To Be Green, Eat Green

Discovering the Benefits of Leafy Vegetables

As a kid, the only salads I liked came from my grandma’s organic garden: Give me glossy bright leaves of romaine and curly leaves of chicory along with fresh tomatoes and I was in heaven. At restaurants I was always disappointed by salads: Anemic-looking iceberg lettuce was hardly appetizing to a young gourmet—or many other people for that matter.

© Brian Howard

Fortunately, the lame, limp lettuce that used to be de rigueur even in better restaurants has gone the way of legwarmers and shellacked hairdos. Today a plethora of lettuce types are easy to find in your supermarket. Even in fast-food restaurant salads, the better greens are showing up.

If you’re all grown up and still wince at the thought of dark leafy greens, it may be because you haven’t found the right ones, or the right preparation. There are enough different greens and enough ways to prepare them that they can find a place in any menu, from protein-loving to low-fat to raw to, of course, vegetarian or vegan. Greens are too delicious to miss, and their health benefits too great to overlook.

Popeye Was Right

There’s a reason wheatgrass is a very popular additive to fresh juices (or consumed in a "shot"): Greens are packed with nutrients, especially vitamin C, calcium, folate, lutein and beta carotene. Just a cup of cooked spinach and Swiss chard contains more than a third of the USDA daily recommendation of iron for women and half the recommendation for men.

Cynthia Stadd, a New York-based holistic health and nutrition counselor, says, "Green vegetables are the food most missing from modern diets. They strengthen blood and immune systems, prevent cancer and fight depression naturally." The fiber in raw greens will keep your digestive tract moving, and many natural-health advocates report that greens are energy-giving foods, increasing mental clarity and sustaining energy. Instead of that afternoon cup of coffee, try some greens in a lightly flavored broth. You may find that the greens keep you going longer than a temporary caffeine buzz would.

What may be surprising to some is that many scientists say cooking certain greens actually makes them healthier, as well as tastier. Holistic health expert Dr. Andrew Weil explains, "Raw spinach, chard and beet greens contain oxalic acid, which robs your body of calcium and iron. Members of the cabbage family also contain toxins. In general, these natural toxins are destroyed by cooking, especially cooking in water. But never overcook foods. That will lower nutrient content and cause other undesirable changes." Also, making sure you eat a variety of vegetables is a simple way to make sure you’re not getting too much or too little of any one toxin or nutrient.

The main distinction among greens comes from lettuces vs. "cooking greens," although some are great both cooked and raw, such as arugula, spinach, cabbage and chicories. Various lettuces obviously make great salads, and now, organic, ready-to-eat packages are available if you don’t have time to rinse, dry and cut up your lettuce. Organic lettuce is worth spending the extra money on, since it often tastes better, and since conventional lettuce leaves are sprayed directly with pesticides and herbicides that can be impossible to get off.


Since the early 1990s, lettuce varieties from all over the world have gradually been added to supermarket shelves, and seeds for heirloom and hybrid lettuces are readily available. If you would rather mitigate the environmental impact of long-distance shipping of produce, consider that greens are some of the easiest veggies to grow, and even in chillier climates can be grown from early spring well into fall.

Butterhead lettuces have the softest leaves, a delicate flavor, and are extremely easy to grow. Georgeanne Brennan, author of Great Greens (Chronicle Books, 2003) writes, "Butterhead lettuces come in colors ranging from light green to dark red, and the darker ones are the more nutritious, being richer in chlorophyll, beta-carotene and folic acid."

Looseleaf lettuces are marketed as red or green leaf and are an umbrella term for a huge variety of lettuces, from the mundane to the exotic. Romaine lettuce is one of the most popular in both Europe and America and holds up well during shipping and in the fridge. Both Romaine and looseleaf lettuces are best paired in salads with other vegetables and flavors.

e is a newcomer to the United States. Brennan writes, "Extremely versatile, mã{99}
e can be used as a primary ingredient in soups, pastas, stuffings and sandwiches." Mã{99}
e requires cool temperatures if you want to grow it yourself.

Mesclun isn’t actually a type of lettuce; the word comes from the French term for "mixture" (originally sold in open-air markets around Nice) and refers to a mix of field greens, arugula and chicory, which makes for a salad full of flavor and texture. This is one of the most popular pre-packaged salad mixes, and it’s best eaten as fresh as possible. Look for brightly colored leaves and watch out for yellowing.

Cooking Greens

Chard, or Swiss chard, comes in three types (sometimes packaged together as "rainbow chard") including red, white or yellow and green, all of which have similar flavors. Chard is almost always tastiest cooked, and it cooks quickly because of its relatively thin leaves. It is particularly high in iron and magnesium.

Kale has thick leaves and is a slow cooker, taking twice the amount of time as chard to reach edibility. It has a very earthy, mustardy flavor, and works best when incorporated into a soup or pasta, though if done right it can be delicious when cooked with just some garlic and olive oil or curry. Collards, the famous Southern specialty, are in the same family as kale and both are very high in chlorophyll, a cancer-fighting ingredient.

© Brian Howard

Endive/chicories provide a diuretic effect, and are known for their bitterness, which is best paired with a dressing that will complement the flavor. Especially popular in Europe, the tender inner leaves are great raw, and whole heads can be stir-fried or steamed. Dressing should be added when it’s almost done cooking.

Cabbages come in both Asian and European varieties. The Asian variety has a looser head, and includes bok choy, a favorite in Eastern cooking. Asian cabbage is usually used in soups or stir-fried (but is easy to overcook, so be careful). European cabbages form dense heads and come in a pastel rainbow of colors. These varieties are often used for making coleslaw and other cabbage salads. The heads can be cut into quarters, braised and topped with dressing or sauce.

Spinach is America’s most popular dark leafy green, and is very high in calcium and iron, though these nutrients are best absorbed by the human body when the leaves are cooked. If you are new to trying greens, spinach is a good variety to start experimenting with, since it is relatively mild and the flavor will be familiar.

According to the website, "Whenever possible, use the cooking liquid from greens in a sauce or add it to a soup. A significant percentage of the nutrient content of greens is rele

ased into the liquid as they cook. Cooking greens quickly will help preserve their color as well as their nutrients."

A foolproof method for cooking almost any green, and a good way to get to know how to cook the different varieties, is to rinse, remove any tough stems, then pull apart the leaves into hand-sized pieces. In a wok or large pan add about two to three tablespoons of olive oil and some crushed garlic, and throw your leaves in over a medium heat and toss with the oil. Cover and let cook for five to 20 minutes, depending on the greens. When they look to be thoroughly wilted, try them for taste. When they’re done, add some salt and pepper, and some tamari sauce or balsamic vinegar for a light and healthy taste sensation.

STARRE VARTAN is a freelance writer and food columnist.