Flavorful, garden-fresh spring greens pack a powerhouse of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, and with minimal calories.
From mellow to pungent, fresh and flavorful leafy spring greens are rising to superstar status as some of the most nutritionally packed powerhouse foods of the vegetable world. Calorie for calorie, these leafy vegetables are some of the most vitamin-rich foods available.
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For tips on how to grow spring greens, see Fresh Clips: Growing Salad Greens.
Greens such as kale, chard and spinach contain a cornucopia of vitamins and minerals that include vitamins A, C and K, as well as calcium. “Greens offer plenty of calcium along with a balanced mineral support (magnesium, potassium and zinc) that can be tolerated by anyone,” says Jaclyn Chasse, N.D., owner/director of Northeast Integrative Medicine in New Hampshire.
Leafy spring greens also contain dietary fiber and omega-3 fatty acids along with an arsenal of phytonutrients such as beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin. And while they pack in the nutrition, they do so with precious few calories: raw greens contain 10 to 25 calories per cup; cooked greens have 20 to 50 calories per cup, depending on the type of green. They are a calorie bargain, so you can eat lots with no worries.
Whether used fresh in salads, cooked in soups, mixed into stir-fries, served as side dishes or enjoyed as part of a main course, make greens a regular part of your diet. A few minutes is all you need to transform these leaves into a tasty dish worthy of a place at your dining table.
ARUGULA: The young, tender leaves are delicately sweet, with a buttery-smooth texture and subtle peppery taste accented by nutty undertones. Older leaves are more assertive, with a distinct peppery flavor that some liken to a sharp cress or a pungent mustard. Its leaves are used to season everything from salads, soups and stews to stir-fries, pastas, pizzas and rice. Arugula goes especially well with cheese, citrus and egg dishes.
Health benefits: Arugula is high in vitamins A, C and K; folate and calcium; and antioxidants, including lutein and glucoerucin (which prevents tissue damage by scavenging free radicals).
ASIAN GREENS: This group of tasty spring greens varies from buttery to crisp and mild to spicy. Bok choy (also known as pak choi) is tender and mild in flavor. It resembles chard in appearance, but the stalks are thicker and crisper; good for stir-frying, braising or simmering in soups. Mizuna has a sweet, mild taste and slightly crisp texture. It is excellent fresh, steamed or cooked in soups, sautés and stir-fries. Komatsuna is a popular Japanese mustard spinach that is sweet and mild with a hint of zesty mustard flavor.
Health benefits: Asian greens are typically rich in vitamins A, C and K; folate, potassium and calcium; and carotenoid antioxidants including beta-carotene. Bok choy in particular has 28 different polyphenols (antioxidant phytochemicals)—the most abundant is kaempferol, a natural flavonoid shown to have anti-cancer properties.
BEET GREEENS: Similar to a cross between chard and spinach, beet greens have a sweet, mild flavor, cook quickly and offer a wide range of culinary versatility. Use beet greens fresh, steamed, sautéed, or added to soups, stews and stir-fries.
Health benefits: These tasty greens are incredibly rich in nutrients, with high concentrations of vitamin A, potassium, iron and calcium; are rich in flavonoid antioxidants; and provide an excellent source of carotenoid antioxidants, including beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin.
CHARD: This beautiful vegetable has large, thick green leaves, colored veins, and stalks that vary in color from white, red, yellow or orange. The flavor is mellow, but more intense than spinach. It’s best to remove the stalks from the leaves and cook separately to prevent the leaves from being overcooked. Leaves can be used fresh or cooked.
Health benefits: Chard is packed with nutrients, including vitamins C, E, manganese, zinc, and phytonutrient antioxidants including beta-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, quercetin and kaempferol.
COLLARD GREENS: A cabbage-family member, collards are mild and somewhat buttery in texture, with fan-like leaves broader than kale. The greens are best when sliced and lightly steamed, sautéed or used in a stir-fry. It’s important to not overcook—a brief 5 to 10 minutes results in best flavor and nutrition.
Health benefits: These nutritional spring greens rank high in vitamin K, A and C along with manganese, folate and calcium. They are also rich in niacin and riboflavin as well as carotenoid antioxidants, such as beta-carotene and lutein, and the organosulfur antioxidant lipoic acid. “Its ability to bind to bile acids in the digestive tract makes it the most powerful green at lowering cholesterol, especially when steamed,” Chasse says.
DANDELION GREENS: A close cousin to the sunflower, dandelions are somewhat bitter, similar to escarole or chicory. Use the fresh leaves in a salad, sandwich or stir-fry, steamed or sautéed, or steeped in a tea. Dandelion is known as a good laxative, a nonirritating diuretic and an ideal spring tonic due to its liver-cleansing properties.
Health benefits: The leaves are rich in vitamins A, C, E and K; minerals iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium; and many trace elements and health-benefiting antioxidants such as lutein, cryptoxanthin and zeaxanthin.
KALE: The flavor of this cabbage relative has a slightly bitter taste with a pinch of peppery qualities. Most of us are familiar with the more common curly type, with its dark green ruffled leaves and fibrous stalk. Ornamental kale can be green, white or purple with a texture and flavor that’s more buttery and mellow. Tuscan kale (also known as dinosaur kale, lacinato or black kale) is slightly sweeter and more delicate, with beautiful dark blue-green textured leaves. Kale is best when briefly cooked (cut leaves into 1/2-inch slices and then steam, sauté or cook for 5 minutes), though Tuscan kale can also be used fresh as an accent in a salad or marinated and tossed into a cold pasta salad.
Health benefits: As with other spring greens, kale is packed with a range of vitamins and minerals and rates especially high in vitamins A, C, B6 and K. Standout antioxidants (especially carotenoids and more than 45 different flavonoids) include beta-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, kaempferol, quercetin and glucosinolates, an anticancer nutrient.
SPINACH: This versatile and highly favored green can be eaten raw or cooked. Spinach, with its subtle, rich flavor and buttery texture, requires little preparation and can be steamed or sautéed in a matter of minutes. Fresh baby spinach greens are ideal in salads; more mature leaves are tasty in omelets, frittatas or any egg-based dish as well as soups, stews, stir-fries, pastas and rice dishes. Keep in mind that 8 cups of fresh spinach can easily cook down to about 2 cups, as cooking greatly reduces its volume.
Health benefits: Spinach is rich in vitamins A, B2, B6, C, E and K, as well as folate, magnesium and manganese. The greens are also concentrated in a number of healthy antioxidants, including carotenoids (such as beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin), more than a dozen different flavonoids (including the unique category of flavonoids known as methylenedioxyflavonol glucuronides) and polyphenols (which are antioxidant compounds noted for their cancer-fighting and youth-promoting capabilities). Spinach is also a good source (some say the best source) of lipoic acid.
MUSTARD GREENS: An integral part of Southern cuisine, mustard greens have a pungent and peppery edge, with flavor accents of horseradish and mustard. These spunky spring greens, which are often cooked or mixed with other greens such as kale or collards, are chartreuse in color with frilled and curly edges. Young mustard greens make a tasty addition in fresh salads; more mature greens are best when sautéed in a little olive oil.
Health benefits: Mustard greens are loaded with vitamins A, C, E and K, as well as folate, manganese and the amino acid tryptophan. Key antioxidant phytonutrients include quercetin, kaempferol, beta-carotene, isorhamnetin and hydroxycinnamic acid, which is a group of natural polyphenols also found in green coffee beans.
• Don’t overcook. Two to five minutes of steaming, sautéing or simmering is all that’s needed to ensure tender leaves that retain their color, flavor and nutrients.
• A fast and easy way of cooking greens is to sauté them in olive oil and garlic until wilted. Top off the flavor with a little balsamic vinegar, rice vinegar, fresh lemon juice or lime juice.
• Make a simple sauce by pureeing steamed greens with plain yogurt and seasonings. Try options such as whole-grain mustard, minced anchovies, curry sauce or chopped fresh herbs.
• Try transforming spring greens into a green drink. Linda B. White, M.D., recommends taking fresh nettles, dandelion leaves, spinach or other greens and stuffing them into a blender along with sliced apple, lemon and/or berries. Cover the contents with cool water and blend. “I let the mixture sit for about 30 minutes to allow more of the plant goodness to infuse into the water,” she adds. Then strain through a cheesecloth, mesh bag or strainer, and enjoy. The sweetness of the apple, lemon and berries will make the drink delicious.
Kris Wetherbee is a contributing editor who lives and tends her herbs in western Oregon.
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