“I am surprised that the only leafy item in my CSA box this week is lettuce,” began one Facebook post from a friend. Her pithy commentary summed up what seems to be the experience of many who open their kitchens to weekly mystery deliveries from the farm. Eating locally means eating a lot of greens. I’ve seen crowd-sourced requests for ways to cook amaranth leaves, escarole (that was me), tatsoi, purslane and various kinds of kale and chard. Not to mention the tasty looking yet delicate leaves that come attached to beets and turnips. Sturdier than spinach, yet delicate enough to require cooking within a day or two, greens inspire culinary creativity in my friends. But why so many greens?
For CSA farmers, I suspect the abundance of greens has a lot to do with flexibility. Greens such as chard and kale grow well in the cooler weather of the beginning and end of the growing season. They don’t require as sustained periods of heat to get them going (the way melons or peppers might), they grow quickly and in a difficult growing season, they can be started in a greenhouse and then transported. Greens aren’t as easily damaged in rains as lettuce or delicate greens. Part of a CSA membership is learning to eat what the land produces, rather than what we are used to, and greens have been an education.
Greens are good for us. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollen points out that when people cite the Mediterranean diet as a guide for good eating, they forget that the 1950s Greek peasants who were studied ate lots and lots of greens and weeds along with their couscous and olive oil. Greens are high in vitamins and low in calories. Eating a lot of them fills our stomachs with food, leaving little space for items that are more highly caloric. Unless we’re willing to start foraging for the wild greens (aka weeds) that filled the stomachs of previous generations (that’s my project for next summer), we’re going to have to learn to cook greens.
And cooking greens can be a challenge, especially since many of us (even those of us who grew up eating a lot of fruits and vegetables) probably weren’t raised eating anything more exotic than spinach. “Doesn’t anyone eat carrots or celery anymore?” asked my grandmother one day, after the innocent question “What are you having for lunch?” elicited a response about blanching and wilting mustard greens. Grocery stores today are more adept at transporting and storing delicate greens — witness the proliferation of varieties of lettuce (especially bagged: Mache anyone?) in recent years — so it is easier to find and cook greens even outside of the CSA season. Beet and turnip greens are an especially economical choice, because between the root vegetables and the leaves, you are essentially getting two vegetables for the price of one. But be prepared for your enthusiasm to attract notice. I have had fellow shoppers comment on a shopping cart seemingly overflowing with bunches of greens when I was cooking for a very large potluck Shabbat lunch. “That seems…very healthy,” said one amused shopper, but it can be yummy, too.
So what do we do with them? For years, my answer has been some variation on: “Saute garlic in olive oil, add chopped greens and salt to taste, cover and wilt until done.” It’s a tasty standby, which I have repeated a lot recently with the amaranth greens that we were blessed with over the past few weeks. Recently, I’ve been branching out. Swiss or red chard can substitute easily for spinach in spanikopita or other vegetable pies. Chopped greens go well into a frittata or omelet. A terrific resource for me has been the Recipes for Health section of the New York Times, where Martha Rose Shulman concocts gratins, lasagnas, pies, and salads of all kinds that feature greens. Shulman also provides methods for the storage of greens, suggesting that you blanch and freeze them as soon as possible for future cooking. Kale chips are an old standby that never fails, and blanched, chilled, chopped greens tossed with a sesame-vinegar vinaigrette make an excellent salad. Greens are great for creativity once we embrace them.
Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster is Director of North American Programs for Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She lives in Teaneck, New Jersey with her family.