Leafy greens are delicious, versatile and packed full of vitamins and minerals that your body needs to function at optimum performance. Eating leafy greens on a daily basis may very well enhance your well-being.
Many of these greens are used in Asian cooking and are super-tasty when sauteed with a bit of olive, sesame or peanut oil.
Because each green has different nutritional values, it's important to eat a variety of them to enjoy the numerous benefits these amazing foods offer. Keep in mind that each also has a different texture and may require longer or shorter cooking times as well as techniques. For example, kale is often blanched for 20 to 30 seconds before sauteing to help reduce some of the bitterness, while that's not necessary with beet greens or Swiss chard.
Let's look at each green leafy’s basic nutritional values plus a couple of tips for using it in the kitchen.
- Nutrition Notes: Arugula is part of the brassica family that includes cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. This wonderful leafy green, also called garden rocket or roquette, is high in fiber while remaining low in calories. Arugula contains B vitamins as well as healthful phytonutrients such as indole-3-carbinol and isothiocyanates.
- Kitchen Tips: Raw arugula has a wonderful spicy taste that brings a nice bite to salads and sandwiches and so is best eaten raw. If cooking with arugula, such as in stir-fries, cook for a short amount of time.
- Nutrition Notes: While most of us enjoy the sweet, earthy taste of beet roots, the greens are full of iron, protein, calcium, magnesium, zinc and fiber.
- Kitchen Tips: Saute beet greens in a bit of olive or peanut oil, or use the delicate new leaves in salads or on sandwiches. For a fun treat, take beet greens, coat them in olive oil and bake them in the oven until crispy for delightful beet green chips.
- Nutrition Notes: As a cruciferous vegetable, bok choy (also known as Chinese cabbage) shares the powerful benefits of this plant family by supplying high levels of phytonutrients. At only 13 calories per cup, it has made its way into weight-management plans for its strong nutrition-per-calorie ratio. Bok choy has more vitamins A, B6 and K, and more carotenes, than traditional cabbage, along with significant levels of vitamin C, calcium and potassium.
- Kitchen Tips: Both the dark green leaves and the lighter-colored stems can be cooked in Asian-inspired recipes and salads. Combine it raw with lightly steamed snow peas, sliced red cabbage and green sprouts, dressed with a sesame-ginger dressing. Bok choy goes well with rice, noodles and tofu dishes.
- Nutrition Notes: A king among the crucifers, cabbage is full of healthful compounds including glucosinolates and a high fiber content. Although each variety—red, green and Savoy—has a different nutritional profile, they all contain vitamins B6, C and K, along with folate and calcium. Red cabbage contains additional protective phytonutrients, which are visible in its vibrant color.
- Kitchen Tips: Coleslaw is the mainstay cabbage dish, and thin strips of red cabbage can enhance the color and nutrition of any salad. You can also ferment cabbage to create your own sauerkraut. Shorter cooking times, such as steaming or stir-frying, allow cabbage to better retain its nutrients.
- Nutrition Notes: In addition to its healthy micronutrient profile, collard greens have been found to contain many of the same healthful properties of its brassica cousins.
- Kitchen Tips: Wide-leafed greens with a cabbage-like flavor, this staple of Southern cookery is at its peak during the winter months. For a healthier take on a classic dish, serve steamed collards with black-eyed peas and brown rice, or simply drizzle them with olive oil and lemon juice. They can also be seasoned with chili peppers, garlic, ginger or onion. Look for firm leaves with no yellowing and wash them thoroughly by swishing them in several changes of cool water.
- Nutrition Notes: While many think of dandelions as weeds, the greens are chock-full of nutrients, including vitamins A, C, K and E. They are also rich in folate, magnesium, calcium and iron.
- Kitchen Tips: Dandelion greens have a bitter taste and are best cooked lightly in olive oil or sesame oil with a splash of lemon juice.
- Nutrition Notes: The slightly bitter, elegant-looking endive, which is a member of the chicory family, is chock-full of folate as well as vitamins and K. In addition, endive contains kaempferol, a healthful phytonutrient.
- Kitchen Tips: Endive is a wonderful addition to salads, and because of the firm structure of the leaves, it makes a great alternative to crackers on an appetizer tray. Fill with tuna salad, hummus or even soft cheeses for a tasty treat.
- Nutrition Notes: Although cultivated for more than 2,000 years, this rugged green seems to have suddenly emerged onto the fashionable kitchen scene. Like its cousin broccoli, kale is high in calcium and it reaches superfood quality with extremely high levels of vitamins, including A, C and K, along with carotenoids, fiber, flavonoids, folate, iron and protein. It's also very low in calories, about 34 calories per cup.
- Kitchen Tips: Kale's wild and curly leaves should be pulled away from the tough stems; they can be finely chopped and added to raw salads. Kale leaves can also be lightly sautéed or stir-fried, baked into crispy chips and even blended into smoothies
- Nutrition Notes: Better-known butterheads include the Bibb and Boston varieties, characterized by a head of loose, tender leaves with a flavor and texture often described as sweet and buttery. Sporting bright green outer leaves with yellowish interiors, butterhead lettuces are a great source of vitamins A, C and K, as well as calcium, fiber, folate and protein.
- Kitchen Tips: Butterhead lettuce is delicate, elegant and sophisticated in texture and flavor. It lends itself to a simple salad with maybe a touch of arugula added as a lovely contrast of flavors. Adding fresh fruits, such as mandarin oranges or fresh strawberries, and topping the salad with a slightly sweet vinaigrette makes for a lovely side dish. The creamy texture of butterhead lettuce also makes it good for sandwiches.
- Nutrition Notes: Although it's still the most popular lettuce in the United States, iceberg is often considered lower in nutrition than other, darker leafy lettuces. However, iceberg lettuce, sometimes referred to as crisped lettuce, provides vitamins A, B6, C and K, along with fiber, folate and iron.
- Kitchen Tips: Iceberg lettuce is known for its mild flavor, which is probably why children seem drawn to it. Its super-crispy leaves resemble those of cabbage, making iceberg a great crunchy addition to chopped salads. Iceberg mixes well with other lettuces and vegetables in a salad and makes for a satisfying meal. Iceberg has also made its way back onto restaurant menus as the main ingredient in wedge salads with bacon and blue cheese dressing. At home, a creamy dressing based on Greek yogurt and either lemon juice or a flavorful vinegar would be healthier.
- Nutrition Notes: With roots in western Europe and the Mediterranean, romaine is known for its crisp texture, adding a nutritional, low-calorie punch to a salad or sandwich with high levels of vitamins A, C and K, as well as fiber, folate and iron.
- Kitchen Tips: Romaine is one of the best lettuces for salads, especially a Caesar salad. Combine romaine lettuce with feta cheese, olives, roasted red peppers and thinly sliced red onions for a Mediterranean salad; dress with a simple olive oil and red wine vinegar dressing. The firm texture of romaine holds up well to tossing on the grill for a few minutes to give it a smoky flavor.
- Nutrition Notes: As a member of the crucifer family, mustard greens contain a number of healthful substances.
- Kitchen Tips: Mustard greens, which come in red and green varieties, have a sharp, peppery taste. Young leaves can provide a radish-like note in salads, including pasta salads. More mature leaves benefit from slow cooking to mellow their stronger bite; adding vinegar or lemon juice to the end of the cooking time tames them even more. Mustard greens can also be blanched and added to purees, sautés and soups.
- Nutrition Notes: Spinach is full of iron, protein and vitamins A, B2, B6, C and K, as well as being high in fiber, folate, magnesium and potassium. Spinach is chock-full of phytonutrients with powerful benefits.†
- Kitchen Tips: Spinach is an extremely versatile leafy green. You can steam it, put it in eggs, chop it raw and add to salads, and it's is tasty in stir-fries, lasagna and even smoothies. Make tasty pesto with spinach, basil and parsley.
- Nutrition News: A handsome beet relative with its red stalks and leaf veins, Swiss chard provides magnesium and vitamins A, C and K.
- Kitchen Tips: You can take some of the acid out of Swiss chard's broad, crisp leaves by boiling them for three minutes and discarding the water. Swiss chard makes a good alternative to spinach, including as a filling in vegetarian lasagna, or added to egg dishes.
- Nutrition News: Provides calcium along with vitamins A, C and K. Turnip greens also contain more glucosinolate than most other crucifers.
- Kitchen Tips: Turnip greens and pork is another classic Southern dish. Healthier options include steaming the greens for five minutes and sautéing with tofu and sweet potatoes or in extra virgin olive oil with plenty of garlic.
The Bottom Line
Kids try to quietly slip them off their plates to the waiting family dog, but green vegetables—including the leafy ones health authorities always tell us to eat more of—have become a hot item in the culinary world.
“The popularity of greens is part of a general rediscovery of the joys of the real, earthy flavors and visual beauty found in fresh, seasonal produce,” say Barbara Scott-Goodman and Liz Trovato, authors of Eat Greens: Seasonal Recipes to Enjoy in Abundance(Running Press).
One reason for this revival is the increasing availability of greens throughout the year and in greater variety than ever before. That makes getting them from market to table in good condition crucial to preserving peak flavor.
“It's best to buy greens the same day you plan to use them or at most the day before,” says Nava Atlas, author of Wild About Greens (Sterling). “The more delicate the greens, the more perishable they are.”
Atlas recommends looking for firm, evenly colored leaves with no wilting or off colors. If you aren't using your greens right away, she suggests wrapping them in paper towels and storing them, refrigerated, in a tightly sealed plastic bag.
Why do leafy greens get a bad rap? As Atlas puts it, “Nothing ruins a good dish like a mouthful of sand.”
She says the best way to avoid grittiness, especially with crinkly-leaved varieties, is to chop them and place them into a large bowl of cold water. Swirl them around and then let stand for a few minutes; the soil will fall to the bottom. Scoop out the greens, and repeat until the water looks clean. “I'm not content until I give the greens a final rinse in the colander,” adds Atlas.
Enjoy adding these leafy greens to your diet. Your kids, family and body will thank you for providing tasty, nutritious greens in your meals.
Blueberry Chicken Salad Wraps
The lettuce leaves in these delicious wraps provide a pop of color and some satisfying crunch.
3 tbsp plain Greek yogurt
2 tbsp mayonnaise
1/4 cup finely chopped celery
1/4 tsp salt
2 cups diced cooked chicken
3/4 cup fresh blueberries
6 whole-wheat tortillas (6”)
6 large lettuce leaves
Yields 12 servings
Source: reprinted with permission from the US Highbush Blueberry Council
**These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.