Leafy greens are looking a bit black and blue lately. Their minor public beating came at the hands of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which released a report this year labeling them the number one cause of food-borne illnesses. As if it’s not hard enough convincing people to eat their vegetables.
Hopefully, this information will inspire people to wash produce thoroughly, rather than eliminate it from their diets completely. Besides, leafy vegetables are far too good—and good for us—to make such hasty decisions. With the multitude of flavors and health benefits greens offer us, we’d be doing ourselves a great disservice by avoiding them. And the first step toward greens gratitude is learning that the term includes more than just spinach and lettuce.
Though chard’s large leaves, tinged with yellow, orange, red, or white, look nothing like spinach, its taste and versatility are similar to Popeye’s favorite vegetable. It’s also a nutrient powerhouse, boasting high levels of potassium, iron, calcium, magnesium, fiber, and vitamins A, B, C, and K. Chard can be eaten raw (such as in a salad), tossed in a stir-fry or soup, or pressed into a quesadilla. It also makes a great substitute for spinach in recipes.
These look like weeds, but throwing them away would be a waste of vitamins—they’re full of vitamin A, iron, calcium, and magnesium. They get bitter with age, so older leaves are great cooking ingredients, whereas the fresher leaves would do well simply dressed. Dandelions can become a great side dish when sautéed with olive oil, garlic, and various spices; or simply chop them up and throw them in a pot of soup. They’re often used as a salad base, provided the leaves haven’t gotten too sharp.
Like cabbage, raw kale’s hard on our digestive system. Its flavors are only enhanced by steaming, sautéing, or cooking it slightly—you can even roast its leaves and make kale chips. It’s a common ingredient in winter soups and adds fun chewiness to stir-fries. Like most leafy greens, it contains vitamins A, C, and K.
This bright green plant, also called rocket, has a pepperlike taste that makes it a fun addition to salads or a good substitute for basil in pesto recipes. Cooking it mellows the flavor if the bitterness is too much for you. Along with its unique flavor, arugula’s a terrific source of calcium and vitamins A and C. It’s at its freshest during late summer and fall, so start experimenting with it before it’s too late.
Collards, like other cruciferous vegetables, are packed with phytonutrients, which have been linked to lowering cancer risks and promoting good overall health. Eating them also helps meet 25 percent of our daily requirements for fiber and calcium, not to mention hefty doses of manganese and vitamins A and K. Collards taste a little like cabbage, but with earthy, pungent accents. They’re best sautéed or boiled in a soup.
This is a mustard-family plant, so expect spiciness in the first bite. With watercress, a little can go a long way, which is why it’s almost never the main star of a dish. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be used in a variety of ways—throw some in a salad bowl, purée it in soup, or make a sauce with it if you really enjoy the taste. However, strong flavor’s not its only attribute. A 2007 study at the University of Ulster, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, linked daily watercress consumption with cancer prevention. This green also has calcium and vitamins A and C.
This comes from the endive family, which explains its slightly bitter taste. It’s actually got two parts—the outer leaves tend to hold the most sharpness, but sweeter flavors lie in its inner leaves and heart. That’s where to draw from if you’re interested in salad additions; the bitter leaves on the outside are better served by a little heat, especially in soup form. Escarole has lots of folic acid, vitamins A and K, and fiber in its dense leaves, so don’t let the strong taste scare you away.
Radicchio is almost the same as escarole in terms of flavor, but it couldn’t look more different. This purple vegetable is often cut into small strips and put in salads for extra crunch and decoration, but Italian cuisine favors it cooked, rather than raw, such as in risotto or bakes. Radicchio should be used when fresh, as time increases its chewiness and bite. Plus, vegetables lose their nutrients after sitting out too long, so an older radicchio doesn’t offer as much potassium or magnesium in its leaves as a young one does.
While chard has a mild taste, mustard greens have more of a bite to them. (Dijon mustard is derived from the seeds of this plant, if that gives you a better idea.) Keep this in mind when using mustard greens. They’re not an optimal leaf base for a salad, but a few of the younger, smaller leaves can be sprinkled on salads for a little kick. Most people prefer mustard greens’ peppery flavor braised or sautéed. Either way, eating them provides 15 percent of our daily fiber. They’re also a great source of antioxidants (in the form of vitamins A and C), as well as calcium.
Luckily, fall and winter are when many leafy greens thrive, so there’s no time like the present to go to the farmers market or grocery store and start experimenting. Given their impressive nutritional profiles and variable uses, we have no excuse not to embrace leafy greens in our diets—after washing them thoroughly, of course.