How to Cook Greens

Dark leafy greens are one of my diet mainstays. The darker, the better. They’re packed with nutrients, including vitamins A, C and K. They’re high in fiber. They provide a nice dose of calcium and iron. They keep well in the fridge. They’re delicious. And they can be your dinner in under 20 minutes…

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This is a basic technique that I’ve used with collard greens, kale, mustard greens, spinach, dandelion greens, chard, radish greens, turnip greens, broccoli rabe, beet greens, snow pea leaves and arugula. You should riff on it as you see fit based on your tastes and whatever ingredients you have on hand.

  1. Heat some fat in a pan. You don’t need much–a tablespoon or so for a whole mess of greens. You can use olive oil, vegetable oil or something from the pork family, preferably smoked. For the greens picture above, I used an ounce of very lean slab bacon, which I rendered with a couple of teaspoons of olive oil.
  2. Add aromatics. Now you want to flavor your oil with whatever aromatics you have on hand–onions, garlic, ginger, shallots, etc. I am partial to red onion and thinly sliced garlic. Here I used some garlic scapes. I also like to add a little hot dried pepper at this stage.
  3. Add greens. Make sure to rinse them well, as they tend to be gritty. But don’t bother to dry them; the water left on the leaves will help to steam them in the pan. You may want to slice them. If the stems are particularly tough, remove them or add them to the pan first so that they get a head start on cooking. Greens need more or less time to cook depending on their type, the time of year, how mature they are, how cooked you want them, etc. I am partial to greens that still require some serious chewing. Traditional Southern greens are cooked until they are silky and falling apart. If you want them more cooked, you can always add more liquid (water or chicken broth are nice) and even lid the pan.
  4. Finish with salt, pepper and a little acid. Lemon juice, tomatoes, apple cider vinegar and red wine vinegar all add a nice counterpoint to the lush mouthfeel of cooked greens. For the kale above, I used white wine vinegar and regular apple cider, which added a little sweetness to what were some very bitter greens. (A pinch of sugar would also do the trick.) You can also add some more heat and complexity at this point by deploying some hot sauce. You can cook for a bit longer to reduce the liquid if you like, but don’t cook it all away. Pot liquor is delicious!
  5. Make it a meal. Sometimes the greens alone are enough for dinner, particularly if I’ve used andouille or turkey sausage back in Step 1. Sometimes I add a fried egg. Sometimes I serve these up in corn tortillas with feta, salsa and avocado. Sometimes I use the greens as a sauce for whole wheat pasta. I ate this purple kale with some ricotta and a slightly sweet, buttery Vouvray.

Whore’s Radishes

Spending the better part of a day preparing a lavish dinner for friends is a meditative and restorative activity for me. But at 8:30 on a Tuesday night, I just want to get something tasty and nutritious into my stomach as quickly as possible.

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I opened the fridge to discover that the greens atop these radishes were beginning to wilt. If you haven’t caught on by now, I am a bit obsessed with dark leafy greens. Last summer, unable to bear the thought of throwing out such a bounty of greenery (and after having Googled to ensure that they were not poisonous), I decided to try eating the radish greens. They’ve got a slightly rough texture and a bitter, peppery flavor similar to the radish itself, but much more subtle. That is to say, they are delicious.

Tonight I prepared the radishes and radish greens alla puttanesca, which translates as “whore’s style.” There are a number of variations on this, but they all include a variety of savory ingredients–including tomatoes, garlic, onions, chiles, anchovies, capers and olives. Note that these are ingredients that keep well in the pantry or fridge, ready to deliver a burst of flavor whenever you need it.

For this dish, I added a couple of anchovy filets, a tablespoon of olive oil, half a tablespoon of butter (to promote browning), one thinly sliced garlic scape (regular garlic would have been fine, but it’s what I had), and a big pinch of red pepper flakes to a cast iron skillet over medium heat. After a few minutes of stirring, I had a nicely seasoned browned butter. In went the radishes, cut into wedges. I was getting some nice color on them, but they weren’t cooking as quickly as I had hoped, so I added some water to help them along. When the water was nearly gone, I added the radish greens (which you want to wash a little more thoroughly than I did, as they tend toward gritty) and sautéed them. At the last moment, I threw in a tablespoon of capers and 10 or so oil-cured olives that I had chopped and pitted. I finished the dish with some ricotta cheese for a little protein. This would be awesome with some whole wheat pasta.

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Scapes and Squid

I’ve been traveling a lot, but this weekend was all about Brooklyn. Prospect Heights, Crown Heights, Park Slope, Clinton Hill, Williamsburg, Bushwick, Boerum Hill, Sunset Park and a 24-hour diner in Bay Ridge were all on the agenda. My friend Dana and her girlfriend Kathleen were coming for dinner on Sunday, so I swung by the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket. It was, indeed, quite green. I came home with three kinds of kale, mint, chives, baby red jacket potatoes, radishes, sugar snap peas, and garlic scapes. (I also bought squid, hot turkey sausage and slab bacon, but had a tough time working them into this composition.)

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I was first lured into buying scapes a few years ago; something about their sinuous curves proved irresistible. A scape is a stem that shoots up from the garlic bulb and produces a small flower. Farmers trim them so that their garlic bulbs will continue to grow. They’re similar to garlic in flavor, but not as sharp. Scapes are tasty cooked, but I think they really shine when eaten raw. Here’s just one in an endless number of riffs on scape pesto. (Note that it freezes beautifully.)

Scape Pesto

  • 6 garlic scapes, ends and tips removed
  • 1/3 cup marcona almonds (you could use regular almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, etc., though I would recommend lightly toasting them first)
  • zest and juice of one lemon
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil (good quality, because this isn’t going to be cooked)
  • 30-40 fresh mint leaves (this could be basil, parsley, cilantro, etc.)
  • salt and fresh-ground black pepper (to taste)
  • pinch of sugar (if needed)

Blend the first five ingredients in a food processor, adding water a little at a time  to loosen the mixture enough that it becomes a rough paste. (You could also just add more olive oil, but we’ve got bacon and butter coming further down the page.) Add salt, pepper and, if needed, a pinch of sugar to taste.

I’d texted Dana from the greenmarket to confirm that she eats squid. Her reply came just as I walked in the door: “I eat squid, but am not the hugest fan ever.” The pressure was on. I didn’t really have a plan, but had gotten it in my head that I wanted to make a single dish that married the scapes, squid, potatoes and sugar snap peas into a sort of warm composed salad.

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A lot of people find the prospect of cooking squid intimidating, but it’s easy. The key is to cook it very quickly (grilled, fried, boiled or sautéed) or to cook it very slowly (in a traditional Italian red sauce or a fisherman’s stew perhaps). Anything in between yields the rubbery texture of late-night diner calamari.

Scapes and Squid

  • 3 cloves pressed garlic
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • pinch each of dried oregano, Aleppo pepper and red pepper flakes
  • smoked sea salt and fresh-ground black pepper
  • 1.5 pounds cleaned squid

Combine all ingredients and let sit for at least one hour and up to six hours.

  • 1 batch scape pesto (see above)
  • 15-20 small red potatoes, cut in half
  • 3 cups sugar snap peas, strings removed
  • 3 ounces slab bacon (or other smoked fatty pork product)
  • 1 preserved lemon (a regular lemon would also work), flesh removed and rind sliced into slivers
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 8-12 fresh mint leaves

While the squid marinates, slice the potatoes and parboil them in salted water until they are just fork tender. Removed the strings from the sugar snap peas and blanch them in the salted water for just a couple of minutes, taking care to cool them down quickly so that they stay crisp and bright green.

At this point, you can knock off and enjoy a glass or two of a nice crisp white wine or a rose until just before you’re ready to eat.

Cut the bacon into small pieces (you may recognize these as lardon) and render them in a cast iron skillet over medium heat.

Meanwhile, in a second pan, melt the butter with the preserved lemon rind over medium heat. When it has stopped foaming, add the potatoes, cut side down.

When the bacon is starting to crisp but is still meaty, push the pieces to the edge of the pan and add as many of the squid bodies as will fit in a single layer. Cook until the squid turns an opaque white on the bottom and then flip. When the other side turns white, pile them at the edge of the pan and add another layer, repeating the process until all of the squid is cooked.

When the potatoes have browned, add the sugar snap peas and stir until they are just heated through.

Spoon the potatoes and peas onto a platter and then add the bacon and squid as well as any juices left in the pan. Drizzle the whole thing with scape pesto and top with some thinly sliced mint leaves.

Dana, the squid skeptic, went back for thirds.

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