Dark leafy greens are particularly rich in vitamins A, C and K. Collards, mustard greens and escarole are also excellent sources of folate, important for women of child-bearing age. You may have avoided these nutritious greens in the past because of their bitter reputations, but when you pair them with judicious amounts of intensely flavorful ingredients—like feta cheese, bacon and walnuts—it is easy to balance their bitterness. Now is the time to celebrate the dark side this winter and welcome these beautiful greens into your kitchen.
Beets are the pagan symbol for love and beauty. Find beet greens still attached to the beets or separate in bunches. The color of the veins indicates the color of their root—the beet. Common varieties include red, gold and chioggia, an Italian heirloom variety that has concentric circles of white and pink, purple or red. Each beet has several greens growing from it. The greens have a rich, earthy flavor.
Chard is not Swiss; in fact, the first varieties have been traced back to Sicily. Look for chard’s shiny ribbed leaves and the multicolored stems of the rainbow variety, the red-speckled leaves of red (or ruby) chard, or white chard’s white stems and veins. Some find white chard has the most mild taste—quite similar to spinach, in fact, and red chard to have a stronger, earthier flavor, like that of beets (chard is from the beet family).
Southerners traditionally serve collard greens on New Year’s Day, along with black-eyed peas, to ensure wealth in the coming year. You can spot collards by their flat, broad leaves. While many other greens wilt down when cooked, collards keep most of their volume. Perhaps the most neutral in taste, they benefit from other big flavors in a dish.
A type of chicory (whose botanical name, cichorium intybus, means “January plant”), escarole has tender, broad, pale green leaves that can be eaten raw in salads or lightly cooked in soups, pasta or as a side dish. Seek out escarole near other lettuces in your supermarket. Balance its bitter flavor with a touch of sweetness—think chunks of apple in a salad or dried fruit in a sauté.
Social clubs in northwestern Germany take “kale tours” in January, visiting country inns to consume large quantities of kale, sausage and schnapps. Popular varieties include red Russian, lacinato (or dinosaur) and curly kale (which can range from green to deep purple). Kale’s sharp, peppery flavor is best balanced by a touch of acidity or sweetness.
These pungent, peppery greens are popular around the globe, showing up in everything from Southern soul food to Asian stir-fries. Identify them by their frilly edges. Their flavor is bold so you may want to combine them with other more mild dark leafy greens, like chard, to balance their strong flavor.
Most winter greens are sold in bunches—the exception is escarole, which grows in a lettucelike head. Look for fresh, crisp, brightly colored greens; avoid those that are wilted or blemished. Wash greens well as dirt likes to hide in their nooks and crannies. Fill your sink with lots of cold water and let them soak for a bit, give them a swish, then dry them in a salad spinner. Though all of the stems are edible, we prefer to use only chard and beet stems, discarding the tough stems of collards, kale and mustard greens. If you do choose to use the stems, keep them separate when prepping and cook them for 3 to 5 minutes longer than the leaves.