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Green Is the Color of My True Love's Fare

August 27, 1992|JOAN DRAKE

They're called cooking greens, or potherbs, to differentiate them from the milder-flavored greens that are generally served raw. While the members of the group share many characteristics--they are similar in texture, assertive in flavor and generally served in the same fashion--they come from different vegetable families.

Young, tender leaves of many cooking greens may be used raw, but they are seldom found in markets. As the greens age, flavor intensifies and the texture toughens. Cooking tames and tenderizes mature greens.

Cooked greens are found in cuisines around the world. Italians saute Swiss chard in olive oil with garlic, season it with wine vinegar and serve it lukewarm. The Scots and Irish combine kale or cabbage with mashed potatoes to make colcannon. Stewed collard greens are served with buttermilk curds as a traditional side dish with Ethiopian stews. In the southern part of the United States, the old-fashioned method of preparing turnip and mustard greens, collards and kale is to boil the greens for hours with smoked pork or fatback.

Chopped raw cooking greens can also be added to soups or stews or combined with other ingredients for stuffings. Cooked greens may be used in omelets or as a bed for poached eggs.

When buying greens, look for fresh, crisp leaves that are free of blemishes. Purchase about 1/2 pound per serving--all potherbs cook down to about 1/4 to 1/8 of their original volume. Although they differ in intensity of flavor, most greens can be used interchangeably or in combination. Before storing, remove any yellow or wilted leaves, rinse with cold water, shake off excess water and pat dry. Wrap in paper towels and refrigerate in a plastic food bag. Greens should be used as soon as possible but will stay fresh for up to three days.

Greens require thorough washing before use. Swish them in a sink filled with cold water, then lift out, letting the soil sink to the bottom. Repeat until no grit remains.

The tough stems and ribs of mature beet greens, collards, kale, mustard and turnip greens should be removed and discarded. The leaves may be used whole, torn into bite-size pieces or shredded. Swiss chard stalks are edible but need longer cooking than the leaves, so they should be boiled separately.

Blanching assertive-flavored greens before they are sauteed or stewed removes some of the bitterness but also a good deal of the flavor. To tame the tartness when boiling greens, bring them to a boil in water, then drain, add fresh water and cook until tender.

Note: Mustard, Swiss chard and turnip greens discolor when cooked in aluminum or iron pans.

*Beet Greens--The leaves of all beet plants are edible, but one variety is grown specifically for the tops rather than the root bulbs. Beet leaves are deep-green with red veins and stems; they have an earthy flavor.

Young, tender beet greens may be added raw to salads. Cook mature greens and serve hot with butter, cold with lemon and oil.

* Collards--A type of kale and member of the Crucifera family. The large, flat, frosty blue-green leaves look a bit like ping-pong paddles. Their hearty, spinach-like flavor is milder than mustard or turnip greens and is sweetest when the greens are harvested after a frost.

Collards may be cooked long and slowly until they become a soft, mellow mass, or they can be simmered 20 to 30 minutes until medium-firm, like sauteed cabbage. Shredded young collards may be stir-fried in bacon drippings over moderately high heat 8 to 10 minutes just until tender-crisp.

* Dandelion--Cultivated dandelion greens resemble the wild variety found in lawns, but their slender stalks are much longer. The dark green, saw-toothed leaves have a slightly bitter taste, which intensifies with age.

Dandelion greens may be used fresh in salads, especially in salads with hot bacon dressing. Unlike other greens, dandelions do not improve with long cooking--15 minutes is sufficient even when they are mature.

* Kale--Also known as cow cabbage, colewort or borecole, kale is a non-head-forming member of the cabbage family. The frilly spruce-green leaves hold their texture when cooked.

Like collards, these greens are sweeter after a frost, but the cabbage-like flavor becomes bitter with storage. Kale may be used fresh, sauteed or stir-fried until just tender-crisp, or cooked until very soft.

There is also an ornamental kale, sometimes called flowering kale or salad savoy, that has crinkly leaves with shades of rose, cream, lavender and chartreuse. Although edible, this variety is best used for decorative purposes.

* Mustard--There are numerous varieties, but the one most commonly found in markets has bright green, frilly edged leaves with a slightly fuzzy texture. Mustard greens are among the most powerfully flavored of the cooking greens. Small quantities of raw, young mustard greens add a peppery bite to salads. Mature leaves should be boiled.

* Swiss Chard--This ancient variety of beet, known since Babylonian times, is grown only for its leaves. There are white- and red-ribbed varieties. Both have large leaves whose flavor is similar to beet greens when raw, similar to spinach when cooked. The fleshy stalks taste somewhat like celery.

Moderate amounts of small, young leaves may be used in salads. Medium-size leaves can be stripped from the stalks and sauteed. The leaves may be substituted for spinach but should be cooked longer.

* Turnip--Another member of the mustard family, turnip greens are noted for their bitter flavor. The rough-textured, dark-green leaves often have a tough central rib. Unlike the other greens listed, turnip greens are too bitter and chewy to be used raw, even when they are young.

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