Five Winter Greens You Don’t Want to Miss

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.

2. Cress

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.

3. Spinach

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.

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What people are saying

  1. Local Nourishment says

    I discovered tatsoi last year when some arrived in my CSA share. I was suspicious of the “brassica” and “mustard” talk, but these tender leaves were so delicious! It’s become my favorite winter green, especially since it grows so happily on my porch all winter! I haven’t been able to locate local cress, perhaps it’s time to shop for seeds instead…

  2. bobcat says

    I realize this is a potentially stupid question, but I don’t have anyone to ask….

    When people talk about eating beet greens, do they just buy beets with the greens attached, and cut the greens off……or do grocery stores/markets sell “beet greens” in the same way they sell swiss chard?

    My main question is, CAN I just eat the greens off my beets, or are those no good/not intended to be eaten?

    Stupid question…I know!

  3. Sheila says

    Love greens!
    No question is a stupid question, btw!
    Bobcat, you should be able to buy both beets with tops on and beet tops by themselves. You can cut the beet tops off yourself and steam them, I do it all the time. We love beets so we try to get the whole plant for that reason.
    I love kale too . . . it’s hardy and healthy.

    Great blog,
    I love it.

  4. says

    It is interesting that you mention those who suffer from gut dysbiosis. Test results show that we are folic acid deficient and can’t tolerate synthetic supplements because of a corn allergy. I decided to add more leafy greens to our diet to supplement naturally but found that we don’t tolerate greens very well, either. We are now on the GAPS diet to try to heal our gut and have found some relief. We have a long way to go so for the time being we are having to pass the lovely winter greens on by.

    By the way, our medical doctor prescribed the supplements but had no answers for why were deficient in the first place or any ideas how to cure the source of the problem (or even an alternative when we couldn’t tolerate the supplement). Through research I have found the answer lies in balanced intestinal bacteria (our inbalance causes our problems) so we are currently trying to fix our problem through probiotics and diet.

  5. Jenny says

    Hi KC -

    Isn’t it amazing how great a role intestinal flora play in our health.  It’s astounding.  Everything seems to be related to those wee beasties in one way or another.  I’ve heard that a lot of people had great success with GAPS.  I’ve read that the MTHFR gene mutation is related to decreased ability to metabolize folic acid.  Have you been checked for that?  Have you had your homocystiene levels checked?  Of course, though greens are a good source for folate, liver is definitely the best source and it’ll be easier to digest than the greens that seem to be giving you trouble (at least in the short term).

     

    Take Care -

    Jenny

  6. says

    I love winter greens! I especially love kale and collards because they stand up to cooking so much better than more delicate greens like spinach and even chard. I keep a big bag of frozen, chopped collards in the freezer and throw some into a dish (no need to thaw first) when I feel like it needs some color or more veggies. I use blanched, chopped swiss chard as a direct substitute for frozen, chopped spinach (just squeeze dry the same way) since my chard plants are nearly too prolific to keep up with. Spinach is my main green of choice for my green smoothies.

    Thanks for all the interesting posts :)

  7. Brook says

    Hi, Jenny. We love winter greens at our house! Thanks for posting about tat soi. It’s not a green we’ve gotten with our csa but, I’m going to ask about it. Have you tried Alice Waters’ chard gratin. It’s delicious and has become a regular dish around here. Thanks again.

  8. Jeanmarie says

    I used to find greens intimidating, but then I discovered braising… and the steam/saute method in Cook Without a Book. I’ve also experimented with crisp-frying kale and I love it.

    I never dreamed greens were tough to digest with dysbiosis, but it makes perfect sense. Is it coincidence that I grew to love greens only after I embraced lacto-fermentation and healed my chronic candidiasis? Probably not

    Thanks for another great post and Happy New Year!

  9. says

    I have been so wishing that I had planted some winter greens this year. We are craving fresh greens right now and don’t want to wait until May. I did break down and buy some, but it isn’t the same as growing your own. I have to plan better next year.

  10. Gigi says

    For us, the winters aren’t as harsh and we can grow greens outside this time of year. Potted greens are of course an option. A very sunny window should do it.
    Any one can do this!
    I have bought the beets with tops at the store. Cut off all of the large leaves stem and all (eat them of course) leaving the smallest two or three leaves, and then mostly submerge the beet bottoms in clean water. Keeping the water changed, they become quite happy and within a few days often start growing little root hairs. I then plant them (just imagine the size of the top and match the size of pot to around that – I would stay around the size of a gallon or larger – though I haven’t done it in a pot) and have quick results to fresh greens.

    Beets live in our garden through most of the summer and even though in AZ the tops become too bitter in the heat to eat, they still grew until I overneglected the garden. I don’t enjoy the root as much as the top so I did not pull up to see if the root was woody or not. I imagine if I had continued to water, it would have bloomed and seeded, possibly even growing and leaves becoming palatable once Fall came. Beets, I believe, can be considered a multiple year crop from seed.

    I bought turnips the other day (my first time) and am planning on attempting the same steps with one since it has these little leaves curling up and tempting me at the top of the bulb.

  11. Tina Malone says

    Jenny, you might want to mention to readers that if sauteed or braised greens are something they don’t like, green smoothies are a great way to get greens. I love raw spinach, cress, etc. but cannot stand them cooked. This limited my ability to get enough of them in my diet because how much raw greens can you really eat? Now I make green smoothies. I just throw a couple of big handfuls of greens in with my homemade raw kefir and some organic fruit into my Vitamix (a regular blender can be used also) – and I’ve got a nutritional powerhouse for snack, lunch or breakfast. Add some chia or hemp seeds for more protein or “body”. If dairy is a problem or you don’t like raw kefir, coconut milk works great too. I am now able to work greens into my diet on most days.

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