From a nutritional standpoint, one of the best things that we can do for ourselves is eat leafy greens. Most people eat fewer leafy greens than they think they do. Recently my mother assured me that she ate lots of them, but when I pressed her about exactly what she ate, the only thing she could come up with was “spring mix.” Salads are nice, but they’re just the beginning of the leafy green vegetable story.
In Central New Mexico, it is easy to grow leafy greens in the spring and fall. It’s a little harder to keep a steady supply of nice tasty greens through the summer. Many greens such as collards and kale will grow through the summer but don’t taste good then. Fortunately there are a number of choices, and two of them will be with you whether you want them or not, so you might as well eat them. These are the common weeds lambs-quarters and pigweed. In my opinion only the tender tips taste really good, so I keep cutting them back to produce plenty of tips. Both are inclined to shoot out of bounds and get too big, and in that case I just pull them out and feed them to the chickens, since there will always be more young weeds coming along. Consult two good books on wild foods to help you identify them. Lambs-quarters is a mild green that can be blanched and used in any way you would use spinach. Pigweed, which is a variety of amaranth, is still fairly mild but has an earthy flavor rather like beet greens. Most kales taste too strong to me in hot weather, but Tuscan kale is pretty good in the summer, although I still like it better after the weather turns cold. Swiss chard is delicious all summer. The leaves of the common sweet potato, Ipomea batata, are a delicious and especially nutritious green vegetable relished in hot countries all over the world. As long as they get plenty of water, they thrive in our heat. All of the mallows are good heat tolerant greens. They are mild to the point of blandness and a little bit muciligenous. I use them as about 25% of greens mixtures to “smooth out” sharper greens, and as long as they are a quarter of the total mixture or a little less, they add a plush mouthfeel that makes the others taste better. . New Zealand spinach is delicious all summer as long as you keep the tips packed so that it stays bushy and tender and doesn’t go to seed.
This year I am trying some new ones. None of them are big enough to eat yet in my garden, but I mention them to get other gardeners thinking beyond the usual possibilities. Chayote, the mirliton of my Louisiana childhood, is widely grown in Mexico and the greens are used as often as the squash-like fruit. I am sprouting some to grow as greens, but they aren’t big enough to cut yet. I’ll. report on the flavor later. Quailgrass, Celosia argenta, is a heat loving green which is also very attractive. The winged bean and the cowpea are two legumes relished in Asia and Africa as leafy green vegetables, and they love heat. I am also trying Ethiopian cabbage and two fascinating tropical trees, Moringa and Chaya, which are valued as green vegetables in many parts of the world. Again, I will write a post about them when I have tasted them. If you are interested in expanding your range of possibilities I would refer you to the interesting website of ECHO; they have a display food garden in Florida where they grow many of these “alternative” possibilities and they do sell seeds for some of them. Bountiful Gardens is another good source for unusual seeds, and Baker Heirloom Seeds always has some interesting goodies to consider.
Having caught your greens, you now need to wash and cook them. Gritty greens are gruesome. My own method is to soak them in enough cold water to cover them generously for at least one hour, stir them around with my hands, lift them out of the water and discard it (put it on a garden bed, not down the drain,) rinse the bowl clean of grit and cover the greens with cold water again, stir with the hands, lift them out and discard the water again, and repeat the whole process once more. I have an 8-gallon plastic food grade bucket for this purpose, which I got at a brewing supply store. I don’t do it in the sink because then I couldn’t use the water to water the garden. Using this method, I never have any gritty particles in my greens. The initial soak seems to be important in loosening any attached dirt.
Now, on to the cooking part. My website and blogsite (click “greens” under Categories) are full of recipes for greens, but often I just blanch them until tender and serve with butter, a squeeze of fresh lemon, and a little salt and pepper. I picked up another good simple method in Hawaii, where many cooks have found that a combination of butter and a little soy sauce tastes wonderful. It doesn’t taste particularly Asian, just delicious. I like to add a little garlic to the combination. This is too simple to present as a formal recipe. Blanch 1 pound of greens until tender, drain them and press out all excess moisture, and chop them. Chop up one large or two small cloves of garlic, sauté them in 3 tablespoons of good grass-fed butter until cooked but not colored, and a tablespoon of best soy sauce, and toss with the cooked and chopped greens. Reheat briefly if necessary and serve.