Add a zing to salads, sandwiches, soups and stir-fries
by ASHLEY TALMADGE
Not so long ago, the typical “garden salad” consisted mostly of chopped iceberg lettuce. Now, that same menu item is a veritable medley of mixed greens as colorful as an artist’s palette—arugula, escarole, mizuna, mustard, rainbow chard and perhaps other greens you may not have heard of.
The value of adding nutrient-rich greens to our diet has caught the attention of consumers. The happy result? Endless options for salads, sandwiches, soups and stir-fries. Collard greens have joined spinach as a popular quiche add-in, and even kids are cashing in their potato chips for kale chips. But with so many ways to customize a simple salad, what should you focus on at the supermarket?
Taste and texture. Leafy greens come in a wide assortment of flavors, ranging from bitter to sweet to mild to tangy. Each weekend at his local farmers’ market, James Brock offers produce grown on his small vintage farm. Two of his salad blends are always popular. “Our ‘Sissy’ mix is a combination of twelve milder lettuces, including oak leaf and rhazes,” says Brock. In contrast, some of the spicier lettuces and greens, like arugula and komatsuna, give the “Sassy” mix a kick. Brock says texture is also a consideration. “Some people prefer the smooth, almost velvety butterhead, while others like the crisp crunch of a romaine.”
Nutrient know-how. Packed with fiber and a slew of vitamins and minerals, leafy greens can be an integral part of a balanced diet. Registered dietitian Melanie King is an instructor in the Nutrition and Food Science program at California State University, Chico. She says, “Greens also contain phytochemicals—compounds made by plants that may have health benefits for us, including protection against chronic conditions like heart disease and cancer.”
However, it’s important to note nutritional composition is not the whole story. Bioavailability, the degree to which consumed nutrients may be absorbed and used by the body, varies depending on the food source and how foods are combined in a meal. Take iron, for example. The heme iron found in meat protein is more easily absorbed than the nonheme iron found in plant sources. But heme iron improves absorption of nonheme iron when the two are eaten together; Vitamin C also improves bioavailability of the mineral. So adding some chicken or citrus to a spinach salad allows the body to make better use of iron and other nutrients in the leafy green.
Eating a variety ensures getting the most nutrient-dense diet possible.
Value in variety. King cautions against getting too caught up in the details, however. “It’s easy to get overwhelmed by this information,” she says, “Then people give up and stop eating the veggies that are so important.” She emphasizes we benefit most from eating a variety of foods. “Different lettuces and greens will contain different nutrients and at different levels. Eating a variety ensures getting the most nutrient-dense diet possible.” King also encourages us to eat our greens in whatever form is available. “Of course we all love our fresh produce,” she says. “But don’t shy away from frozen, fermented or canned. You’re still getting many of the dietary benefits.”
Variety also goes a long way when getting kids onboard. Sometimes it’s all in the presentation. A “gross” green shake can miraculously become a “Green Monster Power Smoothie.” Any of the sturdier leaves like kale, collard and broccoli can be roasted into crunchy chips and jazzed up with a little Parmesan cheese. Try chopping a few leaves to mix with the jelly in a sandwich. Or bake some greens into zucchini muffins or quick, savory bread.
Rethinking food scraps. Many edible plant parts are typically discarded in the midst of food preparation. Yet often, these “scraps” are tasty and packed with nutrients. When trimming kale and collards, save the stalks; finely chopped, they can be sautéed or added to stews with delicious results. Carrot tops and celery leaves make excellent pesto, or add flavor to a stir-fry. Broccoli and cauliflower greens can be used alone or in combination with other more traditional greens.
Smart storage. Lettuces and greens are perishable and can’t be kept too long without wilting and spoiling. Their nutritional value is also highest when they’re fresh. King says the best way to store leafy greens is in an airtight container in the bottom of the fridge. “Try to decrease exposure to light, warm temps and oxygen,” she says. “I always tell people to make good use of that veggie drawer!” Robust greens can easily be chopped and frozen for future use in soups and stews.
ASHLEY TALMADGE is a freelance writer and mother of two boys. She is dedicated to preparing meals that are nutritious and fresh, yet as uncomplicated as possible. A medley of sautéed greens has become the go-to side dish of choice in her household.
A perfectly mixed-up salad
Just as leafy greens vary in color, texture and flavor, they also differ in nutritional composition. A creative mix makes for a healthy dish.
Start with a mild lettuce: butterhead, endive, rhazes, green leaf.
Add crunch and texture: frisee, romaine, Napa cabbage.
Color it up: radicchio, beet greens, arugula, baby red Russian kale.
Add peppery tang: arugula, dragon mustard, komatsuna, tatsoi, watercress.
Top it off with microgreens – the tender, young baby leaves from a slew of plants – parsley, purslane, sunflowers, collards, snow peas – are all loaded with antioxidants and vitamin C. Flavors range from sweet to nutty to spicy.
Greens by the book
“Greens 24/7: More Than 100 Quick, Easy, and Delicious Recipes for Eating Leafy Greens and Other Green Vegetables at Every Meal, Every Day” by Jessica Nadel (2015).
“Green Kitchen Smoothies: Healthy and Colorful Smoothies for Every Day” by David Frenkiel & Luise Vindahl (2016).
“The Power Greens Cookbook: 140 Delicious Superfood Recipes” by Dana Jacobi (2016).