Great greens

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Stir-fried, steamed, or sauteed, they're delicious--and they can help keep cancer at bay

THEY GET NO RESPECT, but frankly greens don't require much. In the kitchen they need little attention. Drop them in a pot of boiling water, chop them and serve them raw, saute them in olive oil, microwave them for a minute--voila, you have a soup, a salad, a sauce, a side dish.

You also have one of the recommended five or more daily servings of vegetables or fruits, a goal that few of us manage to reach. According to the National Cancer Institute, which is intent on building up veggies reputation, only 8 percent of Americans surveyed in 1991 thought vegetables were important. Most Americans still eat three slim servings a day.

"We have to come to grips with the fact that we are not getting what we need," says Paul Lachance, a food scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. "Most people think that getting a little crunch in a sandwich is enough. But just a few dabs of vegetables won't do it."

What's the big deal? Take the word of hundreds of researchers; the more they learn about cancer, the more certain they become that vegetables have genuine protective powers. "It's one of the few things I'm really sure of," says John D. Potter, an epidemiologist who's director of cancer prevention at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. Potter recently analyzed more than 200 studies on the links between diet and health. "Fruits and vegetables are associated with significantly lower rates of cancer," he says.

Leafy greens have an important edge over fruit. They're among the best sources of folic acid, a B vitamin recently shown to prevent heart disease, the nation's leading cause of death, as well as crippling defects in newborns. And they're every bit as good as fruit when it comes to supplying antioxidant carotenoid pigments, such as beta-carotene.

Luckily, greens deliver all these disease-fighting compounds along with superb flavors--of France, Italy, Japan, China, even the American South. Janet Whippo of the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx agrees, adding that they're also easy on the eyes. "We try to grow a lot of greens, not only because people don't eat enough of them and need to see them, but they look wonderful almost all year round."

Greens are so easy to cook and such a joy to eat, says Nina Fraas, formerly a chef at the Four Seasons in New York City, it's no wonder they're gaining ground in markets, restaurants, and kitchens. "As the world gets smaller and people experience different tastes," she says, "we're creating a sort of panworld cuisine." Here are some hints to help you put a world of greens in your pan.
Collard Greens

Soul food? Sure, but that's recent history. Ancient Romans believed eating collard greens before a banquet would keep endless goblets of wine from befuddling their minds. Now scientists see other benefits: Compounds in cabbage-family vegetables such as collards fight damage from a carcinogen produced when the body burns off alcohol. Also, as a good source of fiber, collards can slow alcohol's absorption.

Known for their ability to stay crisp in the refrigerator, these greens are traditionally boiled for hours with a ham hock- a practice that's not as unhealthy as it sounds. Boiling frees their cancer-fighting carotenoids, the fat absorbs them, and you get the reward. But if all the cooking liquid stays behind in the pot, you lose.

Instead, boil a cup of water, add a dollop of olive oil and two handfuls of chopped collards, and cook for three minutes. Pour off the water. Serve with chicken and potatoes. Remember, though: The greener the water, the greater the nutrient loss.
Spinach

Popeye got it all wrong," says food scientist Paul Lachance. "Spinach doesn't have that much iron." (One cup raw provides only 10 percent of the recommended daily allowance for women.) It does, however, have plenty of beta-carotene and vitamin E. spinach remains available year-round, though fresh spinach can be scarce in midsummer. Hardly a baby of the health boom, spinach was immensely trendy in Europe in the late Middle Ages. It has always been considered more delicate than most other greens.

That quality makes it ideal for salads, quick boiling, or even quicker steaming. Linda Nebeling, a researcher at the National Cancer Institute's Five-A-Day program, proudly offers her tip for preparing spinach. "I wash the leaves by swooshing them around in cold water. Then I coarsely chop the leaves and put them in a loosely covered bowl in the microwave for two minutes to steam in the water that stayed on the leaves." Nebelling gets two rewards: an instant side dish and minimal loss of nutrients. (Collards and broccoli can also be cooked this way.)

But if nuking fresh greens offends you, try sauteing. Wash but don't dry the leaves, chop them coarsely, then add them to a hot skillet or wok with a teaspoon of olive oil and a minced clove of garlic. Saute over high heat, stirring, just for a minute or two. For a Asian touch, add a last-second splash of mirin, a sweet Japanese rice wine.

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Bok Choy

China's favorite vegetable, bok choy started popping up in supermarkets around the United States when Asian cooking went mainstream in the eighties. Now delicate baby bok choy and Shanghai bok choy have grown so popular that they're crowding out the old-fashioned kind.

Researchers suspect that the low rate of cancer in China, which is a fifth of the rate in the United States, may in part be attributed to the Chinese taste for these leafy cabbages. Like their American relatives, the greens are rich in compounds called indole-3 carbonals, which interfere with the action of estrogen in the body and hence may protect against breast and edometrial cancers.

Of all cabbages, bok choy is one of the sweetest and least assertive--a virtue that chef Nina Fraas has used to advantage on her children. "When they were really little," she says, "I'd sneak it into soups, and they just ate it and didn't says a word." She also adds it to salads, where it provides a gentle crunch. Bok choy is tender enough to be cooked briefly--stir-fried, say, with minced garlic--until just barely wilted.
Chard

Beet greens, bred to grow up huge and leafy: That's what chard is. Rich in vitamin C, its dark fronds are also filled with the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, substances that form a light-sensitive pigment in the eye. Carotenoids appear to fend off macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in older Americans.

Rhubarb chard, the most striking variety, has flaming red veins and stems and a slightly stronger taste than the white-and-green kind. Whatever their color, the stems should always be separated from the leaves before cooking. simply fold each leaf in half lengthwise, hold the big stem in one hand, and tear away the greens.

Chop and stir-fry the greens. or fix them like cabbage leaves: Keep them whole, stuff them with rice and red or green peppers, then steam. They take a little linger to cook than spinach and can be added to almost any soup or stew during the last ten minutes of cooking. Treat the stems as a separate vegetable: When fresh and succulent, they can be sliced and sauteed or boiled briefly and baked in a gratin.
Broccoli Rabe

Also known as rape or rappini, this relative of cabbage is the hip veggie of the 1990s. Think of it as broccoli with an attitude--lankier and with a punchier flavor than the ordinary kind. Legend holds that the pregnant mother of Rapunzel (she of the long hair) went to the garden after a particularly tough winter and ate a bunch of raw rabe. Maybe she was onto something. Broccoli rabe is especially healthful. It's packed with beta-carotene as well as with a cabbage compound called sulforaphane, which triggers enzymes in your body that snare and dispose of carcinogens.

A longtime favorite in Italy, broccoli rabe has begun turning up on U.S. menus. Italian chef Antonio Dirisio, who cooks at Edigio Restaurant in the Bronx, recommends a traditional recipe. put a pot of salted water on to boil. While it heats, chop the broccoli into one-inch pieces; use the whole plant. "Make sure the water's boiling fast, and don't skip the salt--it keeps the rappini bright green," says Dirisio. "Then, depending on how old the rappini is and how much bitterness you like, let it boil for up to ten minutes. Dump out the water, brown some garlic in olive oil, mix in the broccoli, add salt and pepper, and cook for only a few minutes."

Those who like the vegetable's bite and would rather not pour away nutrients can take a slightly different tack. Shop for young stalks that look especially fresh; pass up any with yellow flowers. Check the stems to make sure the cut ends aren't grayish or dry. Then, when cooking, skip the parboiling and go right to the sauteing.
Sorrel

Cherished in France and England centuries--it was eaten during the Middle Ages to prevent scurvy--sorrel remains relatively unknown here in the United States. That's too bad. Rich in the antioxidant vitamin, C. sorrel can bring a subtle, lemony zing to soups, sauces, and salads.

Unlike the hardier greens, though, sorrel can't stand alone. It goes limp at the first hint of warmth, and its bright green leaves fade instantly to olive when cooked. But its flavor penetrates. Chopped, sorrel adds freshness to a breakfast scramble; just toss it in with the eggs. Braised in chicken broth and a little butter, it makes an elegant sauce for salmon. It adds tang to spring peas or spinach and spice to a simple romaine salad.

You'll find it in well-stocked markets from early spring to late fall. (In winter sorrel is sold only at exorbitant prices in gourmet stores.) When it's available your best bet is to use it promptly because it's extremely perishable. Or simply plant a few seeds in a corner of your garden. Homegrown sorrel returns year after year.

Just one discouraging word: Its tart flavor comes in part from oxalic acid, a chemical that can keep your body from absorbing some of the calcium in other foods. Enough to worry about? No, experts say. The oxalic acid ties up some of the calcium in that meal only. It can't touch what's in the milk on your morning cereal or your lunchtime yogurt.

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BY WENDY MARSTON

PORTUGUESE CHICKPEA & GREENS SOUP

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BY Martha Rose Shulman

Every culture seems to have a different way of marrying greens with beans. Wherever I go I find delicious dishes made with these supremely healthy foods. It makes sense. Legumes are among the oldest crops--found even in Egyptian tombs--and what better way to enhance them than with the fresh tastes of wild or cultivated greens?

Many irresistible dishes come from the Mediterranean: lentil and spinach soups from the Middle East, southern Italian stews made with cannellini beans and kale, a chickpea and spinach soup from Valencia, Spain. My latest discovery came while I was in the Douro region of Portugal, source of the sweet wine we call port. (It's porto there.) For the first course of a sumptuous meal at the Quinta Santa Eufemia winery, I was served a comforting soup made with chickpeas, potatoes, and fresh greens. It's creamy, not thick, and tastes marvelous with either spicy watercress or stronger greens like collards and kale.
RECIPES

1/2 pound dried chickpeas, washed
and sorted for stones
1 quart water (more as needed)
2 tablespoons Olive oil, divided
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
1 carrot, minced
3 to 4 large cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 pound potatoes, peeled and diced
5 cups water or chicken stock 4 sprigs parsley
salt to taste, about 2 teaspoons
1 bunch collard greens, kale, or
watercress (3/4 to 1 pound)
garlic croutons for garnish

Soak the chickpeas in the water overnight or for about 6 hours. Transfer with their soaking water to a pot and bring to a boil. If necessary, add water until it measures 1 inch above the chickpeas. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer 2 hours or until very tender.

Meanwhile, heat I tablespoon of the oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot, and add the onions and carrot. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 5minutes, and add the garlic and potatoes. Stir for a minute until the garlic is fragrant, and add the 5CUpS of water and the parsley sprigs. Bring to a boil; add a teaspoon of salt, reduce heat, and simmer 1 hour.

While both pots are simmering, wash the greens; remove and discard stems. Chop the greens and set aside.

When the chickpeas are tender, place half, with enough cooking liquid to moisten, in a blender or food processor and puree until smooth. Return pureed chickpeas to the pot. When the potato mixture is tender, puree in a food processor or blender. Stir the mixture into the chickpeas. Combine well and return to the heat.

Heat the remaining olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet, and add the greens. Cook, stirring, until they wilt, then stir them into the soup. Add salt to taste (up to another teaspoon) and bring to a simmer. Simmer 20 to 30 minutes, stirring often to make sure the soup doesn't stick to the bottom of the pot. Garnish with garlic croutons. Serves 6. Per serving: Calories 301 (234% from fat), Far 8 g (2 g saturated), Cholesterol 3 mg, Sodium 855 mg

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Lentil and Spinach Soup

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 or 4 cloves garlic, minced or
pressed
2 cups lentils, washed and
sorted for stones
2 quarts water
1 bay leaf
1 parmesan cheese rind (optional)
salt to taste
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 pound spinach or chard,
stemmed and coarsely chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
plain non fat yogurt for garnish

Heat the oil over medium-low heat in a heavy-bottomed soup pot, and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until the onion is tender, 3 to 5minutes. Add half of the garlic and stir for about half a minute, until the garlic smells fragrant. Stir in the lentils, water, bay leaf, and parmesan rind. Bring to a boil; reduce the heat, cover, and simmer 40 minutes, or until the lentils are tender. Stir in the remaining garlic, and add the salt and freshly ground pepper.

Discard the bay leaf and parmesan rind. Puree a cup of the lentils in a blender or food processor, and stir the mixture back into the soup. Add the chopped spinach or chard, cover, and simmer another 5to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the parsley, adjust the seasonings, and serve. Top each bowl with one dollop of yogurt. Serves 6. Per serving: Calories 268 (11% from fat), Fat 3 g (.4 g saturated), Cholesterol 0 mg, Sodium 68 mg

ILLUSTRATIONS

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