So Many Reasons to Love Leafy Greens

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Most leafy greens are available year-round, but taste sweetest when harvested in cool weather. Extremely versatile in the culinary scene, they may be simmered, sautéed, stir-fried, and eaten raw. As an ingredient, they add color, texture and a slightly bitter flavor dimension.

Leafy greens are a fantastic source of beta-carotene and vitamin C, both strong antioxidants that help protect your cells. Vitamin C is vital for proper function of the immune system. These antioxidants along with other plant compounds promote heart, cognitive, and vision health while reducing cancer risk. Greens are also a great source of dietary fiber.

Locally, some of the most common varieties are chard, collards, kale, mustard and spinach.

A member of the same plant family as beets, chard is grown for its leaves rather than its roots. It’s wide, crunchy stalk comes in a variety of colors, including white, red, yellow and orange. When different-colored varieties are bunched together, they’re called “rainbow chard.”

rainbow chard
One of the most common ways to cook collard greens in the South is with fat back or bacon, but there are many other ways to season them. They are popular across the U.S. and in many other regions of the world, including Africa, Eastern Europe, and South America.

Popular in Northern Europe and throughout the U.S., kale is also a hearty green that may be substituted in many collard recipes. Mature kale leaves may be used for a salad ingredient. Massaging the leaves or adding an acid, like lemon juice will soften the texture.

Mustard greens are peppery, pungent, and a little bitter. The seeds used to make mustard come from the same plant. Widely used in Indian, Chinese, Japanese, African, and Southern U.S. cookery.

Spinach is one of the most versatile greens. It works well as a raw salad ingredient, a quick cooking addition to recipes or a side-dish.

One of my favorite ways to cook hearty greens is in a small amount of stock or broth, reducing the liquid at the end for preservation of nutrients and flavor. Finishing with an acid such as vinegar or lemon juice provides the perfect flavor profile.

Braised Winter Greens

Serves 8

2 – 3 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup chopped onion

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 pounds or so of hearty greens: chard, collard, kale, or mustard cut into bite-sized pieces

2 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable stock or broth

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Zest from one lemon

Freshly ground black pepper

Place a large pot over medium-low heat. Add olive oil, then onion, cooking until it begins to brown. Add garlic and cook another minute, then half of the greens. Stir while they cook down, then add the other half of the greens, continuing to stir a couple of minutes while they cook down. Add the broth and heat to a simmer, then cover the pot and continue to simmer 10 minutes.

Remove the lid and increase the heat to medium-high. Stir occasionally until most of the liquid has evaporated. Stir in the lemon juice and zest, and ground pepper to taste.


Margie Mansure is an extension agent with N.C. Cooperative Extension. As a registered dietitian/nutritionist chef, she offers nutrition and cooking classes to community members.