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. This week, we are not concerned with the carrot, the berry or any vegetable that is not the leaf of the plant.
When we eat plant leaves, we refer to them as greens. For me, greens are the quintessential, all-time flaming chariot of 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 what to do with them.
Most greens are in the Brassica family, including mizuna, kale, mustard, arugula, collards, cabbage and the leaves of any other Brassica plant, such as broccoli, romanesco and kohlrabi. There are many subvarieties as well: curly kale, black kale, white kale, red Russian kale. Non-Brassicas include chard, lettuce, spinach and many others. They all have fiber, which cleans out your gut, like a delectable intestinal Brillo pad.
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 he has more words to describe greens than Eskimos have for snow. My other cousin, Don Guido Ashkinazi, purveyor of romantic charms, claims that greens are like women, and each one needs to be treated in her own special way. (My other cousin, Butch, a biker chick, is into chicken fried steak. She thinks Don Guido Ashkinazi needs to get "tutored.")
But everyone agrees that some greens cook quicker than others -- less than a minute is more than enough for spinach. Some greens are spicy, like arugula or mustard greens; some are sweet and juicy, like collards. Collards, incidentally, are the king of greens, with more nutrients than any other, except dandelion greens, which are barely edible.
Except for the real delicate stuff (like lettuce, which you don't cook, or spinach, which cooks in a heartbeat), my favorite way to cook greens is to "fream" them in a cast-iron skillet with a lid. Freaming is a special cooking technique that combines frying with steaming -- just fry it in a little oil and water with the lid on. When cooked correctly, greens are tender and meaty, rather than tough or mushy. Although there is an argument to be made for greens that are falling-apart-tender, I prefer not to cook my greens to the point that they resemble something from the basement of the Army/Navy store. The less you cook them, the more vitamins, too.
Don Guido likes to fream his greens, then stir in a mixture of equal parts sesame oil, tamari and cider vinegar -- plus chopped garlic -- and serve immediately. And by all means, you should experiment with different spices and vegetables.
Here is a recipe that I brought back from Thailand. Recipes can be very good educational tools, alerting you to new techniques that you can incorporate elsewhere. But eventually, the time will come when you must strike 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-saut blanching technique, in which certain items are precooked before being added to the saut. This allows the flavor to be mixed in with the greens, without the possibility of overcooking or burning the sauce. Believe me, I am going to use this technique elsewhere. I've omitted quantities because it is all basically to taste. The recipe calls for kale, but you can substitute collards, or any similar green.
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, immerse in cold water, and strain. (Note: immersing in cold water keeps the greens crisp, and makes them a beautiful shade of neon green. It works great with other veggies too, like broccoli -- which could also be substituted for kale here)
Next, heat some oil in a wok or skillet, add chopped garlic, and cook until you smell the fragrant aroma. Then add the kale and mushrooms. Stir it up, and then pour in some chicken or veggie stock.
Then add some oyster sauce, crushed chili peppers and sugar. (I like the Lee Kum Kee brand of oyster sauce.)
Stir it up and adjust your seasonings to taste. It's good on rice, with a pickled pepper on the side.
-- Chef Boy Ari writes and cooks in Missoula, Mont.