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Flash in the Pan

Greens: They're what's for dinner



For Dante, green was the color of hope. For environmentalists, “green” is the label for practices and policies that are earth-friendly. There are countless other connotations for the word “green,” nearly all of which are linked to plant life.

Plants are green because they contain chlorophyll, which is essential to the process of photosynthesis. The vegetables we eat consist of plant parts, but not all vegetables are green, because many do not come from a part of the plant that is photosynthesizing, so they don’t contain chlorophyll. This week, we are not concerned with the carrot, the berry, or any vegetable that is not the leaf of the plant. In the English language when we eat plant leaves, we refer to them as greens.

As we learned in science class, green is the color right smack in the middle of the spectrum of visible light: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Is this a coincidence? I don’t think so. The fact that the word “green” enjoys such broad usage only confirms my theory that greens are the quintessential, all-around epitome of all vegetables. I eat them whenever I can. Chock full of vitamins, iron, calcium, and fiber, greens are top-notch eats for your body. Best of all, Chef Boy Ari is going to tell you how to cook them.

Around here, most of the greens we eat are in the brassica family, including mitsuna, kale, mustard, arugula, collards, cabbage and the leaves of any other brassica plant, such as broccoli, romanesco, kohlrabi. There are many subvarieties as well. Consider the many varieties of kale: curly kale, black kale, white kale, red Russian kale. Non-brassicas include chard, lettuce, spinach, and many others.

It is important to know that each variety of greens has its own personality and should be treated differently. My cousin Bart, a ski bum, tells me that greens are as unique as snowflakes, and has more words to describe greens than Eskimos have for snow. My other cousin, Don Guido Ashkanazi, purveyor of romantic charms, claims that greens are like women, and each one needs to be treated in her own special way. But everyone agrees that some greens cook quicker than others: less than one minute in steam or a hot pan is more than enough for spinach. Some greens are spicy, like arugula or mustard greens; some are sweet and juicy, like collards.

Don Guido Ashkanazi is always ready to wax orgasmically upon the virtues of the dark green leafy vegetables. He and I agree that our favorite way to cook them is to fream them in a cast iron skillet with a lid. Freaming is a special cooking technique that combines frying with steaming, best done with some water and a little bit of fat, such as olive oil or pre-cooked bacon and grease. When cooked correctly, greens are tender and meaty, rather than tough or mushy.

Says Don Guido, “I love the fiber in greens. They really clean out your gut like a delectable intestinal Brillo pad.” He adds, “The king of the greens are the collard greens, with more nutrients than any other, except dandelion greens, which are barely edible.” His favorite recipe is to fream the greens as described, then stir in a mixture of equal parts sesame oil, tamari, cider vinegar, and chopped garlic, and serve immediately. Don’t forget to experiment with different spices and vegetables. As always, whatever it is and however you cook it, some mayonnaise on top makes it even better.

Here is a recipe that I brought back from Thailand. Recipes can very good educational tools, alerting you to new techniques that you can incorporate into your tool box. But eventually the time will come when you must stake out on your own and deviate from the beaten path with your newfound knowledge. The recipe that follows contains an interesting use of the pre-sauté blanching technique. Believe me, I am going to use this technique elsewhere. I’ve omitted quantities because it is all basically to taste.

Kale with mushrooms in oyster sauce
Chop leaves of kale, including the stems, crosswise into one-inch strips. Quarter some oyster or shitake mushrooms and drop kale and ’shrooms into a pot of boiling water for about 45 seconds. Drain, then immerse them in cold water and strain. Next, heat some oil in a wok or skillet, and add chopped garlic until you smell the fragrant aroma. Then add the kale and mushrooms. Stir it up, and then pour in some chicken or veggie stock (I go with veggie stock and mayo). Then add some oyster sauce, crushed chili peppers, and sugar. (I get my favorite oyster sauce—Lee Kum Kee—from the Broadway Market.) Stir it up and adjust your seasonings to taste, then serve over rice. 

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