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Salad greens were viewed with a similarly narrow perspective. Iceberg, romaine--who could ask for anything more? A million American restaurants could take a million heads of lettuce, toss them with a million tablespoons of Thousand Island dressing, and come up, against all mathematical odds, with the same yawn-provoking salad. Could a million American restaurants be wrong? Now, of course, the opinions have become a lot greener on every side.
Salad greens are considered "light," the magic word of the day, guaranteeing success for everything from beer to mayonnaise. "Let them eat light," proclaimed the chefs and restaurateurs--not to mention the food writers--thereupon devising green dishes that people could order with an almost aerobic lack of guilt. Once in the throes of this enlightenment, those of us who really wanted our grilled ham and cheese on rye could change, ever so slightly, to warm curly endive with baked goat cheese, prosciutto, and garlicky croutons. Psychologically, dishes made with greens appeal to other contemporary inclinations as well: they are associated with newness, freshness, youth (what could be younger than a baby butter lettuce?); they are usually personal, made-for-the-moment dishes, individually prepared. And they are perfect for people who have little time to cook. So it's no wonder that a certain craziness has crept into the country's produce departments.
In the "greens" areas at farmers' markets or grocery stores, we may find ourselves lost in a confusion of leaves, both curly and smooth, green, yellow, and red. Easy-to-buy salad mixes do the choosing for us, but at prices that seem most unvegetable-like. It's nice to know, therefore, that all this foliage is pretty much interchangeable once you have decided whether you want cooking greens or salad greens. Following is a bit of guidance to mixing and balancing flavors and textures, from bitter to bland, spicy to nutty.
Consumer and Cooking Guide
The most common salad greens are lettuces, of which there are four basic varieties. The loose-leaf variety takes its name from the way it grows--from the stem, rather than forming a compact head. Oak-leaf, redleaf, and green-leaf lettuces are in this category. Crisphead lettuces, such as iceberg, are large, compact, and crisp. Butterhead lettuces, such as Bibb (also called limestone) and Boston, have very soft leaves that are almost buttery in texture. Romaine lettuce (also known as Cos lettuce) is elongated and has crunchy leaves. Chicory, escarole, Belgian endive, frisee, Lolla Rossa, and radicchio are all members of the endive family and have a slightly bitter taste. Arugula and watercress are small-leaved bunches that have a peppery taste. Mesclun, mache, and mizuna are good choices for additional texture and taste. All greens should be crisp and fresh-looking, free of brown spots or decay. Common cooking greens are beet greens, collards, mustard greens, turnip greens, and kale. Known for a tart, tangy flavor, they can be tossed in a salad, raw, but cooking them in soups, stews, or sautees pleasantly mellows their taste. Leaves should be deep green and free of blemishes.
Most greens are available year-round. The endive family's peak season is September through December. The peak season for cooking greens is winter through early spring.
Wrap, unwashed, in paper towels, then in plastic bag or wrap, and refrigerate for up to 5 days.
Good source of vitamins A and C and calcium
20 to 30 calories per cup
Cooking and Handling Notes
All greens should be cleaned of grit just before using. Swirl the greens in a large bowl of water, remove and dry. (Grit will sink to the bottom of the bowl.) If salad greens are not properly dried, dressing will not adhere to the leaves. A spin-type salad dryer makes fast and easy work of this task.
Basic Cooking Methods
Wash greens and place them in a shallow saucepan with only the water that is clinging to the leaves. Cook, covered, over medium heat for about 3 minutes, or until the greens begin to wilt. Steam for 3 minutes.
The following greens combine especially well with the foods listed after their names:
Arugula: butter lettuces, citrus fruits, berries, smoked meats.
Dress with basic vinaigrette and garnish with toasted walnuts.
Belgian endive: watercress, apples, pears.
Dress with creamy vinaigrette and garnish with a blue cheese.
Butterhead lettuces: arugula or watercress.
Dress with mustard vinaigrette and garnish with chopped chives.
Chicory: radicchio, loose-leaf lettuces, citrus fruits.
Dress with garlic vinaigrette and garnish with crumbled bacon or croutons.
Escarole: frisee, romaine.
Dress with mustard-garlic vinaigrette and garnish with croutons.
Iceberg: butterhead, romaine, and loose-leaf lettuce, shrimp, crab, chicken.
Dress with yogurt dressing or a creamy citrus dressing.
Loose-leaf lettuce: arugula, watercress, endive, red onions.
Dress with herbed vinaigrette and garnish with toasted pine nuts or crumbled goat cheese.
Radicchio: butterhead and loose-leaf lettuces, smoked meats, Gorgonzola cheese.
Dress with mustard-garlic vinaigrette and garnish with chopped fresh herbs.
Romaine: butterhead; or use alone with citrus fruits, spicy cooked sausage, anchovies.
Dress with herbed garlic vinaigrette.
Watercress: butterhead, loose-leaf, romaine, endive, shrimp, and sweet cherry tomatoes.
Dress with any vinaigrette and garnish with chopped chives.
Combine 1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper with 3 tablespoons red-wine vinegar and 1/2 cup olive oil until well blended.
Combine 1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper, 1 clove crushed garlic, 2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar, and 1/2 cup olive oil until well blended.
Combine 1 tablespoon honey, 1 tablespoon mustard, 1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper, 2 tablespoons white-wine vinegar, 1 teaspoon lemon juice, and 1/2 cup olive oil until well blended.
In a food processor, combine 3 oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, 1 clove garlic, 1 tablespoon grated Parmesan, 3 tablespoons red-wine or balsamic vinegar, and 1/2 cup olive oil until smooth.
Low-Fat Yogurt Dressing:
Combine 1/2 cup low- or nonfat yogurt, 1 tablespoon oil, 2 tablespoons hotsweet mustard, 1 teaspoon lemon juice, and 1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper.
Variations: A tablespoon or two of chopped fresh herbs may be added to any of these dressings. Toasted poppy seeds, sesame seeds, or sunflower seeds make an interesting addition to a vinaigrette. Substituting fruit vinegars for the wine vinegars results in dressings that go especially well over bitter greens.
Creamy Lemon Dressing:
Combine 1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper, 2 tablespoons heavy cream, 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, 2 tablespoons white-wine vinegar, and 1/2 cup
vegetable oil until well blended.
Combine 1 tablespoon sugar, 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 3 tablespoons red-wine vinegar, 3 tablespoons sesame oil, and 6 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
until well blended.
Fusilli with Mustard Greens and Spicy Sausage
Serves Four as a first course or Two as a main course
1 pound hot Italian sausage
1 red onion, chopped
1 small red bell pepper, chopped
2 pounds mustard greens, stems removed and coarsely chopped
1/2 pound freshly cooked fusilli (corkscrew pasta), drained
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
Prick the sausage and brown it well on all sides in a large skillet. Remove and reserve. In the same skillet, cook the onion and pepper until wilted, about 5 minutes. Add the greens (in several batches, if necessary) and cook until wilted. Slice the sausage and stir into the greens. Cook another 5 minutes. Toss the pasta with the oil and then with the greens mixture. Sprinkle with cheese and serve.
Beet Greens with Ricotta and Mushrooms
3 tablespoons oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound button mushrooms, quartered
2 pounds beet greens, chopped
1/2 cup ricotta cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Butter a shallow 2-quart dish.
In a large skillet, heat the oil. Saute the garlic and mushrooms for about 3 minutes. Add the beet greens and cook until wilted, about 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the cheeses, eggs, salt, and pepper. Pour into the prepared dish and bake for about 30 minutes, or until bubbly and golden.