Greens are becoming primary ingredients

August 22, 1993|By Sibella Kraus | Sibella Kraus,Contributing Writer

The rediscovery of greens is one of the great pleasures of today's kitchen. We are realizing what other cultures have known for centuries -- how flavorful, healthful and economical all the various greens can be.

In the past decade, the selection of greens in farmers' markets, ++ specialty stores and supermarkets has increased dramatically. Up until a few years ago, we had to go to France or Italy to enjoy specialty lettuces, greens such as arugula, and salad mixes such as mesclun. If we wanted ethnic greens such as bok-choy or broccoli di rape, we had to seek them out at specialty markets. Other greens, such as radicchio, frisee and mache, were only available as imports. Now, these are being produced and distributed by domestic growers as well.

Thanks to the proliferation of specialty seed companies, home gardeners can also now enjoy a large selection of the best varieties of greens. All the greens covered in this article -- except perhaps the heading varieties (those that form heads) -- are easy to grow. A small plot or even a window box can yield tender, fresh greens. Few things are more satisfying than watching your plants grow and then eating just-picked greens at the peak of their vitality and flavor.

With such an extraordinary variety of greens available year round, it is a great time to get acquainted with these new flavors. A good way to introduce yourself to unfamiliar greens is to cook them in favorite dishes such as a tart filled with sorrel, pizza topped with escarole, or pasta mixed with beet greens. If you are hungry to add excitement to your salads, there are dozens of varieties to discover, from nutty arugula to peppery cress, and from feathery mizuna to delicate mache.

Another way to learn about greens is to prepare them in unexpected ways. When very young and tender, greens that you would ordinarily cook, such as mustard and dandelion greens, are wonderful in salads.

Conversely, greens that you would usually serve raw can be quite delicious when cooked. For example, watercress in a rich broth makes a stunning soup, and sauteed with ginger makes quite a side dish. Radicchio -- equally at home in a risotto with artichoke hearts, on the grill, and in salads -- demonstrates the great versatility of the chicory family of greens.

Most people intuitively guess that vegetables as naturally flavorful as greens have got to be good for you. Sure enough, greens are extremely nutritious. The darker greens especially are packed with vitamin C and beta carotene (which converts to vitamin A) and are very high in calcium, iron and potassium.

The following greens are the most common salad greens and cooking greens available in the United States. Those not included are either so commonplace that descriptions would be superfluous, or so arcane that few people would have access to them. Here are a few basic guidelines for selecting, storing and cleaning greens.

* Selecting: Freshness is the key to quality. Leaves should be vibrant-looking and crisp, without any wilted, decayed or blemished spots. The stems on bunched or loose greens should appear to be freshly cut, without signs of browning or splitting. Similarly, heads of greens should have fresh-looking butts (or cores) that are not discolored.

* Storing: When you bring the greens home, remove any wilted or decayed leaves. If there is a band holding the bunch or head together, this should also be removed, because bruised leaves or stems are ripe ground for decay.

* Greens should be stored to retain moisture and provide air circulation. Since most of us don't have muslin bags (the ideal storage container), the next best thing is perforated plastic bags. You can also first wrap the greens in paper towels. Greens should be stored in the crisper section of the refrigerator, or in the area where there is the highest relative humidity.

* Cleaning: Remove the stems, roots or cores from the greens, if desired. Wash the leaves in plenty of cold water, so that they have room to float. Agitate the water with the gentlest action of your hands because greens, especially delicate lettuces, bruise very easily. Greens that are especially gritty (as spinach often can be) or that have many convolutions (such as frisee or curly endive) may need to be washed several times.

Gently lift the greens from the water, so that the grit remains in the bottom of the container. Dry them in a salad spinner or by wrapping them very carefully in kitchen towels. Avoid filling the spinner more than half full, as this also could bruise the leaves. Salad greens especially, should be completely dry.

Lettuces

Lettuces are generally divided into four categories, though there is some cross-breeding between categories. Crisp heads, such as iceberg, form a distinct head and have crisp leaves that can be ruffled or smooth. (In general, plants that form heads are called heading types.)

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