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It’s easy being green in the winter thanks to kale, collards, spinach

Cooking Winter Greens

Bob Perry, University of Kentucky chef in residence, shows us how to sauté lacinato (dinosaur) kale, with bacon, onion, garlic, red pepper flakes, balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper.
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Bob Perry, University of Kentucky chef in residence, shows us how to sauté lacinato (dinosaur) kale, with bacon, onion, garlic, red pepper flakes, balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper.

Winter’s chill brings on a craving for food that is filling. Nutritious greens fill that niche nicely. You can get your vegetable fix from hardy winter varieties like collards, mustard greens, spinach, Brussels sprouts and, yes, kale.

Kale seems to be suffering from an overexposure backlash; a few months ago, several food writers pronounced the kale trend “done.” But if you weren’t eating it because it was trendy, then who cares?

My favorite ways to eat kale is chopped up in soup. A few years ago I got a great, simple (and vegan) kale, potato and chickpea soup recipe through my CSA at Elmwood Stock Farm that has become a winter staple in my house. Saute onion, garlic and diced carrots in a stockpot, add two cans of chickpeas with their liquid, add in chopped kale, and a third can of chickpeas pureed in a blender. You can spice it up with cayenne if you like.

Even if you’re through with kale, there are so many other great ways to enjoy greens, and there are usually lots available. In Kentucky, many cold weather crops like kale and even some lettuces will survive well into the winter. And if cultivated in high tunnels — plastic greenhouse systems that capture solar warming — they can grow all winter. Try the Lexington Farmers Market which is downtown on Saturdays for seasonal greens. Good Foods Co-op also has a kale-collard hybrid that’s popular.

Chef Bob Perry, who teaches at the University of Kentucky, said his favorite green is “what I’m cooking that day. I really like kale, I really like spinach.”

For cooks, “kale is really forgiving,” Perry said. “It’s hard to mess it up.”

Whether you’re working with lacinato “dinosaur” kale, red Russian kale, or curly green kale, “the simplest way possible to cook it is to clean it, tear it or shred it, and sauté it really hot in more olive oil than you think,” Perry said. “Once it wilts down you can hit it with a little stock and cover and steam and it, then douse with a little vinegar, salt and pepper. If it’s tender, you don’t have to braise it even.”

Another green vegetable that’s easy to adjust for a variety of palates is Brussels sprouts: halve them and roast in the oven to caramelize and bring out the sweetness, or blanch in salty water and saute, Perry said. Or butter blanch them: split, blanch, then saute in water and butter in a covered skillet. The steam finishes the cooking, then you can take off the lid and let it evaporate to intensify the butter flavor, Perry said.

“You can get by with a lot less butter and get the flavor without a lot fat,” he said.

A new University of North Carolina Press Savor the South cookbook by Thomas Head, called Greens, is coming out in March with lots of recipes for collard greens, which have a tougher texture and stronger flavor than kale.

Collards are often cooked with pork, boiled in liquid for a long time and then seasoned with pepper vinegar at the table, Head said. But there are lots of other ways to use them. Head’s recipes include: collard green empanadas, Lebanese collard and lentil soup, and even vegetarian slow-cooker collard greens seasoned with smoked paprika, stock, and red pepper flakes.

Greens are so versatile that you can do almost anything with them. Head suggested a mustard green pesto in his book. Mustard greens tend to have a sharp flavor while turnip greens are milder but still peppery.

My colleague Linda Blackford said her mother, Bettina, made a wonderful spread by putting raw chopped mustard greens and an onion in a food processor with a little salt and adding mayonnaise.

This spring be sure to try beet greens.

“Buy whole beets and cut off the greens,” said Perry. “They cook down like spinach. They hold a sweet flavor. You could do them in a stir fry or even put them in a soup.”

Basic southern greens

From Greens: a Savor the South cookbook by Thomas Head from University of North Carolina Press.

2 pounds greens (collards, mustard greens, turnip greens, beet greens, kale, or a combination)

1 pound ham hocks or other smoked meat (neck bones, smoked turkey, etc.) or 6 strips thick-sliced bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces

Water or chicken stock

 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (optional)

1 cup chopped onion (optional)

2 garlic cloves, put through a press (optional)

2 tablespoons vinegar (optional)

Salt, to taste

Cut out the thick, tough center stems of the greens and discard; cut the leaves into roughly 2-inch-square pieces. Wash the greens thoroughly in at least two changes of cold water. Drain in a colander.

Unless you are using the optional ingredients, combine the greens and meat in a large pot and add enough water or chicken stock to cover them. Bring to a boil and simmer until the greens are tender (anywhere from 1/2 hour for young greens to 1 hour for older collards).

If using the onion and garlic, in a pan large enough to hold the greens and water, sauté the bacon over medium heat until the fat is rendered but the bacon is not yet crisp. Add the onions and continue cooking until they are translucent but not brown. Mash the garlic into the pan and cook for about 30 seconds, being sure not to let the garlic brown. Add the greens, the red pepper flakes, and enough water to cover the vegetables. Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the greens are tender. Just before serving, stir in the vinegar and season with salt.

Makes 8 servings

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