Dark, leafy greens just don't get the respect they deserve. We're forced to eat them as kids because they're ``good for us" and they never quite lose that stigma. Not only that, they reach their peak in the dead of winter, right when we're dreaming of warm-from-the-sun tomatoes and sweet, juicy stonefruit.
Even though they're not as hip as heirloom potatoes or microgreens, braising greens are worthy of attention, says farmer Tim Mueller of Riverdog Farm. Not only are they nutritional powerhouses, they also offer ``a great bouquet of flavors that people aren't normally used to savoring."
Braising greens are a category of dark, leafy vegetables that have strong, assertive flavors and often tough, fibrous leaves. Though they can be eaten raw, most braising greens, such as collards, kale and chard, are cooked to help break down their fibrous texture and mellow their bitter flavor, resulting in tender, succulent greens with a flavorful bite.
Braising greens generally fall into two main categories: brassicas, which are the cruciferous varieties such as mustard and kale, and chenopods, which include spinach, chard, beet greens and amaranth. Other varieties that can be found in mixes include baby Asian greens such as mizuma or tatsoi.
Farmers' markets are full of wonderful bunched greens right now, including the ruffled cavolo nero (also called dino or dinosaur kale), red dandelion, burgundy-hued amaranth, broccoli rabe, or pungent Asian greens such as pak choy.
As Gregory Beccio of Happy Boy Farms says, ``There's not a lot going on this time of year. Summer is a time of abundance, but greens add to the feeling of winter...they're a seasonal commodity."
The older greens get, the tougher and more strongly flavored they will be. If you're unaccustomed to bitter flavors or want vegetables that cook quickly, it's better to stick to braising mixes.
Beccio likes his colorful stir-fry mix, a combination of escarole, endive and ornamental kale, which he steams and tosses with a little squeeze of fresh lemon juice, olive oil and minced, sauteed ginger.
Braising refers to a cooking method in which tough cuts of meat or vegetables are nearly submerged in liquid and slowly simmered until tender, such as in the classic Southern dish of collards with ham hocks. Most greens, however, need only a brief saute with a little extra virgin olive oil and garlic to render them tender and delicious.
If the greens have thick stems, which can be tough and woody, you should remove them by folding the leaves in half and ripping the stems out.
Because they're mostly water, greens will shrink considerably when cooked. Two large bunches of greens will usually be enough for a side dish for four people. Rinse the greens but don't dry them, as the residual water will help them wilt as they cook.
I love braising greens, and eat them nearly every day. They a great source of calcium, iron, folic acid, vitamins A and C, and fiber. Also a diet high in antioxidant-rich cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, kale, and broccoli helps protect against certain types of cancer.
Winter greens are surprisingly versatile. I often toss a couple handfuls of braising mix - a farmers' market staple of baby chard, kale, spinach, mustard, arugula, or other greens - into a stir fry. Or I cook some diced bacon until crispy, saute some onion or leek in a tablespoon of the bacon grease, then add the greens, cook until they're wilted, then toss with pasta and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Tender little baby chard, dandelion or mustard leaves make for a more unusual, pungent salad base than standard lettuces or mesclun mixes. Be sure to balance their slight bitterness with contrasting or sweet flavors such as persimmon, apple, pear, baby beets, citrus, a vinaigrette spiked with honey or a syrupy balsamic vinegar.
You can also toss some chopped greens into soup or a frittata, or serve them sauteed with pancetta, pine nuts, and golden raisins and heaped atop crusty toasted or grilled bread rubbed with garlic.
Greens may not be glamorous, but they are easy to prepare, inexpensive, healthy and delicious. Sounds like a great start to a new year to me.
SAGE AND MILK BRINED PORK LOIN WITH CAVOLO NERO
Recipe by Reed Hearon, chef/owner of Rose Pistola in San Francisco, published in ``Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area" (Eating Fresh Guides, $17.95).
8 cloves garlic
12 sage leaves
½ tablespoon salt
1 ½ tablespoons black pepper
½ gallon milk
4 pork chops, uncut in a single rack
4 bunches cavolo nero (also called dinosaur kale)
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, peeled and diced
2 sprigs marjoram
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
2 lemons (preferably Meyer lemons) cut in wedges
The day before cooking: Puree 6 cloves of garlic, the sage, salt and pepper in a food processor with the milk. Alternatively, use a mortar and pestle to pound the garlic, sage and salt together, then combine with the milk. Place the milk mixture in a glass or stainless steel pan large enough to hold the pork loin. Add the pork loin to the pan and coat it with the marinade. Cover with plastic wrap and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours.
The day of cooking: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Wash the kale thoroughly and remove the large stems. Cut the kale into 1-inch pieces. Lightly crush the 2 remaining garlic cloves to release their juices.
Heat a large skillet and add the olive oil. Saute the onion, crushed garlic cloves and marjoram until the onion and garlic are translucent. Add the kale to the pan, and stir to coat with olive oil and seasonings. Stir in the 1/2 cup water. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat and simmer, covered, until tender, approximately 20 minutes. Stir often to avoid scorching. Remove the pan from the heat and reserve.
Remove the pork loin from the marinade and pat it dry with a towel. Season the pork loin with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Place the pork in a small roasting pan or ovenproof skillet. Roast the pork for approximately 45 minutes or until the internal temperature reads 165 degrees. Halfway through cooking the pork, squeeze the juice of one lemon over it and add the squeezed wedges to the pan.
Once the pork is cooked, remove the pan from the oven. Cover the pork with a clean kitchen towel or foil and allow it to rest for 10 to 15 minutes.
To serve, carve the pork into 4 pieces by cutting between the bones. Gently reheat the braised kale over medium heat. Divide the kale onto 4 warmed dinner plates, place a pork chop on top of the kale, and garnish with a lemon wedge.
E-mail Laurel Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column is a service of the Berkeley Farmers' Market and Eating Fresh Publications (www.eatingfresh.com) publishers of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
The Berkeley Farmers' Market is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays at Derby Street and MLK
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