Posts Tagged ‘leafy greens’

Broccoli Sprouts, and a Good Green Gadget


I’m aware of the nutritional benefits of sprouts, but except for bean sprouts to use in some Chinese dishes, I am not very interested in them except in the winter, for a simple reason; my whole yard is full of things that I would rather eat.  But this winter I decided to see whether, when fresh food from the garden is limited, sprouts could fill in to a degree.

I decided on broccoli sprouts for my experiment  because of their rather remarkable nutritional profile, and since I already know that I do not care to eat them as they come from the sprouting jar (too stringy,) I was planning to grind them into green smoothies. I ended up with some definite opinions about the process.

First, I have tried pretty much every sprouting gadget out there at this point, and have returned to half-gallon wide-mouth mason jars with the specialized sprouting lids shown above. They are called Masontops and are available on Amazon,  and they are pretty much the ultimate in a low-tech inexpensive gadget that actually works really well.   I tried all kinds of fancy sprouting set ups and found this to be the simplest and the most mold proof.

Second, get seeds that will actually sprout. I buy the broccoli seeds from Food for Life.

Start in the jar in the usual way, soaking overnight to begin with and then being sure to rinse and drain twice per day. The phalanges on the Masontops allow you to sit the jar upside down in the sink to drain really thoroughly.

A point will come when the seeds begin to hang together in a mat the shape of the jar rather than being loose, as shown above. At this point, I move them out of the jar and into an 8” x 8” Pyrex baking dish. I keep them covered with a damp dish towel, and continue to rinse twice per day.

After another day or two the sprouting seeds will be forming a mat in the dish. Now, I set them out in the morning  sun for about an hour, turn the whole mass over, and sun them for another hour. This is so they can increase their production of sulforaphane and other antioxidants.  Then they go in the refrigerator, and can be used at any point over the next few days.

Green smoothies are not exactly a gourmet delight, but they are an extremely handy breakfast to carry off to a busy day at work, and they actually don’t taste bad if I put in some ginger and orange rind to take the curse off. For one breakfast I use a large handful of broccoli sprouts, a little fresh turmeric and two coins of fresh ginger, a few dark green outer lettuce leaves or cabbage leaves, and  a slice of orange rind.  By this I mean a slice of the outside of an orange that includes both the zest and the white pith underneath, but no orange flesh. The pith of orange rind is not bitter.  I like a good sprinkle of stevia based sweetener.  I throw it all in the Vitamix with half a glass of water, blend on high speed for about a minute, pour into a shaker cup, and top up with sparkling water.

I usually drink the concoction out of an opaque blender cup,  but here I have poured a bit out into a cordial glass so that you are prepared for the color, which can startle people who aren’t used to it.  Personally I have no problem with green food as long as the color is not artificial, and it can be used to keep you focused on the idea of leafy greens being a really, really good thing.

There is a nutritional rationale to most of these choices:

Broccoli sprouts,  because of their high sulforaphane content.  This chemical is a precursor to glutathione, and while glutathione is important, I don’t ever recommend taking glutathione itself as a supplement because too much may be as bad as too little. If you take the precursor sulforaphane  instead, it is readily converted to glutathione as needed.

Outer leaves of lettuce or cabbage because that’s where most of the nutrients are. Outer cabbage leaves, especially, are nutritional powerhouses but I don’t have time to cook them every day, so the Vitamix ensures that they get used.

Glass jars, because most plastic sprouting  devices are subject to mold sooner or later.

Sun exposure, because there is good evidence showing that two hours of exposure to UV light causes the sulforaphane  content to increase significantly.

Fresh turmeric and ginger because they are antioxidant powerhouses, and the ginger disguises the slightly cabbagey taste of the sprouts.

A slice of orange rind because the rind contains more vitamin C than the flesh or juice of the orange but contains little or no sugar, and besides it tastes good.

Green smoothies  because I start my day with two servings of green vegetables down the hatch,  but can consume the veggies in the car at stop lights or when I get to work, and don’t have to get sprouts caught in my teeth.


The First Nettles of Spring

This year we ate all winter from the broccoli and greens growing under frost blankets. Even so, it remains a major spring event when the first nettles are ready to pick. They taste so good and give such an all-over glow of virtue.  There are people who think that nettles have special medicinal benefits. My own belief is that all dark leafy greens have medicinal benefits, and the important thing is to eat as wide a variety of them as possible. But that first meal from the uncovered soil does confer a special feeling that spring is finally and truly here.

If you aren’t familiar with them, consult a good wild-food field guide, and be aware that the sting is quite uncomfortable and can last hours. Have leather gloves handy for picking. They’re ready to harvest when 6-8” tall. I cut off the top 2” or so, including as much leaf and as little stem as possible.

I turn them into a big bowl of water and stir gently with a wooden spoon for 2-3 minutes to get dirt off.

My favorite tool for lifting them out of the water, leaving any dirt that was present at the bottom of the bowl, is a pair of “salad hands” that somebody once gave me as a hostess gift. A large slotted spoon would work too. I make sure to throw the water on a garden bed. We live in the desert, after all.

Cooking nettles is a breeze, but in my opinion chopping is a necessary step, to eliminate stringy stems. First I put them in the pan with about half a cup of water, and cook over high heat, stirring, for about two minutes or until thoroughly wilted. The water should be pretty much gone. Turn out on a cutting board, let cool for five minutes or so, and chop. The cooking has eliminated their capacity to sting, and you can handle them with impunity now.

The flavor of nettles is rather like spinach, but deeper and richer, with a slight feral twist. I especially like them creamed, and always eat the first ones this way. Slice up two big fat green onions, sauté them in butter until cooked, add chopped nettles, sauté another minute or so, add heavy cream just to cover, boil for a couple of minutes until the cream is thickened, and salt to taste. Serve with freshly ground pepper and nothing else, so that you can taste the true flavor of the nettles.  You can also use netales in absolutely any way that you would use cooked spinach. They are infinitely versatile, and I have never served them to anyone who disliked them.  After the initial cooking and chopping, they can be frozen for later years. Whenever I wash and cook nettles, I try to make about twice as much as I need for immediate use, so that I can freeze the other half.

They can be dried for tea, although I do not care for the watery tasting tea that results and don’t bother.  Adding a twist of orange peel or something similar would give more flavor. I am not much of a tea drinker, but if you are, this might be worth considering.

If, like me, you live in an area who are nettles don’t grow naturally, there are some considerations to growing them in your yard.  First is obtaining them. When I first started growing them in central New Mexico about 12 years ago, I could not get seeds to germinate and no herb nurseries offered them. I finally called an herb nursery from whom I was buying other things and asked if they could please find me some nettles.  The “plants” I received had clearly just been dug from the nearest roadside, and were little more than cut rhizomes in potting soil, but they grew just fine.  These days they are easier to find and a number of mail order nurseries have them.

Siting  must be done carefully, because of the sting and because they are invasive.  I have mine in an area surrounded by concrete, where they cannot escape to parts of the yard where I don’t want them.  My large dogs are readily able to avoid them, but I have heard that they could do real harm to very small dogs, so keep this in mind.   Growing them in areas where small children could get into them is an obvious no-no. They get tall and gangly and flop around, but if cut or mown back in summer, they stay neater and make a second crop in fall.  I hope that I am never without nettles in spring.



Food Diatribe II: Leafy Green Season

Medscape just published an article worth reading. The information is from a prospective study of older adults living in the community, and showed a direct linear relationship between consuming one or two servings a day of leafy green vegetables and slower cognitive decline. In fact, eating leafy greens daily offered the cognitive equivalent of being 11 years younger.

One expert neurologist asked to comment on the findings responded with confirmation: “This study adds to the rapidly evolving and convincing evidence that you are what you eat when it comes to brain health,” Richard Isaacson, Weill Cornell Medicine, New York City, said. “From a practical clinical perspective, regular intake of green leafy vegetables should be a standard part of a risk reduction paradigm to delay cognitive decline throughout the lifespan.”

Amusingly, another expert said that it was “too soon” to recommend leafy greens, and advised waiting for further confirmation from future studies, a typical recommendation for new drugs but not typically applied to foodstuffs that healthy people have been eating for millennia. I do of course see his point, which is not to jump into thinking of leafy greens as a cure-all, but really now. So here is my response as a gardener, a doctor, and an avid reader of research: don’t wait. Some of the longest-lived and healthiest populations in the world have had  markedly high  consumption of leafy greens. There is no downside and no dangerous side effect to worry about unless you are on warfarin. So just do it. You can read the article here if you want, and it contains a link to the study. Then, just do it. Grow them if you can. If you have a small garden patch, make an investment in your family’s health by filling it with greens. If you don’t garden, you can haunt your farmers market or start making foraging trips. If you prefer to eat salad, choose darker greens, not lettuce hearts or iceberg, and eat a big bowlful.

Right now I’m still eating last fall’s leafy greens from under frost blankets. The collards and Savoy cabbage held up best, and are uniquely delicious after exposure to cold. I harvested Swiss chard for people and chickens all last summer, and then put a frost blanket over half  the row.  The new leaves of spring are the meatiest and most delicious that a chard plant ever produces, and the protected ones are nearly eating size, while the unprotected ones will come in some time next month. Just be sure to get them before the central stalk starts to elongate, because they lose their sweet meatiness and get strangely dirty-tasting when the flowering stalk starts to form. Green alliums are coming up everywhere, and my nettle patch is sprouting strongly.

If you keep animals for food, feed greens to your animals (not nettles, but chickens do love the leftover cooked ones.) I have a carnivorous friend who eats supermarket meat and insists that he’s a secondary consumer of vegetables, and I keep trying to tell him that on the contrary, he’s just a secondary consumer of GMO corn. Unless you are buying animal foods known for a fact to be grassfed or pastured and not grain-finished, you aren’t consuming the nutrients of vegetables.  But if you keep your own, it’s astounding what quantities of greens chickens will eat if they get a chance, while cattle, sheep, and goats can be raised to butterball fatness on grass and greens alone if you have enough. The nutritional profile of the eggs and meat is enhanced and the animals are much happier. I’ll have more to say about meat in the near future.

Green Slaw, and notes on salt-curing greens

Right now my garden is full of savoy cabbage and collards, the cold-hardiest greens around, and I’m trying to eat them in as many forms as possible. There are no greens more nutritious, and after a few hard frosts the texture is excellent. One way I really love to eat them is salt-wilted or salt-cured, which makes them more tender and gives them a velvety texture. The slaw shown above was designed to go with Mexican flavors and makes use of cilantro stems, which are often wasted but shouldn’t be. They have pure cilantro flavor and, unlike the leaves, will stand up to marinating or cooking.

For two people, I used one giant outer leaf of savoy cabbage and cut the midrib out. I then rolled the leaf halves up and cut them into thin strips less that 1/4” wide. Half a red onion was cut into very thin slices. The cabbage and onion strips were put in a bowl and salted generously. I didn’t measure the salt, but the idea is to use somewhat more than you might sprinkle on at the table, not to drench them with salt. Half a teaspoon for this small salad would probably do it.  Then- this step is important- I massaged the salt in with my fingertips for about a minute. The bowl was then put aside for half an hour. Meanwhile, I chopped a small clove of garlic finely and cut a handful of cilantro stems in fine cross section, as well as getting the chicken breasts and sauce ready. While the chicken breast was cooking, I squeezed out the greens to get rid of excess liquid. Then I tossed in the cilantro stems and garlic, squeezed the juice of half a lime over the leaves, tossed with couple of tablespoons of good olive oil, and finished with a few grinds of black pepper and a generous sprinkle of ground toasted cumin. The most important final step is to taste and consider the seasoning before serving. It may need additional salt, since much was lost when the liquid was squeezed out. And after considering the flavor balance, I ended up tossing in a light sprinkle of stevia, probably equivalent to about half a teaspoon of sugar.

This basic technique can be taken in many other directions. For a more Chinese take, leave out the cumin, use rice vinegar instead of lime juice, and add some grated ginger with the garlic and finish with a final drizzle of roasted sesame oil.  A sweeter take that can accompany Korean food or barbecue with equal facility can be achieved by tossing the wilted veggies, garlic, and cilantro stems with quasi-Korean sauce.  (Incidentally, when making that sauce, remember that oligofructose is not an essential ingredient and, if you aren’t low-carb, you can just use a smaller amount of sugar.) If pursuing an Asian flavor, use a neutral oil like macadamia oil rather than olive oil.  Rather than cilantro stems, you can use finely chopped parsley stems or a handful of finely sliced celery. You might want to salt-wilt the celery with the cabbage and onions if you use it, to make the texture blend in more harmoniously. You can dress the wilted veggies with wine vinegar or tarragon vinegar, add some finely chopped fresh thyme, and finish with a very good olive oil to have the slaw accompany more traditional western flavors. Parsley stems, lemon juice, oregano, and a final sprinkle of feta on top makes it more Greek, which is where I learned the salt-wilting technique in the first place. You can of course use part of a cabbage head rather than outer leaves, and red cabbage turns a lovely scarlet when salt-wilted and dressed with something acidic.  The point is that salt-wilting is a way to make thick cabbagey leafy greens more tender and chewable so that they can readily be eaten raw, and then you can take the flavor in any direction you want.  If you absolutely don’t have time for the salt-wilting step, you could try just massaging the finely sliced veggies with your fingers for an extra couple of minutes, and depending on your greens, this may soften the texture enough to make them very tasty, although the plush texture achieved by salt-curing won’t be there.  And if you don’t want to serve it as part of your meal, a small portion from half a large leaf or  so made in the kitchen while you do other things is a great cook’s treat  to eat while you work and prevent overeating later on.

I never tire of harping on the fact that leafy greens form the basis of the Cretan diet, the diet that nourished some of the healthiest and longest- lived people in the world. Also, they are full of soluble and insoluble fiber and very filling, so you have half the chicken breast left over to eat the next day, providing economies of time and money in addition to the health benefits.There is a meme going around that says

“How do you reset your body back to its factory settings?

It’s kale, isn’t it?

Please don’t say it’s kale”

Substitute “leafy greens” for “kale” and this becomes fairly accurate, and can be made delicious. If you grow your own greens, it’s also dirt-cheap. So there just isn’t a downside.


Chard’s Great Moment

image image

In my garden, this is the time to plant Swiss chard. It grows slowly in summer heat and gets a new lease on life in the fall, which is when I start eating it.  It goes dormant for the winter, and then in spring it emerges again and gradually progresses to making enormous leaves over a foot long.  These early spring leaves are very thick and meaty, and have a taste that has the umami elements of meat, but is mild and clean.  These early spring leaves are the ones that I eat, in huge quantities.  They are great cooked, and this is the only time of year that I love chard as a salad green. As soon as the plant starts to bolt to seed, the leaves of the elongating stalk acquire a rather dreadful dirty taste.  Interestingly, the large thick leaves at the base retain their mild delicious flavor for a while, so once the central stalk starts to form, you still have a week or two to collect leaves.  Then the chard season is over, and in my yard the rest is cut and goes to the goat.  When the last chard plant has been cut, I know it is time to plant more for the following fall and spring. ‘

So plan ahead, plant now, and love your chard in its best season.

A Grand Mess of Greens


I love the various vegetables that the seasons offer me, and for the most part prefer to eat what my environment is offering me fresh that day. I do freeze greens mixtures, though, so that I never run short and have them all winter. Recently I came across a forager’s description of his “56 species calzone” and it made me want to count up the number of species in the large batch of cooked seasoned greens for the freezer  that I’m working on today.

The main components: chard, dock, lambs-quarters, spinach, nettles

Seasonings and minor components: mulberry leaves, hops shoots, lettuce ( about to bolt,) dandelion,  scorzonera, salsify, sunflower, green onion, young leeks, elephant garlic, corn poppies, young grape leaves, marjoram, mint, fennel, mustard, cattail shoots, pea vines, broccoli leaves,  arugula, sow thistle, wild lettuce

Sauteed separately and added: chopped broccoli stems, grape leaves, green garlic

So, 30 species, a thoroughly respectable count for an average early summer morning,  and a potential treasure on winter days when I need to be flooded with the antioxidants of summer. In general I blanch the bulk greens in a fairly small amount of water which I later drink or make soup from, saute the chopped alliums and seasonings, then combine all and saute together for five-ten minutes or until the flavors have blended.

The true Cretan diet, the one that nourished some of the healthiest and longest-lived people in the world, was based on huge numbers of wild mountainside greens. It’s said that over 300 edible greens grow on Crete, and the average citizen can recognize over a hundred, making my 30 seem limited. But be assured that if you can learn to recognize ten of your local edible weeds and know when to harvest them and how to prepare them, your health and table will improve.  I’ve been tracking the preferences of a vegetable-despising friend, and he will eat greens, sometimes even second helpings, if they don’t look like greens on the plate. An example is the horta egg cake that I make often. He will even eat plain greens if they have a sweet component and a bit of texture, and an easy way to provide this is to douse them in the Quasi-Korean Sauce that I always have in the refrigerator and put a handful of roasted peanuts on top. If you eat bread, toasted sourdough bread crumbs provide delicious crunch on greens sautéed with garlic and chile flakes.
Be aware that greens have a remarkable capacity to absorb and mute flavors, and may need more seasoning than you think. Salt seems to disappear into them, and enough seasoning may be key to getting your loved ones to eat them and even like them. So keep tasting and adjusting until the flavor is right.
If you want to learn to identify some wild greens, gather them at the right stage, and cook them well, there is no better foraging author than John Kallas.

Kitchen staples: the pantry (and freezer) of the low-carb home

There are ingredients and seasonings that I have to have on hand at all times or I get nervous. With them, I’m ready to make a meal out of whatever foodstuff comes to hand. All such lists are intensely personal and idiosyncratic and I make no claims for universality, just usefulness. Due to my very low-carb eating, staples like pasta and flour aren’t on the list for me.

1. Really good fresh olive oil. Olive oil oxidizes fairly rapidly and, in my opinion, should not ever be used if more than a year old. Rather than take chances on freshness, I belong to the Fresh Pressed Olive Oil club; every three months they ship you three (or more if you choose) bottles of olive oil guaranteed to have been harvested and produced within the last 3 months; sourcing from the Southern Hemisphere as well as more traditional source areas makes this possible. I have belonged for years and hope they go on as long as I live and cook. A wide range of olive varieties and oil styles is represented. Pour it over cooked vegetables, dress salads, drizzle it on meat dishes, use as a base for a sauté of veggies. The Cretans and Ikarians thrive on it and so can we. I also keep oil-cured olives around at all times for their meaty umami belt in mixed greens.
2. Red Boat fish sauce. This is not only the best fish sauce available for Asian cooking, but pinch-hits very nicely for Italian colatura (garum.) A dash in vinaigrette gives a wonderful savor.
3. Dried mushrooms. I keep dried shitake, maitake, and porcini on hand at all times, and others at times as the mood takes me. With them, I am always prepared to add texture and flavor to cooked veggies, give a fitting garnish to a good piece of meat by soaking and sautéing them, or make a really good soup on short notice. I am ketogenic and don’t use flour, bread crumbs, or any other starch product, so I intend to try grinding them to powder and using them to “bread” and fry chicken, but that’s still on my to-do list.
4. Eggs. The best eggs I can get. Most of the time I have eggs from my own chickens, and in midwinter when my hens take a rest, I buy from a local co-op. Beyond the obvious omelet, frittata, and scramble, a fried egg is a wonderful way to make vegetables into a complete meal, and egg yolks are a wonderful velvety thickener for sauces.
5. Grass-fed butter. Grass-fed because it’s better for the cows and the planet as well as for me. Butter because there is nothing like it for improving flavor.
6. Coconut milk, which in my book is a joint pantry item with Hand brand Thai curry pastes. On days when I am short of time, energy, and verve, I can pick up some fresh fish or thaw a couple of pastured chicken thighs, soak and slice a few shiitakes, and pull together a healthy meal in under twenty minutes.
7. Freezer item: Wild-caught Alaskan salmon. I pay whatever I have to pay to get good fish, and I always buy Alaskan because their fisheries are well managed. The fillets are thin and thaw rapidly when I haven’t thought ahead about dinner. After a workday that ran later and harder than I expected, I’ve been known to take a frozen fillet still in its vacuum seal into the hot tub with me. Fifteen minutes later, I feel rejuvenated and the salmon is ready to cook.
8. Freezer item: homemade broth from grassfed beef and pastured chickens. I have written at length elsewhere about homemade broth. I really feel that nothing else will do as much to instill food thriftiness and improve your soups and sauces.
9. Nuts of various kinds. Almonds and Macadamias always, others here and there. Because they taste good and you can run for hours on a handful of them if you need to and they add flavor and crunch and specialness to all kinds of dishes.

10. Freezer item: blanched and chopped greens. Mine are a mixture of whatever was fresh and vibrant in the garden and field on any given day. If I had no garden and didn’t forage, I would use mixtures of spinach, chard, and Tuscan kale, and blanch and chop them and vacuum-seal before freezing. I find that I eat a lot more greens if I have them available in a handy form, and can make horta or whatever in a matter of  ten minutes rather than having a more prolonged process to go through.

11. Good red wine. Because life contains joy and is worth celebrating.

12. Very dark chocolate. Because see #11.