Sarah Reid, RHNC, CNP
Did you know the original Homo sapiens species ate six pounds of greens every day? While they weren’t as “grab n’ go” or varied as the kale, cabbage, spinach, collards and chard we find easily in grocery stores today, ancient greens were still the nutritional powerhouses they are now.
Concentrated in bone, blood and nerve protecting minerals, fat soluble vitamins, antioxidants such as vitamin C and beta-carotene, greens are nature’s perfect (and most economical) dietary supplement. B vitamins, also known as the “energy vitamins” and responsible for controlling the breakdown of fats, carbohydrates and proteins in the body, abound in the dark green leaves of lettuces, cabbages, and collards. Phytonutrients like, lutein, and zeaxanthin, buffer the sensitive cells in the eyes from oxidative damage and solar radiation too. There are even small amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids, and the nutrients in greens have shown to help prevent memory loss and Alzheimers. All this for about 18 calories per serving of hearty types and under 10 calories for salad greens!
You know you don’t eat the weight of a small infant in leaves everyday – few people manage to get in the mere three cups per week suggested by the USDA. Many people simply don’t know where to start in the quest for greening their diet, whether it’s choosing something for their salad or wondering just what to do with it all. It’s impossible to touch on each of the hundreds of varieties that are available worldwide, but here’s a quick tip-sheet on a few of the most common types in the market.
One of the most famous “health foods”, common types of kale in the supermarket are curly, ornamental, and dinosaur / Lacinato / Tuscan. It can be found year-round, and is in it’s peak season from the first deep frost through to the beginning of spring. ½ cup cooked has 12 milligrams of sight-saving lutein and over 500% of the RDA for bone and platelet building vitamin K.
Buy bunches that have firm, dark leaves and stiff stems, without signs of wilting, browning or moth damage (small holes). Keep kale in a plastic zip-top storage bag (take it off the stems if you need to) with as much air removed as possible for up to 5 days – remember, the longer it’s stored, the less nutrients remain and the more bitter it becomes.
After stemming and chopping, let kale sit for 5 minutes before steaming or lightly sautéing in olive oil about 7-10 minutes. Dinosaur and curly kale also make wonderful additions to soup or braises, and the nutrients become most available when a small amount of oil is used in cooking.
Chard is the green highest in calcium –one cooked cup of it has 100 mg. With leaves slightly more bitter flavour than spinach and sweeter, almost asparagus-like stalks, it is available in red, green, and rainbow varieties.
Chard’s growing season is usually June – August, when it has the sweetest flavour and greatest concentration of nutrients. Look for large, crinkly, deep green leaves and bright coloured (or white, in the case of green chard) stalks. Like kale, stay away from wilted or holey leaves. Store it like you would kale, and use within 5 days of purchase.
Chard leaves taste best after being quickly boiled (about 3 minutes) to release their acid content, then sautéed in a small amount of healthy oil until wilted. The stalks should be boiled slightly longer – about 5 minutes – and will take about 5 minutes longer to sauté. The stalks can also be roasted after their blanch, about 15-20 minutes at 400F.
A popular salad bar offering and filling in baked pasta dishes, spinach is well deserving of Popeye’s approval. A ½ cup of cooked spinach (3 cups raw leaves) contains about 190% of your daily vitamin A, over 500% of the RDA for vitamin K and 125 mg of calcium. It is also concentrated in health-promoting (and organ-protecting) phytonutrients like beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin, and the powerful antioxidants vitamins C and E. Magnesium, manganese, folate, potassium, and energy promoting B-complex vitamins fill the leaves as well.
Fresh spinach is available year round, but is freshest between March and May and September and early November. Place unwashed spinach in a zip-top bag, squeezing out as much of the air as possible, and store in the fridge up to 5 days. Alternatively, you can blanch spinach in a steamer for 2-3 minutes, then wrap well in plastic and freeze for later use in cooked dishes.
Fresh baby spinach leaves are best and most nutritious when served raw, being tender enough to use as a lettuce substitute in salads and sandwiches. Mature varieties should be cooked to release their calcium- and iron-blocking acid component and make the remaining nutrients more available – sautéing in olive oil, adding to pasta sauce or soup and pureeing with buttermilk before mashing into potatoes are all delicious ways to enjoy this green.
A staple on tables all over the globe, cabbage is not simply the coleslaw on the picnic table! Rich in vitamins K and C, as well as folate, potassium and the energy-producing B complex, cabbage also packs nutrients that protect and can even heal the stomach and intestinal linings. The amino acid-like substance called glutamine helps in the regeneration of body tissues – whether it be skin, muscle or organ! Cholesterol-reducing fibre and preventative polyphenols abound in the leaves as well – especially in the case of red cabbage. Red cabbage contains not only 7 times more vitamin C than green, but also has anthocyanins which act as antioxidants, anti-inflammatory agents, and preventative and recovery assistants in many human diseases (including cancer).
Even though this green is at its nutritional best and tastiest in the winter, it is well suited for storage and stores carry it year round. Look for dense, heavy heads with few loose leaves for the best texture and taste. While bags of shredded “slaw mix” may be convenient, it is not an overly nutritious option – once cabbage is cut and exposed to air, the vitamin C content begins to drop.
Keep the whole head in the crisper of your refrigerator for up to 2 weeks, and if you have a partial head left over from a recipe, wrap it well in plastic wrap and use it within a week.
Cabbage is unique in that it’s fibre components work best at reducing cholesterol when they've been steamed. However, cabbage should not be cooked too long – not only will it’s sulfuric compounds leach out (the cause of the infamous smell), but studies have shown that anti-cancer benefits only manifested in briefly cooked and raw cabbage. To keep the best flavor, texture and nutrient profile, steam chopped or shredded cabbage no more than 5 minutes, then sprinkle with fresh lemon or lime juice right before serving. Kimchi, the Korean condiment made from fermented cabbage and spices, and fermented (“true”) sauerkraut are also good choices for cancer fighting and antioxidant levels thanks to the breakdown enzymes that release cabbage’s innate isothiocyanates.
It’s hard to think of the long, dark green heads of romaine sitting in the grocery store without thinking of the classic Caesar salad. Even though it is very low in calories, romaine is filled with water, vitamins A, K, C and B-complex. A 2-cup serving of romaine salad also gives you a nice amount of folate, fibre, potassium, iron, calcium and even 5% of your daily omega-3 fatty acid needs!
While prime growing season for romaine is June through early October, the majority of it is grown in greenhouses worldwide, making it available year round. Look for compact heads of sturdy, pliable leaves that aren’t slimy or beginning to turn brown or yellow. Wash, spin dry and wrap romaine in a lightly dampened cloth before storing in a zip-top bag in the crisper up to 5 days.
Aside from the typical salads, romaine has a host of other culinary applications. Use as a wrap for sandwich fillings (“lettuce tacos”) or halve and grill 2-3 minutes a side before drizzling with olive oil and lemon juice for a unique take on the classic Caesar!
While we may never quite meet the maxims of our genetic ancestry, greens should become a staple in every diet. Nutritious, plentiful, and versatile, they’re the real “greenbacks” in a healthy culture.