, blanched, roasted, cooked on their own or with many other vegetables in a mixed vegetable dish, added to soups and stews and curries, and, if young and fresh, eaten raw in salads. Baby spinach is a popular salad item, but baby Red Russian kale adds an amazing sweetness and crunch to a mixed green salad.
Here's a trick for washing leafy vegetables - don't! Instead, fill a sink or large bowl with cold water. Place the greens in the water to soak. The dirt will drift off the leaves and down to the bottom of the sink. After a few minutes, you can gently lift the leaves out of the water. If they're any stubborn spots you can rinse those. You don't have to dry the leaves - a little water on them will help with the cooking.
One of my favorite things to do for a quick weeknight dinner is a mixed vegetable saute. I don't have to worry about precise timing, and I can use up whatever I find in my fridge or on a quick trip to my garden. I slice up an onion or leek or some shallots, perhaps a clove or two of garlic, and then whatever else is around - a carrot, some kohlrabi, some zucchini, and then as much leafy green as I can get my hands on. What looks like a lot on the chopping board may not be too much in the pan! Spinach, beet greens, and chard shrink down a lot when cooked - kale and collards less so. If the greens have hard-ish stems (like chard or older kale) I separate the stems and chop them separately (see chard advice below). I saute the onions, then add the rest of the vegetables (including the chopped stems) except the greens, and saute gently until soft. Then I add the greens, toss them with the cooking oil or fat, add a little liquid, then let cook. The veggies can slowly cook happily until the rest of the dinner is ready, or can be turned off and re-heated just before serving. Long slow cooking turns the greens sweet and tasty.
Note: these recipes give detailed instructions for beginner cooks - if you know what you're doing, skip to the summary!
1 medium onion
1 garlic clove (optional)
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 large bunch (about 8 ounces) collards
1/2 cup stock
Large pot of boiling water
10-12 " frying or saute pan (stainless steel is best; no non-stick).
1. Slice the onion thinly.
2. Chop the garlic (trick; to peel the garlic, place it on its side on the chopping board, then press the flat side of a large knife on the garlic. The peel should easily slip away, and the crushed garlic will be easy to chop).
3. Wash collards (as above) and slice. (trick: I take a few collard leaves and line them up in the same direction, then roll them up like a loose cigar. Then I slice across the leaves at about 1/4" intervals, ending up with lovely collard ribbons). If the leaves are very large, trim away the thickest, toughest part of the stem and slice up the rest of the stem into thin pieces.
4. Blanch the collards for 3 minutes (see 'green beans' entree for detailed instructions - place the collards in rapidly boiling water for 3 minutes, drain and plunge immediately into cold water, then remove from the water and place spread out on paper towel or dishcloth until needed).
5. Place the olive oil into a 10"-12" frying pan. Heat the oil on medium heat, then turn down to medium low.
6. Add the onions, use a wooden spoon or metal spatula to toss them in the olive oil, and let cook gently for five minutes. Stir occasionally.
7. Add the garlic if using, and saute for another 2 minutes.
8. Add the greens all at once. Toss them in the oil (you can add a little more if they don't seem coated). Let cook gently for 3-4 minutes, stirring every once in a while.
9. Add the stock. Allow the mixture to get to a boil, then turn down to low and let cook for about 15 minutes. The collards will be sweet and tender and creamy.
Summary: Blanch the collards 3 minutes. Saute an onion until soft but not brown. Add the garlic. After a couple of minutes, add the blanched collards, and saute for a few minutes. Add the stock, and let simmer slowly for fifteen minutes.
I vary the fat I use depending on my mood. Olive oil, coconut oil, butter, chicken or goose fat or lard (animal fats from organic sources only, please!) all produce delicious results. I don't use polyunsaturated oils, as I believe they are not healthy and have no taste.
I vary the liquid according to my mood and what's around. Some white wine or dry sherry, a little cream or just plain water all work well.
You can use any leafy green. Kale and collards work best when blanched first, but the others (eg chard, spinach, beet greens) can go directly into the frying pan after the onion is soft.
SPECIAL LEAFY TIPS:
Kale tastes sweeter and is more tender when it's been through a frost. You can replicate that frost in your kitchen. Wash and chop the kale. Place it in a freezer bag, and put the raw kale in the freezer for ten minutes, then blanch it. This really works! (You can also keep the kale raw and frozen and ready to use at a later date).
To slice swiss chard: I take an individual leaf and fold it in half length-wise. Then I can cut the 'stem' part out in one piece, from the starting point in the leaf. I then end up with two pieces - a wedge-shaped stem, and a soft leaf with the center missing. Don't throw away the stem - I slice it into thin pieces then saute gently for quite a while before I add the chopped wet leaves.
Spinach doesn't need much water to cook, and you don't want to mushy. Simple spinach: Wash as above, leaving the leaves wet. Heat some oil in a frying pan. Add wet spinach all at once, with no extra water. Cover and turn down the heat. Make sure it's not sticking or burning - if so, add a few tablespoons of extra water - but the water from the washing should be enough. Let cook for a few minutes. Uncover if there's too much water, and let the water cook away. Add a tablespoon of butter or heavy cream right before serving, for an extra rich taste.