Greens: Easy to Grow and Cook

By SHIRLEY BARKER Special to the Planet
Tuesday February 03, 2004

Greens! Who needs them? 

We know we all do, and we know that we’re not getting enough of them. The leafier ones in particular are said to yield significant amounts of health-protective vitamin A, and provide the best source of folacin, crucial for conception and gestation. In fact, the word folacin derives from the Latin word for leaf. 

The downside of leafy green vegetables is that cooking and storage destroy much of their nutritional value, which might explain why children instinctively try to avoid them. 

So what to do? 

Organic and farmer’s markets are good sources. But the very best answer is of course to grow your own. We in Berkeley have a climate in which these vegetables thrive. Furthermore, many are of the cut-and-come-again kind, so that one can stroll into the garden, snip off a few tender leaves and have them steamed or sautéed within minutes, without harming the plant. Of these, the closely-related kale and collards are perhaps the easiest to grow and digest, and the most rewarding to harvest. 

Kale and collards can be planted out as young plants in early fall when they are available in local nurseries. They thrive in heavy, rich soil. Farmers swish the roots in a sludge of manure before planting them deeply—up to the first leaves—and firming them in with a boot. 

A mulch of hay moderates temperature, and as it breaks down, it adds nutrients and improves tilth, or texture. A nip of frost does no permanent damage and seems to sweeten the leaves. In March, they will take off, providing leaves until the following spring, when they will put forth delicate yellow four-petalled flowers true to their Cruciferae family. The buds are edible too, and even if the plant is beheaded, side shoots emerge. It seems that healthy, well-fed plants, like children, simply thrive in all ways, and are rarely attacked by pests. 

One can also plant in early spring, but if we have had our usual February rain, the ground is often too cold, wet and unworkable. However, if one flowering plant is left to go to seed, it will surround itself with infants, and these and a dried pod or two will keep the kitchen continuously replenished. Seed stays viable for several years.  

Leafy greens do well in planter boxes too. 

The taste of homegrown vegetables is incomparable to that of store-bought ones. Greens plainly simmered in lightly salted water will be meltingly tender in very few minutes. If you’ve used too much water, drain it into a glass, add tamari or tomato juice and enjoy a hot cocktail. 

When steamed on top of home-made tomato sauce, with a slice or two of creamy goat cheese melted on top, greens are simply ambrosial. A sprinkling of hard sheep’s cheese—such as pecorino—adds a tart dimension. Season with a vinaigrette as the Italians do, and eat them warm. Mixed with chopped parsley, added to soups, stews, pasta sauces—one could go on and on. There’s simply no excuse for not eating—and growing—our greens! 

And let your balky child eat them with their fingers, a tactic that seems to enhance the flavor of all greens, including the most boring of all, lettuce.