Leafy vegetables are perhaps some of the most versatile vegetables in the Co-op. There are so many options and so many different ways to use them. Whether they’re in a salad or soup, or served as a side dish, there’s something for just about everyone. And the best thing about them—they’re really good for you. The Co-op offers a wide variety and selection of organically grown leafy vegetables. Here’s a guide to help you choose and incorporate more of these delicious and nutritious vegetables into your diet.
You can’t beat leafy greens
Leafy vegetables are a great way to maintain your health. Calorie for calorie, they are nutritional powerhouses. They are rich in Vitamins A and C, and are good sources of calcium, fiber, iron, potassium and folic acid. Additionally, they provide a variety of phytonutrients including beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin. Leafy vegetables are low in sodium and carbohydrates, and are virtually fat-free. The more you eat,the better. A single serving of most raw greens is about one cup, and contains between 1-40 calories. One cup of cooked greens is the equivalent of six cups of raw greens. If we look at spinach, one serving of raw spinach is about seven calories. Cooked, you’re getting around 40. For a standard 2,000 calorie a day diet, neither is a significant calorie contribution. What this does mean is that you are getting a concentrated dose of the nutrients in a cooked serving versus a raw serving. In a single serving of cooked spinach, you’re getting 377% of the RDA of Vitamin A compared to 56% in a serving of raw spinach.
Nutrient availability of leafy vegetables is somewhat dependent on how you prepare them, and what you are eating them with. If you boil and drain them, you’re losing vitamins and minerals to the water, which is now most likely more nutritious than the vegetable; this is not a problem if you’re making soup.
Additionally, while some nutrients are readily available in the vegetables’ raw forms, other nutrients become more readily available for absorption when they’ve been cooked or arecombined with other foods. Light steaming or braising helps break down the plant cells and access nutrients. Combining foods rich in Vitamin C with leafy greens increases the absorption of iron and calcium found in those leafy greens. Regardless of whether you’re eating them raw or cooked, leafy green vegetables are an excellent source of nutrients that will help you stay fit and healthy.
Fresh, fast, and not-so-fast
Let’s start by breaking them down into simple groups. While some leafy vegetables are best suited for the salad bowl, others do well in the soup pot, and some can go either way.
When we think of leafy salad veggies, most of us think lettuce. There are four different types, and you can find them all at the Co-op. We offer romaine, green and red looseleaf, bibb and iceberg. Overall, romaine is the most nutritious, though each variety contains a unique spectrum of comparable nutrients; iceberg is higher in fiber and Vitamin C, while romaine is higher in Vitamin A and mineral content. Lettuces are a good source of Vitamin C, beta-carotene, iron, calcium, folate and dietary fiber. You can find all of these lettuces at the Co-op, year round, and locally grown when in season.
Other leafy salad veggies include escarole, radicchio, and frisee, which are all members of the chicory family. Radicchio looks like a small, red cabbage with white veins. Frisee has narrow, serrated leaves, and escarole basically looks like a head of green looseleaf lettuce, with thicker leaves. Because of their slightly bitter flavor, they tend to be used as an accent in salads. We offer escarole and frisee in season locally from Tipi Produce. Radicchio is available locally from Keewaydin, and from California in the off-season.
Additionally, you can find all of the items pre-mixed and ready to eat in our salad cooler. You’ll find a variety of lettuces in our bulk spring mix, and a selection of mixes in the pre-packed salads.
Perhaps the most versatile of the leafy vegetables, this group can be eaten raw or cooked, and contains the bulk of the leafy vegetables offered at the Co-op. Dandelion greens, beet greens, arugula, mustard, chard, mizuna, sorrel, tah-tsai, ramps, and the workhorse of all the leafy vegetables—spinach.
Dandelions greens are the nutritional champion of all the leafy green vegetables. In addition to range of nutrients offer, they contain concentrated amount of Vitamins A and K. They’re fairly bitter, and are often mixed in with the milder lettuces for a salad. Cooked on their own, you can sprinkle them with a little lemon juice, olive oil, and sesame seeds for a power-packed side dish. Vitamin K is fat soluble, so a little oil is necessary for absorption.
The young and tender leaves of arugula also make a nice addition to salads, or a salad on its own. Arugula has a peppery flavor that pairs well with raspberry vinaigrette. Lightly braise with olive oil and toss with pasta for a light and healthy dinner. Arugula enjoys cooler growing conditions, and is one of the first local greens available. You’ll find locally grown arugula available from Jen Ehr and Harmony Valley, and in the off-season, look in our salad cooler for Taylor Farms baby arugula from California.
Spinach, beet greens, and chard are also greens that do well cooked or raw, and are all members of the beet family. They’re a great source of Vitamins A and C, and iron. Younger chard and beets greens are great raw and add a little flair to an otherwise simple salad. More mature leaves fare better cooked, and are extremely versatile.
Speaking of versatile, how about spinach? For breakfast, lunch, or dinner, you can incorporate spinach into just about anything. Its buttery texture and mild flavor make it one of the most popular leafy vegetables available. Spinach is available in flat leaf, semi-savoy, and savoy types. Our favorite is the local spring and fall savoy type from Harmony Valley and Keewaydin. Cooler conditions produce a buttery sweet leaf that eats like candy.
Mustard and mizuna, a Japanese mustard variety, are perhaps the most pungent of the leafy greens, and add a peppery flavor to dishes. Smaller, tender leaves can be added to salads, however, if you were a first timer to mustard, I’d recommend a sample taste before committing the bunch to a salad. Tipi Produce supplies us with both mizuna and mustard, and judging by our sales, the fall crop of red mustard the favorite. Tipi also supplies us with the mysterious tah-tsai. Look for tah-tsai in October. It has a deep “green” flavor, and is less pungent than standard mustard varieties. Its thick tender leaves and juicy stalks work well in salads and stir-fries.
When I think of hearty leafy vegetable, I think kale and collards. They’re tough. Kale and collards work well steamed, braised, and slow cooked. They’re both nutritionally impressive, packed full of Vitamins A and K.
Collards and kale have a historic following depending on what region of the country you’re from. Southerners tend to lean toward collards, while the North gravitates towards kale. It’s a mystery as to why. There are several theories on this phenomenon, but regardless of your preference, you’ll find several options in the produce aisle.
Like many of the other leafy green vegetables, kale and collards have many uses. They go great with grains and legumes, soups and are delicious on their own. Lightly steamed, they’re excellent incorporated into salads that can be eaten warm or cold. And don’t forget, kale is an ESP item, so it’s always an affordable price.
Selection and storage
When choosing your leafy green veggies, look for product that has firm, crisp leaves and vibrant, even color. Store your leafy veggies in the crisper drawer in an airtight container or bag. If they start looking tired, crisp them by giving their stem ends a fresh cut and submerging them in lukewarm water, and then get them back into refrigeration. This method is used in the industry as a means of reducing loss and maintaining freshness. Always wash your veggies. Leafy green veggies tend to have crevasses that can trap dirt and bugs. The aphid hatch in California starts in late winter, and without the use of pesticides, you’re bound to find a few critters on your organic produce. Before using, give them a good rinse or submerge and agitate in a little water.
So, think spring and eat greens.