If we could pop a can of spinach for a quick fix of superhuman strength, like Popeye, I bet spinach would be a rare and tightly controlled substance. Instead, spinach and leafy greens are only slightly miraculous, and often ignored. Find out why Mama told you to eat your greens, and see our recipes that will make eating them a pleasure.
Greens are a funny thing in my household. I know they are so good for me and are a great seasonal crop to support at my greenmarket. I buy them up, but then there is a major disconnect in the journey from vegetable drawer to plate. Seems that Harold, the family hamster, ends up eating more kale and spinach than I do.
But then, when I do manage to whip some up, I am voracious for them. When they sit before me, I can’t get enough. I eat them like Cookie Monster eats a cookie. And I know that’s because my body is saying, “pleeeease, moooooore leafy greeeeeeens.” So I keep on buying them, and sometimes manage to actually eat more of them than the hamster does.
So what is it about greens? Well, let me introduce you to my little friend the ORAC. You may have already met, but just in case. ORAC stands for Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity, and it is the measure of the ability of foods to subdue oxygen free radicals. For those of us not in lab coats, that means that a food’s ORAC level represents its antioxidant level—the higher the ORAC, the more antioxidants the food has and the better it helps to fight those free radicals that are expected to be responsible for maladies that tag along with aging, including diminishing mental capacity, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
According to the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, there’s firm evidence that a high intake of fruits and vegetables reduces the risk of cancer and that a low intake raises the risk. And recent evidence suggests that diminished brain function associated with aging and disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases may be due to increased vulnerability to free radicals. (No wonder my hamsters always live so long.)
Eating the recommended five-a-day servings of fruits and vegetables will ring up around 1750 ORAC units. But based on the evidence so far, scientists at Tufts suggest that daily intake be increased to between 3,000 and 5,000 ORAC units to have a significant impact on plasma and tissue antioxidant capacity.
To reach those higher levels of antioxidants, you need to eat high value ORAC foods—which are generally the ones with more intense color. Consider this: A serving of iceberg lettuce contains an ORAC value of 105, while a serving of kale has 1770! Spinach rings in next with an ORAC value of 1260. You get the picture. And along with all of those age-fighting antioxidants, leafy greens pack in the fiber, beta-carotene, iron, vitamins and folic acid.
Of all the dark greens, spinach may be the most familiar, and it is just an absolute powerhouse of nutrients. But that doesn’t mean the other greens should be abandoned. Collards, mustard, kale, chard, root greens (from turnips and beets) and others all have their unique personalities, and all have something to say for themselves. Some are spicy, some are sweet, some bitter, some earthy. Try mixing them up, play around with different tastes and textures. And as much as I love spinach, I find that beefing it up with a heartier green that doesn’t shrink as much means that I can buy much less. (I imagine we have all made a spinach dish, started with a mountain of spinach, and ended up with about a tablespoon of the finished recipe—ooops.)
To prepare greens, remove the tough stems and any grungy leaves. With tender greens you can leave the stems. Wash them in a sink full of water as they often are caked with dirt and sand clings in those lovely, craggy crevices. For quick sautés, it is important to remove as much water as you can so that they sauté rather than steam when they hit the pan. You can dry them in a salad spinner or spread them out on a towel and roll it up. You can even keep them in the fridge this way for a day or two.
Here is my super quick favorite greens sauté method:
1. Heat olive oil in a large sauté pan.
2. Add chopped fresh garlic and sauté over medium high heat until it starts to sizzle and turn golden.
3. Toss in a handful of very dry mixed greens and stir a few times until they start to wilt.
4. Continue tossing in a handful at a time. Adding them slowly will ensure that the water released cooks off before the next handful is thrown in—no soggy greens!
5. When all your greens are added, toss them with some sea salt and fresh pepper and serve.
For more ideas, try these recipes: