Above: Don't toss those greens. Roast your beets and mix the greens with orange and ginger for this tasty dish. Photograph by Douglas Merriam.
MORE THAN EVER, it seems wise to follow our doctors’ (and my mother’s) advice to eat our greens. Not only are they packed with nutrients, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory and cancer-fighting agents, but the vegetables on the ends of many greens—beets, turnips, and rutabagas among them—also amp up our energy. What’s not to love?
Perhaps you were clever enough to get some seeds in the ground right after the threat of a spring freeze was over. If you didn’t, you can still pick up seedlings at your favorite nursery; and late summer is a great time to seed again for a fall crop.
Gorgeous greens are some of the first things to appear in backyard gardens and at farmers’ markets throughout the state. Produce of the verdant variety lends itself to global cuisines and recipes. With proper storage and creative cooking, you can enjoy them throughout these early days of summer and right through until we harvest our other favorite green: chile.
Growing up in Rochester, New York, I was introduced to greens through spinach—and not the fresh kind. It was the out-of-a-can variety, heated and splashed with cider vinegar. It took me 20 years to lose the memory of the slimy texture and acidic taste.
All was blissfully forgotten once I moved to New York City and an Italian chef served fresh spinach sautéed in olive oil with garlic and lemon. Next came a plate of the potently flavored broccoli rabe treated in the same fashion. I was hooked.
As different greens trended in and out during my 40-year career as a chef and restaurateur, I explored them all in my recipes. An early job managing a Cajun restaurant cemented my adoration of collard and turnip greens slow-cooked with plenty of ham hocks and fired up with a few shots of Tabasco. As I explored Asian cooking, the more bitter greens captured my fandom as I paired mustard greens in a wok with thin-sliced beef and red curry paste.
I was never swept up in the more recent kale craze, although I admit that, with a bit of massaging with oil and lemon juice, the tough fiber can be relaxed. If you don’t do that, the experience of consuming raw kale can feel like you are a cow chomping hay in the field.
A favorite social media joke went around last year: “If you stir coconut oil into your kale, it makes it easier to scrape it into the trash.” Boom! Two overdone culinary trends taken down in one meme.
Greens should ideally be stored prior to washing them. But one school of thought holds that once you have cleaned them, you are more apt to use them while they’re still fresh. You make the call.
As for how to prepare them, here are my rules of thumb. Treat the more tender greens, like mustard and spinach, with a touch of heat, which simply wilts them but doesn’t make them bitter.
Heartier greens like collards and kale are better braised and simmered with other ingredients, along with liquid, herbs, and spices, to break down the tough fibers and mellow the intense flavors.
Do separate the leaves from the stems, but don’t discard those tasty stalks. Just finely chop and sauté them along with the rest.
Swap out the greens at will. How about Swiss chard au gratin or an escarole, white bean, and sausage soup? I throw a big handful of raw arugula in my linguine with garlic and shrimp and allow it to soften slightly.
The accompanying recipe uses beet greens along with the little gems they come connected to. Like the canned spinach of my boyhood, canned beets also haunted my memories—until I sampled simply roasted fresh ones. Now they, too, hold a place in my gastronomic heart.
Beets and Beet Greens with Orange and Ginger
- 2 bunches small beets, about 10
- Leaves from beets (about 10 ounces), washed and left damp
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for beets
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tablespoon minced ginger
- ⅓ cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
- 1 teaspoon orange zest
- ½ teaspoon chile pequin, or to taste
- ½ teaspoon salt
1. Separate beets from the leaves, rub beets with olive oil, and wrap tightly in foil. Roast at 400° until tender, about 30 minutes. Allow to cool and then quarter.
2. In a large nonstick skillet, wilt the greens quickly over medium-high heat, covered, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a colander and drain. Wipe pan clean.
3. Heat butter and olive oil over medium-low heat. Add garlic and ginger and sauté until fragrant. Add orange juice and zest and allow to reduce to almost a glaze. Turn heat to low, add greens and beets, and toss well. Season with salt and chile pequin. Serve hot or slightly cooled.
Note: Any green can be substituted for the beet greens. Try turnip, mustard, chard, kale, or spinach. A scatter of 1/3 cup crumbled goat cheese will nicely gussy up this dish.