In which a northerner works to understand greens

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One of the worst moments of my childhood was the day some horrible person told my parents that beet leaves were edible. Spinach was bad enough, but now there were two kinds of nasty green bitterness they could torture me with.

Obviously, I am not a greens lover, and perhaps as obviously, my parents are not Southerners. Otherwise they would have known that "greens" is a multitudinous category of plant matter. This fall, as they multiply in the market, I turned to Dani Rowland of Rowland's Row Family Farm in Goldsboro to educate me.

When I stopped at her stall in Atherton Market to ask how many types she and husband Joe grow for market, the sprite-like young farmer needed some time and all her fingers to count. The list finished at 11, including three kinds of kale, and cabbage as a possible contender. Yes, beet greens and spinach were on the list, along with collards, turnips, rutabagas, mustard and bok choi.

(from left to right) Cabbage, collards and kale from Rowlands Row
  • (from left to right) Cabbage, collards and kale from Rowland's Row

While not always winter-hardy, these leafy nutrient bombs prefer cooler temperatures, giving us both spring and fall crops. Rowland's Row started its fall plantings in August, with the first harvest hitting markets in October and more varieties showing up every week.

Greens season can last all winter, depending on the weather. "Our first year farming, we had collards and kale in the field from August till spring," says Rowland. "That was an unusually warm winter." While expensive and time-consuming, covering the greens with hoop houses or high-tunnels can see them through all but the bitterest cold.

Speaking of bitter, I also needed help understanding the differences in flavor that explain the variety available to the greens-loving gourmet. Mustards and turnips inhabit the spicier, bitterer end of the flavor continuum, with Swiss chard and spinach on the mildest end. Even the different types of kale vary in flavor. Rowland describes lacinato (or Tuscan) kale as the sweetest, red Russian the most mild, and the Siberian the most flavorful.

Even with that insight, I wondered if the entire array of leafy greens should be treated the same way in the kitchen. I've seen them braised on many a menu, but raw kale has a cult following, too. So I reached out to chef Alyssa Gorelick, who teaches cooking lessons at Chef Alyssa's Kitchen, right behind Rowland's stand at the market.

"Across the board," Gorelick says, "I like to add [greens] as the last thing, and just cook them to wilting, because they have so many nutrients." A shorter cooking time preserves more of the vitamins that make greens such dietary superstars. She also recommends removing the fibrous stems from all but the Swiss chard when preparing them this way.

Of course, any of them serve well raw too, even the tough, thick collard leaves. "They make great wraps," Gorelick says, though you might want to blanch them first.

Armed with this knowledge, perhaps it's time I sat down like the adult I am, to see if greens and I can't come to some kind of understanding. As Rowland says, "It's kind of like art …" As in, there should be a green for just about anybody's taste.

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