Key players in cold-weather recipes, hearty greens such as collards and kale are versatile, healthy and delicious.
Photo by Laura Petrilla
Bright, leafy winter greens are welcome at this chilly time of year, whether your favorite type is mild collards, peppery mustard greens, hearty chard or spicy-sweet kale. With thick, fibrous stalks in brilliant hues and frilly, crinkly leaves, these wintertime treasures possess an earthy flavor that inspires satisfying cold-weather recipes.
We often lump these different greens into one group because they are prepared and cooked in similar ways—making them into a side dish is as simple as stripping out the stems, chopping the leaves and wilting, sautéing or braising them. Yet each of these vegetables has a unique story, with a distinctive history.
With stems that come in bright ruby and lemon yellow, the beautiful plant kale makes a bright addition to any garden. Kale is the same species as cabbage, but was cultivated before that “headed” vegetable, which requires a warmer climate for growth. The name “kale,” or “kail,” originated in Scotland, where it was so commonly used that the word “kail” became generic for “dinner”—and the “kail bells” signaled dinnertime, even when the leafy vegetable was not being served for supper.
Collard greens, which are closely related to kale, are best-known in the United States as a “soul food” staple. Pungent, peppery mustard greens are also commonly used in Southern cooking, although the origins of the plant lie in Asia, where cooks use them in endless preparations. In Japan, they are often eaten boiled with soy sauce; in China, some varieties are used for braises or soups, while others are for pickling. In our own kitchens, however, three primary-ingredient combinations are most popular when it comes to preparing greens: Just about any variety tastes delicious seasoned simply with garlic and lemon juice, prepared Southern-style with smoked bacon or given an Asian flair with soy sauce and sesame oil.
The fact that winter greens are fresh and crisp at this time of year, when good produce is in short supply, is a great argument for bringing them home. But should you need additional convincing, look no farther then the vegetables’ impressive nutritional content: Greens including collards, chard, mustard greens and kale are rich sources of vitamin A and C and many other nutrients—perfect to provide a boost during cold season.
Collards, kale and mustard greens are in peak season until early spring; good-quality Swiss chard can be found year-round (local crops peak in summer). When shopping, look for crisp green leaves without wilting, yellowing or insect damage. Store greens in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to three days.
Collard Greens: One of the mildest-tasting winter greens, collards are usually slow-cooked with smoked bacon or salt pork. The plant is a variety of cabbage that doesn’t form a head and tastes like a combination of cabbage and kale. The stalks that run down the center are usually removed before cooking. Collard greens are an excellent source of vitamins A and C, calcium and iron.
Kale: Not as mild as collards, but not as spicy as mustard greens, kale is a good choice when you’re looking for a vegetable with medium sharpness. As a principal crop in nearby states such as Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey, kale is easy to find fresh in local stores. The vegetable’s tough, center stalk should be removed before use. It’s very healthful and supplies ample amounts of vitamins A and C, folic acid, calcium and iron.
Mustard Greens: Strong, assertive and peppery, mustard greens are second only to collards as a common ingredient in Southern cooking. Mustard greens come in many leaf shapes (jagged, crinkly, ruffled) and colors (including purple and crimson), but the most common kind for cooking is a rich green color. The thick, bitter stems are usually discarded. The vegetable is an excellent source of vitamins A and C, thiamine and riboflavin.
Swiss Chard: Both the crinkly leaves and crisp, celerylike stalks of mild-flavored chard are edible (the latter require more cooking time, and should be cooked separately from the leaves). Common varieties include green chard, which has silvery-white stalks; red chard, which has bright ruby stalks and red-veined leaves; and yellow chard, which has golden stalks. They are basically interchangeable in recipes, although red chard can lend a ruby tint to any dish in which it’s used. Chard is a good source of vitamins A and C, as well as iron.
It’s Easy Being Green
Exploring the world of leafy greens beyond the well-known types profiled here can yield some delicious results in the kitchen. Consider trying one of these other varieties:
Arugula: This delicate, peppery leaf is used raw in salads or sandwiches and makes a versatile addition to recipes,
Bok Choy: This sweet, mild, crisp green is especially delicious in stir-fry or salad.
Broccoli Rabe: A classic Italian ingredient, this chewy, robust green is wonderful sautéd or braised with red-pepper flakes and added to pasta.
Mizuna: With its spicy flavor but tender texture, mizuna is often included in salad-green mix and works well served raw or just slightly wilted.
Turnip Greens: Boiling in the traditional Southern style brings out a mellow, silky quality in this otherwise sharp and bitter green.