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Basic Cooked Greens

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This basic cooked greens recipe can be used for any kind of greens. Collards, chard, turnip greens, beet greens, spinach, kale, mustard greens — you name it. Each of these greens has its own distinctive taste and texture, and each can wake up a plate as an elegant complement to a main protein.

One of the nice things about this recipe for greens is that you don’t wind up pouring vitamins, color and flavor down the drain. All the taste and goodness concentrates into the greens themselves.

Also, there’s no fussing with steamer baskets, or waiting on big pots of water to boil.

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Basic cooked greens recipe
Serving suggestions

If you’ve never thought of collards, spinach, kale, mustard greens or chard as a breakfast dish, think again. Greens are a wonderful low-carb way to round out your breakfast plate with textural interest and great flavor, without adding sugar and starch.

Cooked greens make a terrific side to steak or fish, also.

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Basic cooked greens recipe
Storing fresh greens

Big bunches of fresh greens are one of my favorite things at the farmer’s market. I take them home, then wash, chop and freeze for later. I put them in a zip-top bag labeled with the date and the type of green. Otherwise it’s hard to tell, just looking at the frosty leaves later, what’s what. The date is really important. How much stuff have I thrown away from my freezer just because I couldn’t figure out whether it had been in there three weeks, or three years? And how much freezer real estate has been used up by stuff I think is probably good — so I can’t bring myself to throw it out — but I’m not sure what or how old it is — so I can’t bring myself to seriously consider eating it, either.

Take two seconds with the Sharpie to label now, and avoid this completely avoidable problem.

I also like to label the bag with where I got the greens — from my own garden, for instance, or which farmer’s market or grocery it was. It just makes it more fun later.

You can freeze greens indefinitely, and they’ll be ready to pop in the pot whenever you like.

Do you like to buy fresh bunches of beets or turnips from your local farmer’s market, or do you get these lovely root veg in your CSA box? If so, don’t discard the leaves, or you’re wasting good food! Beet greens and turnip greens are fantastic eatin’ greens. If you’re not ready to eat them right away, just wash, chop and freeze.

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Basic cooked greens recipe
Substitutions guide

If you don’t have tamari, you can substitute salt. Tamari has that tasty umami quality, though, that really deepens and complements the delicate vegetal taste of whatever greens you’re cooking.

All the amounts given here, including seasonings, greens, fats and water, are approximate, just to give you a sense of what to aim for. I never use any measuring tools for this recipe. You can adjust all of these to suit your taste.

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Basic cooked greens recipe
Extra notes

Choose a sturdy skillet or a heavy one- or two-quart saucepan. Whatever pan you use, you will need a tight-fitting lid. We use a cast-iron one-quart pot. It is cute as the dickens and makes fantastic greens and other quick veggies. It’s worth buying a one-quart cast-iron pot just for this purpose.

Greens cook down. That is to say, they lose a lot of volume in the cooking, because their tough, fibrous cell walls break down in the heat, and water escapes. So if you have a skillet packed full of greens, you can expect it to be only about one-third filled by the time they’re done cooking.

Basic cooked greens
The recipe

Ingredients

  • Two big handfuls (about a cup and a half) of fresh or frozen chopped greens per person
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil, extra-virgin coconut oil, butter, or ghee — or a combination of these
  • 1 teaspoon tamari (naturally brewed and fermented soy sauce)
  • a few fresh grindings of black pepper
  • a light dusting of red pepper flakes

Detailed instructions

Place your butter and/or oil in your pot and heat it over medium-high heat. When the pot is hot, place the greens in it and cover snugly.

If the greens are fresh, add one or two tablespoons of water.

If the greens are frozen, you might not need water, because of all the frost that will have accumulated on the leaves.

Cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add your seasonings part way through. Check to make sure the greens aren’t singeing on the bottom.

There’s a chance you’ll burn these before you learn to make them right. If so, just toss them out and start over. A burned flavor will wreck the whole dish.

Meantime, take care and add a tablespoon or so of water if you see that the water has all cooked away.

The greens are cooked when they’ve wilted down, softened and darkened somewhat. If they’re watery, take off the lid, turn up the heat, and cook until the liquid boils away. Do not walk away while you’re doing this! You can shake the pot gently to help the water boil away.

How far should you cook them? Until you like them. You might like them to have a bit of a raw snap, or at least some green brilliance. You might like them totally soft, dark and comforting. This flexibility is one of the good features of greens. After all, you can crunch them completely raw, like in a salad, right? That means you can cook them as little — or as much — as you like. You might find you like to cook them longer on cold, dreary winter days, and keep them more sprightly on bright summer evenings. It’s up to you.

However you decide you like your greens, what we’re aiming for here is hot and steamy, but not soupy, with just enough seasoning that the delicate flavor of the greens is complemented, but not suffocated, with some light touches of salt, umami, and peppery heat. Mustard greens are peppy all by themselves, so keep that in mind before you reach for the pepper shakers!

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