Monday, April 30, 2012

Quick braised hearty greens

How to shop for, prepare, and love kale and collards.

Our winter vegetable share has ended, and our summer share has not yet begun to produce. The winter farmer's market, where I was getting some early salad and braising greens, is over and the summer market will not start until next month. I find myself more often at the supermarket and the co-op, choosing from among the imports. Even my potatoes and cabbage are being shipped from California.

Butter paneer masala over rice with a side of kale
There are spring foods, and I'm glad to add them back into my diet: raw milk returns, including the locally made cheese that I make into butter paneer masala.

When the asparagus comes in, I make it every other meal. But mainly, spring is still about living on reserves of starchy vegetables, meat, and grain put by the year before. I think a green vegetable is necessary, too. In winter, we eat more cabbage in the rotation, and in summer, there's more green salad and a lot less cooked greens. In spring, when I run out or asparagus for a minute, it's back to the leafy greens.

I like kale and collards because I can prepare them simply, and use them interchangeably in other dishes or as a simple side. They're the foundation of a breakfast of lightly fried eggs over greens, and go into stew or beside a chop for lunch or dinner. While it's traditional to boil the hell out of them, they don't need to be cooked long to be thoroughly cooked, and they're also good just barely steamed. You can even eat them raw as salad, if you shred them or they're young and tender enough. Some foods we eat year round, and leafy greens are among them.

The dark leafy greens, along with other coles and green vegetables, are deserving of their own food group. The coles include cabbage, kale, and collards, as well as broccoli and Brussels sprouts, and other, non-cole  leafy greens include mustard, calaloo, and dandelion, though these are by no means exhaustive lists.

Oven-baked suet fries and buttered,
grilled asparagus pair with
mustard-brown sugar glazed salmon.
I fall back on a few ways that I will prepare dark green leafy vegetables. This is a practice for braising simple and flavorful greens that go with anything and everything.

How to prepare dark leafy greens:
  1. When you're purchasing collards, especially, make sure the leaves are crisp and fresh, not wilted and sagging. Avoid collards that have many tears or marks on them from insects.
  2. To wash them, fill your sink halfway with cold water and gently swish and rub the leaves in the water. Rub both sides of collards leaves lightly under the water to remove residue: even organically grown greens have soap and dirt on them. (If this seems like too much trouble, consider that organic, ready-to-eat, pre-washed greens are washed with a chlorine bleach solution, and are sometimes recalled for spreading infection instead of destroying them.) Shake them dry.
  3. Inspect the leaves for bad parts to remove: any place that is wilted, brown or black, or otherwise shows evidence of insects having eaten it. Look for the eggs of insects that are sometimes found on the underside (the matte, light green side) of the leaves, and tear out these parts of the leaf.
  4. Cut or tear the thick parts of the stems from the leaves of collards and kale.
  5. Tip: If you're feeling really thrifty, you can chop all but the woodiest stems and start them in a braising liquid, then add the chopped leaves near the end.
  6. Gather the leaves into a roll or pile and slice them. A very thin slice looks elegant and is a nice texture under something delicate like a fried egg. A big, thick slice goes well with something like sausage or potatoes.
  7. Start some fat over medium-high heat in an iron skillet: at least a tablespoon or so or olive oil, butter, or bacon grease. Add a little thinly sliced onion, some red pepper flake. When the onion is lightly browned, add minced garlic or ginger if you like.
  8. Add the greens in large handfuls that nearly fill the pan. Move the greens around, cover if necessary to get the greens to wilt down. Salt what's in the pan, then add more greens. When all of the greens are in, add a liquid: just water is okay, but wine can be nice, and stock is my favorite. You only need enough to steam the greens: about a quarter of a cup will do. Cover and turn the heat down very low. They'll be ready to eat in ten minutes or less.
If you're in a hurry, skip the aromatics and just wilt the greens in some hot fat.

If you're really in a hurry, just steam the greens in stock.
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