In her book, Mediterranean Grains and Greens, celebrated cookbook author and culinary hunter-forager Paula Wolfert relates a telling Turkish folk story.
She writes: “During the reign of Sultan Abdülhamud II (1876-1909), a doctor was appointed to a medical posting in Crete. The doctor took the assignment, but nobody turned up at his surgery claiming that he or she was sick. After a time the doctor sent a message to the palace in Istanbul: ‘Your Majesty, in Crete everybody is his own doctor. The people here eat only greens, herbs, and olive oil. As a result they don’t need me. Please assign me somewhere else.” The medicinal properties of plants have been recognized — and touted — throughout the ages, and today, doctors and nutritionists continue to prescribe a diet rich in greens. Mothers are famously known for urging their children to eat their vegetables, but in many a household, that dictum has been met with grimaces and flat-out refusals to comply from both husbands and kids! And who could blame them?
We all remember those days when our grocers’ produce sections were sparse and uninspiring. “Lettuce” on your shopping list automatically indicated iceberg. I love a crisp, cold wedge of iceberg lettuce topped with a fabulous creamy blue cheese dressing as much as the next guy, but for eons, little else was available, and often what was there was limp and unappealing and practically devoid of any nutritional value. A head of romaine or Bibb lettuce was considered exotic. Fresh herbs were virtually unheard of unless you grew your own. It wasn’t always that way. Before the industrialization of farms, the kitchen garden was the source of most of the vegetables that folks ate, and when a particular vegetable was ready to be harvested, it was also at its peak of flavor and still retained all its healthful properties. Traditionally, greens and herbs, both wild and cultivated, made up a significant portion of the diets of the poor throughout the world. Foraging in the fields and on hillsides also provided an ever-changing variety of healthful, delicious plants to augment meager larders. But even those who could afford elaborate fare ate their fair share of veggies.
Cookbook author and Italian food expert Faith Heller Willinger writes in her book Red White and Greens, The Italian Way with Vegetables, “The Catholic tradition of meatless fast days fostered a dependence on vegetables for everyone, not just poor people who rarely document gastronomy.” When it came to recipes, she notes they were “rarely written down, but convent and monastery cooks kept records and wrote recipes with cooking times often calculated in Hail Marys!” Lately, we have been rediscovering the joys of delectable greens-based dishes. Edible greens that once were known only around the Mediterranean and others that grew in Asia and beyond now grace our grocery store shelves and farmers’ markets. And when a little bit of care and imagination are introduced to the preparation of those greens, there’s no need to beg or bribe your family to eat them. Learning about some of the newly available greens and experimenting with some new recipes can be a real eye opener. Check out greens such as peppery arugula and watercress, sweet-tasting Swiss chard, beet greens, mache and frisée, bitter-tasting broccoli rabe, Belgian endive, curly endive, chicory, dandelion and escarole, even tart-flavored purslane, and try incorporating them in your meals.
Start with a purchased bag of mesclun, the supermarket blends, and add one or two additional greens such as spinach or chard and perhaps a handful of fresh dill. Or toss a handful of fresh herbs into your standard salad mix to enliven it. Blending a variety of different greens can add great flavor and a pleasing variety of textures. And cooking greens that formerly were considered salad fare only can yield surprising and delicious results. Pan-grilling raw baby greens quickly on a hot griddle just until they wilt gives them a subtle smoky flavor that makes a beautiful bed for grilled shrimp. Even sturdy but not tough greens such as kale and turnip greens, cut into strips (called chiffonade), do well with this method. Here’s another strategy for studier greens such as broccoli, escarole or broccoli rabe. Trim any outer tough leaves, remove the woody stems and tear the leaves into large pieces. Wash well, blanch in lots of boiling salted water for 3-5 minutes, then plunge them into ice water to stop the cooking. Drain well and pat dry. They are now recipe-ready. Cover with a damp cloth and refrigerate until you’re ready to sauté them with garlic, add them to sauces or use for filling pasta.
What to do when a bumper crop occurs, or when you’ve purchased much more produce than you can possibly consume in the next day or two? At times like these, strategies for preserving freshness come in handy. For leafy greens, food scientist Shirley Corriher suggests the best way to slow deterioration is to soak fresh greens in cold water, spin them dry, then lay them on paper (or cloth) towels, cover them with a second layer of towels and seal them tightly in plastic bags to keep out oxygen. Stored in the crisper in the refrigerator, the greens should remain in good condition for more than a week. When cooking them, how do you keep those greens nice and green? Corriher suggests “using a large quantity of water as if you were cooking pasta.” It helps dilute the acids in the vegetables. Adding salt to the cooking water enhances flavor and hastens cooking. She suggests adding the green vegetables once the water is at a rolling boil to help prevent the loss of vitamin C. She cautions us to cook them uncovered to allow those acids to evaporate. And if keeping your greens green is your intent, stop the cooking before 7 minutes have elapsed. That’s when the chlorophyll loses its bright green color. Radicchio, that slightly bitter red and white “green” that we’re accustomed to eating raw in salads, takes on a new personality when the leaves are grilled, then dressed in a lively vinaigrette. Cutting-edge chef Jason Dady of Tre Trattoria serves that very salad, and diners continually express their surprise and delight when they first sample the dish.
This restaurant, his third, focuses on the Tuscan region of Italy. Dady captures the joy of preparing fresh foods simply and serving them in a congenial, family-friendly style. Sharing dishes is part of the fun, and he offers daily specials and an array of other dishes that are designed to share between two or more. In his recipe for Charred Radicchio Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette, you’ll note his use of different grades of extra virgin olive oil that abound these days. He reserves the highest-quality oils — “the really good stuff” — for drizzling on top of the finished dish. It’s the quintessential Italian garnish. Here’s his method
for preparing this extraordinary salad.
CHARRED RADICCHIO SALAD WITH LEMON VINAIGRETTE
4 medium-sized heads radicchio (if the longer Treviso-style version is available, choose it for grilling)
2 ounces blended olive oil (Dady uses 75 percent canola oil blended with 25 percent olive oil — you can use an inexpensive extra virgin olive oil, if preferred))
Sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Juice of 2 lemons
8 ounces (about 1 cup) walnuts, toasted in the oven until lightly browned and fragrant
3 ounces Pecorino Romano (sheep’s milk) cheese, grated
2 ounces excellent-quality extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling on top
Preheat grill or charcoal, if cooking outside (Dady’s preferred method). Cut the radicchio in quarters and remove about 75 percent of the core. Leave the remaining core in place to hold the radicchio together. Rub the radicchio with the blended olive oil all around and gently inside the leaves.
Generously season with sea salt and black pepper. Place on the grill and allow the radicchio to char (but not catch on fire). Move it around the grill often, flipping it over to grill all sides. Once the radicchio is soft with a “medium-rare” core, remove and set aside.
To finish the dish, cut the remaining 25 percent of core off and toss all the radicchio in a large mixing bowl. Pour extra virgin olive oil and fresh lemon juice over all and toss to coat each leaf with the vinaigrette.
To serve, place leaves in center of each plate, top with walnuts and sprinkle freshly grated cheese liberally over top. Drizzle each serving with your very best olive oil. Makes 8 servings.
Braising a mixture of greens is an easy path to quick and tasty side dishes. And speaking of cooking greens, it’s time to revive some of those wonderful old recipes that our grandmothers used to make. The American South is home to those old-fashioned collards, kale, turnip and mustard greens, sometimes cooked in smoky bacon drippings, perhaps with a ham hock and vinegar-spiked “pot liquor.” Slow braising these aggressive-tasting greens tames the taste and yields a meltingly soft texture.
In her book Bon Appétit, Y’all, chef and cookbook author Virginia Willis recounts stories and shares Southern recipes going back three generations of her family. She passes on a great tip for those of us who love smoky greens, but don’t want the extra fat and calories that bacon or salt pork adds to the dish. She adds a tablespoon or so of smoked salt to the water in which she cooks the collards (or black-eyed peas or butter beans). “You simply won’t believe your mouth,” she exclaims.
At Mr. & Ms. G’s restaurant, owners Addie and William Garner serve up real Southern home-style food. Ms. G says there’s nothing fancy about her recipes — they’re just real simple country cooking. The steady stream of faithful customers, often with lines out the door, is all the proof one needs that this style of cooking speaks to the soul. Business is good, and note that they’re not even open for dinner.
For the greens, they generally serve collards, but occasionally, mustard greens are the order of the day. Cooking the greens with a smoked turkey wing (or sometimes a ham hock) gives them a wonderful flavor, says Ms. G. A bottle of pepper sauce is always available to shake onto the greens at the table. Here’s a sample of her simple, no-fuss approach to cooking.
MR. & MS. G’S COLLARD GREENS
1 medium bunch (about 1-1/2 pounds) collard (or mustard) greens
1 smoked turkey wing (or 1 ham hock)
4 cups water
Salt, to taste
Pepper sauce, as an accompaniment
Place the collard greens in a sink full of cold water. Swish them around to help remove the dirt. Lift them out, drain and rinse the sink, then fill it again with cold water. Place the greens back in the sink and repeat another time or two until the water is clear and the collards are clean. Remove and discard the tough stems, then chop the greens coarsely. Place them in a large pot, add water and the smoked turkey wing and bring the mixture to a boil.
Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook until greens are very tender, about 25 minutes. Season with salt and serve along with a bottle of your favorite pepper sauce. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
The extensive use of fresh herbs is evident in many Asian cuisines. In Thai cooking, herbs such as fresh basil, cilantro and mint are used in multiple ways: as a garnish to lend a crisp, fresh herbal note to cooked dishes or for preparing Thai curry pastes when blended with hot chiles, shallots, garlic, Thai ginger called galangal, lemon grass and various spices.
In some dishes, such as the exquisite Summer Rolls at Siam Thai Bangkok Cuisine, fresh herbs are critical components of the filling for the healthy rice-paper-wrapped appetizer. Chef Alexis Sirisupa Buneshu prepares these and the rest of her ambrosial signature dishes at this tiny restaurant co-owned by Kent Nabarrete. Buneshu comes from Bangkok, Thailand, from a long line of chefs, and she makes it clear that her cuisine is pure Thai, as in big-city, capital-of-the-country, Bangkok Thai. No fusions nonsense here. Her food is her art, as one look at the plate will confirm.
SIAM THAI BANGKOK CUISINE’S SUMMER ROLLS
2 (12-inch) rounds of rice paper (available at Asian markets or at some grocery stores)
Whole leaves of romaine, washed and dried
Cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut into about 5-inch long by 1/2-inch thick pieces
Carrots, finely cut into matchstick pieces (julienne)
Red cabbage, shredded
Bean sprouts, “roots pinched out”
Whole mint leaves, washed and dried
Whole basil leaves, washed and dried
Scallion greens (or celery tops), finely cut into matchstick pieces
Sprigs of cilantro, tough stems removed, washed and dried
Red bell pepper, finely cut into matchstick pieces
Cooked shrimp, strips of cooked chicken or tofu
Scallions, made into “flowers” (*See Note.)
Shredded red cabbage
Sprigs of fresh basil
Peanut sauce, to accompany the summer rolls (homemade or commercial)
Place a large bowl of very hot water next to your work area. Dip each round of rice paper into the hot water, then lay them out on your work surface side by side. Working with one paper, lay 3 romaine leaves on top of one another along the edge nearest you. Place about 3 pieces of the cucumber end to end on top of the lettuce. Lay a generous amount of carrots over the cucumber. Follow with the red cabbage, then the bean sprouts. Place a layer of mint leaves over top, then basil, scallion greens, cilantro and red pepper. Press the mass of vegetables together gently, then begin to roll up the rice paper, enclosing the vegetables and tucking them in to form a tight cylinder. Halfway through, add a line of shrimp, chicken or tofu, then continue to roll to the end.
Lift this roll and place it on top of the second rice paper circle at the edge nearest you. Roll up, then cut, on the bias, into 4 equal pieces. Stand them at one side of a serving platter, placing a scallion flower at the top of each piece. Place a handful of shredded red cabbage at the other side of the platter. Place sprigs of basil over the cabbage, then place about 3 scallion flowers on top. Serve with peanut sauce. Makes 4 servings.
*Note: To make scallion flowers: Wash one bunch of scallions that are at least 1/2-inch thick at the base. Trim off the root end and discard. Slice a 2-inch piece off the root end. Hold the piece with one hand, and using the point of a sharp knife, make cuts about two-thirds from the base to the end. Continue making cuts all around, forming thin ribbons. Repeat with remaining scallions. Soak in ice water for at least 5 minutes, until the ribbons curl. Use to garnish the summer rolls.
Author: Pat Mozersky