Winter greens, teeming with micronutrients, nourish my family during the darkest days of the season when the fields offer little else but stored apples and pumpkin. As days grow shorter, spinach, Swiss chard and other winter greens slowly replace the tender mesclun lettuces of spring and summer before the cycle begins anew. At the height of the winter season, when snow blankets our little ski town and gingerly encroaches on the farmland to the west, winter greens make their appearance on the supper table every evening.
While a winter filled with greens, greens and more greens may seem dull or very limited, winter greens are remarkably versatile. The peppery nuances of turnip greens provide a lovely pungency when compared to the subtle sweetness of fresh, baby spinach while more exotic Asian greens like tat soi and mizuna offer a charming alternative to classic and well-known greens such as Swiss chard and collards. Local, farm fresh winter greens are widely available and readily grown in a variety of climates – making them easily accessible from farm stands and farmers markets even on the coldest and darkest of days.
Winter greens are a rich source of micronutrients: particularly, the antioxidant beta carotene as well as vitamin K1, manganese, potassium, calcium and iron. Yet, it’s important to note that greens also contain the anitnutrient oxalic acid which binds of minerals present in the leafy vegetables, inhibiting their full absorption. Cooking greens lightly and choosing fresh, young leaves helps to mitigate oxalic acid content by about 15%; however, persons with healthy intestinal flora are able to effectively metabolize oxalates to a greater degree than those who suffer from gut dysbiosis – illustrating yet another critical role that beneficial bacteria play in human health. Indeed, both lactobacillus bacteria as well as oxalobacter formigenes play a role in the body’s ability to effectively process oxalates. Use of antibiotics, which kill beneficial bacteria as well as pathogens, may cause the loss of these critical bacteria.
1. Swiss Chard
Swiss chard is a leafy green vegetable related to the common garden beet. It’s dark, broad leaves and often vibrantly colored stems, are rich in vitamins and minerals. A one-cup serving of cooked Swiss chard contains 10,717 IU vitamin A, mostly as beta carotene, 573 mcg vitamin K and 32 mg vitamin C as well as calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium and manganese. Swiss chard, with its faintly beet-like flavor, is particularly well suited to citrus fruits. For a nourishing side dish, heat butter in a skillet until melted, fry shallots auntil well caramelized, add chard and cook until tender before deglazing the pan with orange or lemon juice. Choose Swiss chard with dark leaves, avoiding those with pallid or yellowing leaves, and with a crisp stem.
Cress is a lovely winter green with a pleasant peppery finish. It’s bright flavor lends itself well to small salads or even as a sandwich topping, though it can also be used in soups. Cress, like many greens, is rich in beta carotene as well as vitamin K1. The vibrant peppery flavor of cress combines beautifully with unctuous sauces and foods rich in nourishing fat – mayonnaise, cream-based soups and unrefined olive oil. Choose cress that is tender and about two to four inches in length.
Spinach, with its slightly bitter, slightly sweet flavor, is alternatively much-loved and much-loathed. Varieties of spinach thrive across the globe, with many cultures treasuring traditional recipes featuring this leafy, winter green. Spinach is a good source of folate, though not quite as dense in food folate as nutritional powerhouses like liver. It also contains beta carotene, vitamin C, iron and magnesium in addition to other vitamins and minerals. The young, tender leaves can be eaten fresh, provided your body enjoys healthy gut flora, in salads and combines beautifully with bacon and blue cheese. Alternatively, serve spinach cooked in cream, braised with stock or even sautéed and topped with sesame seeds. In our home, I often braise spinach in a mixture of clarified butter (see sources) and roast chicken stock before topping it with chopped preserved lemon. Choose spinach that is tender, young and small-leafed for the best flavor and texture – avoiding woody stems and bruised leaves when possible.
4. Tat Soi
A member of the brassica family, tat soi offers a very faint mustard-like flavor reminiscent of other brassicas. It is also slightly sweet, and appears remarkably delicate with its thin leaf and spoon-like shape. Despite its delicate appearance, tat soi is remarkably hardy – able to withstand temperatures of up to -10º F below. While I prefer to eat tat soi raw as a green in winter salads, it can also be stir fried or served in soups. The leaf of tat soi should be a rich emerald green while its stem and veins should be a pleasant white.
5. Turnip Greens
Turnip greens, like beet greens, can be served on their own or as an accompaniment to their root. It’s critical to choose bunches of very fresh turnips should you wish to enjoy the greens on your supper table. Too often the greens of turnips purchased at the store are pallid, yellowing and stringy. Decidedly unappetizing. Instead, purchase turnips at your farmers market or farm stand where the roots are likely to be the freshest, and the greens likely to be their tastiest. Turnip greens are a rich source of folate, manganese and vitamin K1. We serve our greens seasoned with pasture-raised bacon (see sources), caramelized red onions and plenty of homemade stock which is also rich in minerals.