If your customers think that having to "eat your greens" sounds like punishment, they may not know what they're missing. "Eating your greens" can actually be one of life's greatest culinary pleasures, if you know the secrets of selecting and preparing them.
Most people are easily sold on the delicate, sweet, field greens that often serve as the base of garden-fresh salads. But aversions begin to arise at the thought of their more robust cousins such as kale, collards and spinach, and other varieties that are increasingly available from local farmers and large producers nationwide.
But the underlying problem is that in the United States, the green is typically misunderstood. The truth is that there's far more to the appreciation of fresh leafy greens than even Popeye could imagine. In fact, there are as many different kinds of greens as there are delectable ways to prepare them.
Get To Know Your Greens
Dark, leafy greens are usually more distinctive in taste and more nutrient-rich than lettuces. And although their young tender leaves serve well as a complement in salads, their culinary uses typically go far beyond other field greens. Because they are substantial in both flavor and texture, most greens can serve as a cornerstone of a meal. From soups to gratins, from stir-fries to tortes, greens are as versatile in use as they are diverse in character.
The list of greens that may show up at various times of the year in a natural foods market produce section is quite long and varied. Most people are familiar with the common greens, such as spinach, kale, collard greens and chard. But some of the more exotic and/or underused greens include beet greens, mustard greens, dandelion greens, turnip greens, arugula, mâche (also known as lamb's lettuce), amaranth, broccoli raab, callaloo, chicory and kohlrabi.
And within some common headings of greens such as chard or kale, there are many subtypes. Within the spinach family there's also baby spinach; chard comes in both red and Swiss varieties; and kale comes in a number of different varieties, including Red Russian kale, Siberian kale, and lacinato kale (also known as "dino" kale).
As with cheeses, wines and seaweeds, a palate for greens is often one that develops through time. Just as cheese novices may begin with Havarti and work their way through brie into the Pont l'Eveque cheeses, so, too, your customer may need to start out with the more familiar greens. By starting with common greens such as spinach or chard, they can then venture into the greens-lover's milieu of beet greens, arugula or broccoli raab.
Taming The Wild Green
So why is it that customers sometimes give retailers that uneasy sidelong glance when they suggest shoppers serve their families a steaming platter of kale? Greens often suffer an undeserved unpleasant reputation due to bad childhood memories of soggy spinach or bitter kale.
Cooks may also choose to steer clear of greens—because greens can be time-consuming to clean, the leaves can be tough and their flavor or bitterness can prove difficult to tame. In addition, organic greens present an additional problem: their folds and curls (especially kale) provide perfect spots for aphids and other pests to snuggle into and hide.
But while greens may initially pose some culinary challenges, these are easy to overcome if your customers observe the following methods for proper handling and preparation.
First, there's a quick way of removing the stems. (Except for chard, most stems should be discarded.) Fold the leaf in half lengthwise along the stem, with the front sides of the leaf touching. Hold the leaf closed with the length of your thumb along the rib where it meets the leaf on one side, and the tips of your fingers along the rib on the other side. Then just peel the stem away from the leaf, base to tip.
To wash greens, drop the stemmed leaves into a large bowl of cold water. If the greens have aphids, add 2 tablespoons of salt to the water and allow the leaves to soak for 15 minutes. Rub the greens gently, but thoroughly, between your fingers to remove all dirt. If the water is very dirty, wash the leaves in new water until the water is clear.
Lift the leaves out of the water and place them in a strainer or salad spinner. Don't pour the leaves into a strainer straight from the bowl—if you do, you'll pour dirty water over your clean leaves. If you're not using the greens immediately, they should be dried, then refrigerated in a loosely closed plastic bag that's been lined with a paper towel.
If gustatory problems seem to make your customers shy away from greens, these are equally easy problems to resolve. Probably the biggest taste deterrent is the inherent bitterness common to so many types of greens. The best way to overcome bitterness is to add a small amount of a hot acidic ingredient to the leaves as they are just beginning to cook. A squeeze of lemon over a pot of steaming kale, a splash of white wine into braised broccoli raab or vinegar mixed with hot bacon tossed over chicory as a salad can do the trick.
But be careful. A heavy hand can create a new set of unsavory problems. Too often cooks attempt to mask a green's bitterness by dousing it in oil, oversalting, or cooking the green until it's virtually flavorless. The trick is to balance the flavor of the green with an acidic taste, rather than attempting to smother the green's underlying flavor.
Toughness is another problem your customers may encounter with greens. Some greens are just naturally tougher than others, but even greens that can be very tender, like spinach, toughen in cold weather or as they mature.
One option to counter this problem is to develop a good working relationship with local organic farmers, who can pick greens and deliver them to you at their most tender peak (local organic farmers are also one of the best sources for some of the more unusual varieties of greens). The problem with commercial greens can be that they're often picked when they're more mature, since tougher leaves are more durable for shipping.
However, harvesting isn't the only issue with tough greens—it's also a matter of how they're prepared. When cooking naturally tougher greens such as kale or collards, one trick is to shred the leaves and mix more delicate varieties of greens into the dish for balance. Also, steaming tough greens a little longer than more tender varieties can help.
Eat And Enjoy
Produce managers who are up on their greens can do their customers a great service. By helping them to understand the intricacies of selection and preparation, you can introduce even the most reticent customer to the wonderful world of greens.
Mary Taylor and Lynn Ginsburg are the co-authors of the upcoming book What Are You Hungry For? to be published by St. Martin's Press in January 2002 (www.whatareyouhungryfor.net). They also write the "Eating Wisely" column for Yoga Journal magazine.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXII/number 9/p. 24, 29