Winter greens

Strong to the finish with spinach? Try getting hardy with chard and hale with kale. The season's nutritious, trendy dark leafies are here.

If you've been avoiding dark winter greens, assuming them too bitter, too tough, and too hard to digest, you are missing out on some delicious and highly nutritious foods.

An old-fashioned, peasant image, and long cooking times, may have shadowed these dark leafy greens in the past, but they are now gracing menus at upscale restaurants all over town.

And with good reason - they are among the most nutritious and popular vegetables worldwide.

"Greens are not considered an elegant, rich food," said Althea Zanecosky, registered dietitian and regional spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "But they are making a comeback with the trend toward more traditional foods."

At this time of year, kale, chard and other greens are at their tastiest because cold weather and exposure to frost softens their usual bitter bite and makes them more tender.

They also are an ideal complement and contrast, in flavor and color, for the seasonal squash and sweet potatoes that fill neighboring produce bins through the winter.

And there's a bonus: Winter greens are pretty enough to show off as a centerpiece on the table as well as serve as key ingredients on the menu.

So what if it takes a few minutes more to cook mature winter greens to tenderness compared to milder, more popular spinach? That's no reason to pass up so significant and tasty a food.

There are ways around the slightly bitter taste that deters some diners. Clever cooking techniques and seasoning can soften, even mute, the strong flavors.

Mixing greens to balance those flavors is another way, says Deborah Madison, who has been lauded for her vegetable and vegetarian cooking skills for more than 30 years.

"Kale is robust, chard is a little sweeter, and mustard greens have a tang. Together they make a good combination," said Madison, whose multi-award-winning Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (Broadway, 1997) was reprised in a 10th-anniversary edition last year.

Seasoning with vinegar, lemon or other citrus also cuts bitter tastes and pungent aromas in these cabbage kin.

"We tend not to cook greens long enough," Madison said during an interview last week. "They look so beautiful, fluffy, green and bright.

"In the spring or summer, you can get younger greens at farmers' markets or pick them fresh from your garden, but in winter, commercially grown greens are more mature with larger, thicker leaves that need to be cooked.

"I'm not a raw-foodist. Tiny first sprouts of kale or beet greens are fine, but in general, winter greens are tough," Madison said (although exposure to cold and frost makes them a bit more tender). "Some people say everything is better raw, but we're not cows. If you enjoy chewing for a long time, go for it. But I believe greens are better cooked. And you can do a lot more with them."

Cooking also makes it easier for our bodies to absorb some good nutrients and antioxidants - the darling carotenoids - in darker greens.

As good as spinach is for us, kale, collards, chard and mustard greens are better.

Those are the most nutrient-rich greens, Zanecosky says.

"They are higher in calcium and are recommended for people who limit their intake of dairy foods. They also are good sources of iron and B vitamins, especially for people who are cutting back on meat in their diet," said Zanecosky, who added:

"As long as they aren't cooked the traditional [Southern] way with a lot of fat, they are very good for you."

Adding smoked turkey can cover a strong flavor, she noted. As can mixing them with other vegetables or adding them to dishes such as lasagna or soup.

Among the various winter greens, Madison cites chard as her favorite.

"I'm partial to chard because it is more tender than kale and collards, yet unlike spinach has more volume," she explained. "It's also very good with legumes like lentils and in soup."

The cooking time for all these greens is really a matter of personal preference: a quick saute or a long, slow simmer for the most tender result.

One of her favorite uses, Braised Chard With Cilantro (recipe follows), is slow-cooked for about 45 minutes but yields a rich-flavored, pestolike sauce so concentrated that just a few tablespoons are enough to season starchy foods from mashed potatoes to lentils.

"The result is amazing. It's intense and delicious. Cooked on extremely low heat, it loses so much volume it's more like a condiment."

And the same method can be used with other greens.

"All greens are delicious mixed with something starchy - tossed with potatoes or rice, lentils or beans," she added.

Nutritionists recommend including five or more 1/2-cup servings of greens a week in a healthy diet. (Because of the Vitamin K in greens, patients taking the anticoagulant drug Coumadin should consult a doctor before increasing their intake of greens.)

While younger, smaller-leaf greens like arugula (spicy), baby chard (slightly sweet), and watercress (a mild hot mustard flavor) can be used raw in salads, winter greens are most often cooked.

But you needn't be limited to a single presentation. Instead, vary their use.

Serve warm wilted salads with sauteed greens.

Stuff larger leaves with mixtures of cooked rice or ground meat just as you might with leaves of cabbage. Blanch all but the most tender leaves first, then steam the stuffed rolls or bake them with a sauce.

Mix varied greens into your favorite spinach recipes.

Substitute darker greens in a familiar recipe, adjusting cooking and seasoning to offset flavor differences. For instance, wilt greens in cream and layer them with the cheese in lasagna.

Use sauteed and seasoned greens as a base for an entree in the same way you might use rice or noodles. You can add vitamins and flavor while cutting carbs.


Braised Chard With Cilantro

Makes 4 servings

2 pounds chard, leaves sliced into 1-inch-wide strips (2 large bunches)

11/2 cups chard stems, trimmed and diced

1 onion, finely diced

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

1/3 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon paprika

1 clove garlic crushed with 1 teaspoon salt

Salt and pepper to taste

1. In a wide, heavy pot, combine the chard, stems, onion, cilantro, oil, paprika and garlic. Add 1/4 cup water, cover tightly, and cook on low heat for 45 minutes.

2. Check once or twice to be sure there's enough moisture. If needed, add a few tablespoons water to prevent sticking. When done, adjust seasoning. Chard should be silky and fragrant.

- From Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison

Note: The long cooking here results in a denser, more flavorful, condimentlike vegetable. Just a few spoonfuls is enough for a serving or as seasoning for rice or lentils.

Per serving: 222 calories, 5 grams protein, 13 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 19 grams fat, no cholesterol, 1,100 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.


Sunday Collards

Makes 6 servings

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil or peanut oil

1 smoked ham hock or 1/4 pound slab bacon, diced

8 cups water

3 dried chile peppers or 1 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 tablespoon kosher salt

3 3/4 pounds collard greens (3 bunches), ribbed, washed, cut into 1-inch-wide strips

1. Cover bottom of an 8-quart stockpot on medium-high heat with the oil. Score the ham, set it in the pot when oil shimmers, and sear, rendering some fat, about 6 minutes.

2. Add water, chiles and salt; raise heat, bring to a boil.

3. Reduce to medium-low heat; simmer 30 minutes.

4. Add a few handfuls of collards, stirring to submerge until they turn bright green, 3 to 5 minutes. As they wilt and compact, add more handfuls, stirring until all greens are in the pot, 6 to 10 minutes. Turn heat to low; simmer very gently until dark green and tender, 1 hour.

5. With a slotted spoon, divide greens on plates. Serve, if desired, with a cruet of pepper vinegar.

- From The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, by Matt Lee and Ted Lee (W.W. Norton, 2006)

Note: The brothers Lee use this slow-cooking method to bring out the dense, turniplike flavor of collards, but also recommend quicker cooking of thinly sliced greens in a skillet with bacon or ham, pepper flakes and broth, with apple cider vinegar and a little sugar. An acidic ingredient helps cut the bitterness and make greens more tender.

Per serving: 106 calories, 7 grams protein, 16 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 4 grams fat, no cholesterol, 378 milligrams sodium, 10 grams dietary fiber.


Pasta With Chicken and Winter Greens

Makes 6 servings

1 pound (1 bunch) green Swiss chard

1/2 medium head radicchio

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1/2 cup rich, reduced-sodium chicken broth

1/3 cup dry sherry

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

1/3 cup heavy cream

1 cup freshly shredded asiago cheese, divided

3 cups shredded cooked chicken meat, white and dark (from a 2 1/2- to 3-pound rotisserie chicken)

Salt, freshly ground pepper

8 ounces dried wide pasta (fettuccine to pappardelle)

1. Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil on high heat. Meanwhile, trim the stems and ribs from chard (can be saved for soup or other uses). Cut the leaves crosswise into 1/3-inch strips. Remove and discard any rubbery outer leaves and the tough core from radicchio. Slice remaining leaves crosswise into 1/3-inch strips.

2. In a 12-inch skillet, heat the oil to medium. Saute the garlic until just translucent, about 2 minutes. Raise heat to medium-high. Add the chicken broth, sherry, lemon zest, chard and radicchio. Stir to coat. Cook until chard is just tender to the bite, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the cream and half the cheese. Add the chicken and warm through. Stir in the lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

3. Meanwhile, cook the pasta in the boiling water as directed on package. When done, drain and fold the pasta into the skillet mixture. Transfer pasta and sauce to a serving bowl. Sprinkle with remaining cheese and serve.

- Adapted from recipe in Sunset magazine, December 2007

Per 1 1/2-cup serving: 448 calories, 27 grams protein, 35 grams carbohydrates, 20 grams fat, 94 milligrams cholesterol, 846 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.


Black Kale (Dinosaur or Tuscan Kale)

Makes about 6 servings

6 to 8 cups black kale

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

Pinch of red pepper flakes

Sea salt, to taste

1. Strip the kale leaves from the stems. Wash, drain and cut the leaves into 1/2-inch strips.

2. In a skillet, heat the oil. Add the garlic and cook until it is golden and the oil is infused with the garlic aroma.

3. Add the kale, pepper flakes and salt to taste, tossing to coat the greens.

4. Add 1 cup water. Reduce heat, cover and cook until the leaves are tender, about 15 minutes or as needed based on their toughness. Adjust seasoning to taste.

5. Serve as a side dish or as a base for an entree such as sauteed chicken breast, lasagna or other pasta, kebabs of vegetables with cubed tofu, pork or veal, as desired.

- Adapted from Vegetarian Suppers by Deborah Madison (Broadway, 2005)

Per serving: 75 calories, 2 grams protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 1 grams sugar, 5 grams fat, no cholesterol, 29 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.


Chard and Saffron Tart

Makes 6 to 8 servings

For the yeasted tart dough:

1 teaspoon active dry yeast

Pinch of sugar

1 egg, at room temperature

11/4 cups unbleached white flour, divided, approximate

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons crème fraîche

For the filling:

2 bunches chard (8 cups of leaves), chopped

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 large yellow onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice

2 cloves garlic, minced

3/4 teaspoon salt

3 eggs

11/2 cups half-and-half

Large pinch saffron, soaked in 1 tablespoon hot water

1/2 teaspoon lemon zest

3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Nutmeg

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Salt, pepper to taste

3 tablespoons pine nuts

1. For the dough: Dissolve the yeast and sugar in 1/4 cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees); set it in a warm place.

2. If egg is cold, cover it with hot water for a few minutes to bring it to room temperature. Mix 1 cup of the flour and the salt in a bowl, make a well in the center, and break the egg into it. Add the crème fraîche (or light sour cream) and the yeast mixture (now foamy). Mix all with a wooden spoon for a smooth, soft dough. Add more flour as needed.

3. Dust dough with flour, gather it in a ball, and place in a clean bowl. Cover. Let rise in a warm place 45 minutes. If not ready to proceed, punch it down and let rise again.

4. Flatten dough, put it in the center of tart pan and press it out to the edge. Add just enough flour to keep dough from sticking. If dough shrinks, cover with a towel, let rest 20 minutes, then finish shaping it to 1/4 inch above pan rim. Add the filling or refrigerate until needed.

5. For the filling: Cut chard leaves from stems. (Reserve stems for another use.) Chop the leaves into 1-inch pieces, wash thoroughly, drain in a colander, and set aside.

6. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. In a wide skillet, heat the butter and oil over medium heat; add the onion and cook it until it is soft and translucent, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic, the chard leaves (by handfuls until they all fit), and the salt. Turn the leaves with tongs, cooking them until tender, 5 to 7 minutes. When the mixture cools, squeeze out excess moisture with paper towels.

7. To make the custard, beat the eggs, then stir in the half-and-half, infused saffron, lemon zest, grated cheese, a few scrapings of nutmeg, and the parsley. Stir in the chard and onion mixture. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

8. Toast pine nuts in a small dry pan on medium heat until golden, 2 minutes. Add filling to tart shell. Top with pine nuts. Bake until set and golden, about 40 minutes.

- Adapted from The Greens Cookbook by Deborah Madison

Per serving (based on 8): 261 calories, 9 grams protein, 21 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 16 grams fat, 136 milligrams cholesterol, 536 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.


Contact food writer Marilynn Marter at 215-854-5743 or online at mmarter@phillynews.com.