For how many generations and in how many languages have mothers encouraged or commanded their children to “Eat your greens; they’re good for you”? The fact is, greens are tasty; why many children leave them until last on the plate is one of life’s minor mysteries. The sometimes complex flavors cover a wide range, from mild, delicate, and sweet to sharp, tangy, bittersweet, and even meaty.
Our knowledge of greens today is worlds away from what we knew as children. All manner of greens are now available in restaurants, supermarkets, farmers’ markets, and urban, suburban, and country gardens across the nation. A confluence of factors is responsible: an interest in eating healthy foods, fueled by medical research into many foodstuffs; an influx of immigrant populations bringing favorite greens with them; the ease of growing most greens, even in small spaces; and many food professionals’ desire for plate and palate novelty.
Most Americans still make iceberg lettuce salads and believe that the dandelion is their enemy, but a vast variety of edible greens await their discovery. These greens represent many different plant families, and they are used in cuisines around the world. The herbal greens—including rocket, cress, sorrel, perilla, and the less commonly used amaranth, corn salad, dandelion, Good-King-Henry, lamb’s-quarters, orach, and many others—combine splendidly with lettuces, spinach, and chicories for tender, fresh spring salads. They can be blanched and added to pasta dishes and stuffings or stir-fried in vegetable dishes. And they can stand out in hot, nourishing main courses; the recipes that start on page 56 suggest some possibilities.
Greens, like other plants that humans have depended on for a long time, are well represented in the historical record. The Egyptians recorded lettuce growing about 4500 b.c. The ancient Greeks and Romans greatly fancied greens. Although the ancients knew nothing of vitamin and mineral content, they knew which greens to gather or cultivate for nutrition and flavor, and which to celebrate with stories and recipes. The Jewish ritual of eating sorrel and other bitter herbs at Passover is thousands of years old, and many Jewish people continue to eat bitter and other greens as part of their everyday diet. This tradition influenced some Christians’ use of bitter greens and herbs at Easter. An Easter soup of watercress, sorrel, dandelion, chervil, and spinach is still made in Bavaria.
The happy fact is that herbal greens are good for you. In the 1920s and 1930s, the vitamin and mineral content of many unprocessed foods, including greens, was determined, confirming what people had understood for centuries: greens are high in many elements necessary for good health. Sorrel has substantial amounts of iron and vitamins A, B2, and C; dandelion greens and cresses are at or near the top of practically every list: iron, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, vitamins A, B1, B2, niacin, and C. Because most greens contain sodium and other mineral salts, they need little, if any, added salt when prepared for the table.
A mess of greens
Rocket (Eruca vesicaria ssp. sativa), a member of the mustard family, is an ancient plant cultivated or gathered from the wild in most Mediterranean countries; it has recently become popular in North America. Its several Italian names indicate how widespread it is on that peninsula: arugula, ruchetta, rucola. Rocket’s distinctive taste is peppery and nutty and has been described as smoky, or like mustard, peanuts, radish, horseradish, or bacon. The flavors become muted when rocket is cooked, but it still has a richness and depth unlike any other green. The cream-colored, purple-veined small flowers make excellent garnishes.
Rocket becomes very strong, even bitter, in the heat and long days of summer, but during cool weather, it is very easy to grow, tolerating less-than-perfect soil, little water, and no fertilizer. It reseeds readily.
Cresses belong to several genera within the mustard family, and all have a peppery flavor. Watercress (Nasturtium officinale), the most nutritious of all the cresses, flourishes near streams or running water. Upland or winter cress (Barbarea verna) is a cool-season biennial that is generally winterhardy. The leaves distinguish it from true watercress; they are larger, longer, and pointed, though the same deep green. B. verna should not be confused with B. vulgaris in the wild; the latter is not edible. Garden cress (Lepidium sativum) can be grown as sprouts or in the garden for its greens. It is also called peppergrass or curly cress; there are several flat-leaved cultivars.
Watercress can be grown from seed or easily rooted from fresh spring supermarket watercress, then grown in containers. It likes daily bottom-watering and filtered shade. Upland cress is grown the same way. Garden cress is as easy to grow as radishes. It prefers cool weather, but repeated harvesting will extend its season from late spring sowings.
Sorrel, a perennial plant rich in vitamins and minerals, belongs to the buckwheat family. Two species are commonly cultivated. French sorrel (Rumex scutatus) has arrow-shaped leaves and is somewhat less acidic than common sorrel (R. acetosa). Its lemony-tart flavor is a good accent in salads and with other cooked greens.
Sorrel is undemanding in the garden but produces the best flavor in cool weather and when well watered. Plants produce well for several years in fertile soil in partial shade; keep flower stalks cut back to keep tender leaves coming during the summer.
Perilla (Perilla frutescens), a member of the mint family, is a popular Oriental potherb, called shiso in Japan, where it is also used in sushi. Tender young leaves add a pleasant, rather perfumy taste to mixed green salads, and tops can be harvested to stew with other greens or alone. All the perillas we’ve grown—green, purple, and cumin-scented—are ornamental plants with bushy growth and frilled leaves. The purple variety looks very much like ruffled Opal basil.
Perilla is an annual that reseeds to the point of weediness in some situations. It tolerates heat and humidity when it has ample water. We grow it with moderate fertilization and frequent harvests.
Other herbal greens include those we seldom or never see in U.S. markets, although they are cultivated for sale in other parts of the world. Many grow wild here and are both easy in the garden and interesting in the kitchen.
Amaranth (Amaranthus tricolor and cultivars) is an ancient annual plant grown throughout the world for its greens, grain, and flowers. It is also called Chinese spinach or tampala. The cooked leaves are quite tasty and can substitute for spinach during the summer. Choose varieties developed especially for greens, such as Greek, Hijau Salad, and Coleus Leaf Salad.
Garland chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum coronarium) is usually sold as a small yellow-flowered bedding plant, rather than for its greens. We occasionally find it in Oriental sections at farmers’ markets, sold in bunches in the spring: many Oriental peoples consider it a spring tonic green and diuretic. It has a pungent yet refreshing slight tartness. We like it uncooked in mixed green salads, or steamed very lightly (just enough to wilt), or stir-fried.
Corn salad (Valerianella locusta) is much prized as a salad delicacy in northern Europe, England, and France, where it is also called lamb’s lettuce or mâche. We won’t be surprised when it begins to appear here. Its flavor is mild but full, its texture tender yet toothsome. It goes well with a great many salad ingredients and dressings. In addition, it is lovely, with small spoon-shaped leaves that grow in rosettes in most varieties. We have tried many—Cavallo, Broadleaved, Verte de Cambrai, Grosse Graine Dutch, Piedmont, and Coquille—and like them all for their slightly different flavors, textures, and shapes.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is usually considered a weed in the United States, to be extirpated with unpronounceable chemicals, but it was not always that way, and it is still a well-respected pot and salad green in many quarters. It is very nutritious and tasty. We have picked 3- to 4-inch-long leaves from the wild dandelion in our grass, and they were pretty good, but the best flavor and broader leaves are found in the cultivated French strains, of which we have grown Montmagny.
Of the several cultivated members of the goosefoot family, Good-King-Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus) and lamb’s-quarters (C. album) are grown for use as cooked greens. We find them a bit metallic-tasting when raw, no doubt because of their high mineral content. Other people think that they taste like their close relative spinach and are delicious in salads, while still others call them bland. Magenta Spreen lamb’s-quarters is a handsome variety, with green and fuchsia-pink coloration.
Orach (Atriplex hortensis), also called mountain spinach, is one of our favorite uncommon greens. It’s another goosefoot, and its flavor is similar to spinach, if a little milder. The young plants offer very tasty salad leaves, and mature leaves are excellent cooked. We have tried green and yellow varieties, but Ruby is a star. Its stunning iridescent fuchsia and pale green leaves glow in the garden and in salad bowls spring and fall.
There are many tropical greens that will not grow in temperate climates and mountain greens specific to certain regions, as well as what we term accent greens: those added in moderation to give a different interest to ordinary dishes. We like Goldgelber purslane (Portulaca oleracea ‘Goldgelber’) for its special tartness, and mallow (Malva verticillata) for its decorative leaves. If you have the space and are an adventurous cook/gardener, you might try sea kale (Crambe maritima), which needs a permanent bed as asparagus does and is said to taste like it. Erbastella (Plantago lanceolata), also called barbe di prete, minutina, ripple grass, and buckhorn plantain, is a salad green that we grew in Italy; its flavor is mild, but its 1/8-inch-wide, dark green crinkled leaves add visual interest to many salads.
Susan Belsinger and Carolyn Dille have employed their green thumbs and impeccable taste buds many times for The Herb Companion. This article is adapted from their latest collaboration, The Greens Book (Interweave Press, 1995).
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