Resolve to Add More Greens to Your Diet
Posted: January 11, 2013
By Mandel Smith, Extension Educator in Montgomery County.
Our food traditions have a way of following us wherever we tend to settle down in life. One of the food traditions that I remember from my formative years in southern Virginia is eating a specific meal on New Year’s Day. The meal on this holiday always consisted of collard greens, black-eyed peas, and cornbread. According to southern legend, eating this meal on January 1st would bring you wealth in the upcoming year. I still cook this traditional southern New Year’s Day meal. This year, as I washed and prepared the collard greens that I was to serve my family, I thought about all the nutritional benefits of greens.
Adding greens to your diet on a regular basis can add a wealth of health benefits. The word “greens” is used to describe many leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach, collards, mustard, turnip, and dark salad greens. These greens are packed with a variety of vitamins and minerals. They are also a good source of vitamin A, vitamin C, and folate (one of the B-vitamins). Spinach is rich in vitamin K which is needed for normal blood clotting and healthy bones. In addition to being a good source of vitamins and minerals, greens can help reduce the risk of certain diseases as they contain antioxidants and phytochemicals. Greens get their color from lutein and zeaxanthine. These two substances may help protect eyes from cataracts and macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness in older adults. Greens are also naturally low in calories.
There are a host of health benefits associated with eating greens. They can help maintain a strong immune system, reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke. When coupled with a diet containing enough vitamin D and calcium, greens can help keep bones and teeth strong.
Most greens can be found year-round, but are best in the cooler months. When selecting kale, collards and other greens at the grocery store or produce market, look for greens that have dark leaves, not yellowed, wilted or insect damaged.
All greens need a good washing in cool to lukewarm water to remove soil. To wash, fill a large bowl with water and move the greens up and down in the water several times. Then lift the greens out of the water so that any sand or soil remains on the bottom of the bowl. Some greens will require several washings in a fresh bowl of water. I recommend washing until no sand or soil remains at the bottom of the bowl. After washing, pat the greens with a clean towel or use a salad spinner to dry them. Young tender leaves can remain whole; however cut the stems off of larger, older greens.
Greens offer a wide variety of serving options. How greens are served depends on the intenseness of their flavor. Mild greens, such as spinach, kale, and chard can be steamed, boiled or eaten raw. If cooked, they should be cooked quickly to preserve their bright green color. Raw greens, with their varied tastes, make great additions to salads. Choose spinach, young beet greens, or dandelion greens to serve raw. Stronger-flavored greens, such as collard, mustard, and turnip greens, should be blanched before cooking or adding to soups or stews (this helps to remove any objectionable odors and bitter flavors). Greens will cook down substantially, usually between a quarter to a half of their original volume, so buy with this fact in mind.
To blanch greens before cooking follow these steps. First place two gallons of water in a large pot and heat to a rapid boil. Second, quickly add the greens to the boiling water. Next, boil the greens for no more than two minutes. After two minutes, immediately remove the greens from the boiling water and place in ice-cold water. Finally, cool the greens for two minutes and then drain.
To sauté greens, heat a skillet and add a small amount of canola or olive oil. When the oil is hot, add greens. If you are sautéing small leaves, there is no need to cut them, but if you are working with larger greens, such as chard, cut them into small ribbons. Cook for three to four minutes, stirring occasionally. The volume of greens will be reduced significantly, and they should be bright green. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately. Greens can also be great additions to omelets, quiches, lasagna, soups and casseroles.
Adding greens to the menu on January 1st may be a southern culinary tradition, but it is also a healthy way to start the New Year. The addition of greens may or may not increase your monetary fortune in 2013, but they will add vitamins and minerals along with a host of health benefits to your meal. The next time you visit the grocery store, add a bunch of greens to the cart and resolve to include these vegetables in your diet all year.
The University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Bulletin #4180, Vegetables and Fruits for Health, Greens, Revised and updated by Extension Professor Kathleen Savoie and Extension Educator Kate Yerxa. Originally Developed by Extension Nutrition Specialist Nellie Hedstrom, May 2010.