In partnership with our friends at Willo
Leafy greens are dietary powerhouses. They can provide vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. They can also taste incredible in or on top of delicately dressed salads, long-simmered braises, stews, quick stir-fries—the possibilities continue. To help you decide what to cook when you’re staring at a green grocery store wall, farmers’ market table, or CSA box: a pocket guide to our seven most-loved greens, with tips on how to work with them and recipes to try now.
A WORD ON SOURCING
When it comes to greens, as with all foods, sourcing matters. Before you wash, prep, and cook, do some informed shopping. While you can find most of the greens on our list at supermarkets, it’s fun to explore the specialty varieties at farmers’ markets or through CSA boxes.
If you’re looking for a greens experience that is truly exceptional, Willo, a sustainably minded vertical farming service, is for you. The company was founded with righteous goals to help end hunger, make agriculture more sustainable, and provide nutrient-dense produce to support people’s overall health. Its vertical farming technology allows for high efficiency: crops grown without soil and with little water, lit by LED lights, with the potential to provide over 200 times more food per acre than traditional agriculture. It also provides complete customization. You get to manage your own field inside Willo’s vertical farm, choosing your crops and monitoring their growth via an app on your phone. Once they’re harvested, they’re delivered to you either weekly or biweekly so you can have the freshest, most nutritious, and delicious greens as often as you’d like.
There are some options you already know and love, like spinach and kale; some less common types, like mizuna and alamo turnip greens; and some options that Willo has cultivated itself. The Willo Genovese Basil is based on a varietal that has been nearly impossible to grow outside of Northern Italy (and was far too fragile to import). Willo was able to re-create the growing climate this incredibly special herb needs so that it can be grown and enjoyed year-round. Willo’s next farm is launching later this fall, and it recently opened its membership to include most major metropolitan areas.
We all remember the big kale boom of the 2010s. Now kale is widely known, and multiple varieties are available in most stores. (The ones we use the most are curly kale, lacinato kale, and Red Russian kale.) Like most hearty greens, kale can handle a lot of cooking. And while its flavor is strong and skews slightly bitter, it plays well with others, especially bold, pungent ingredients like garlic, chilies, and vinegar. You can cook it fast and hot, braise it low and slow, add it to stews, or roast or grill it for crispiness and char.
Kale can taste great when used raw, and that sturdy texture makes for a salad that can keep for hours if not days after being dressed. It just takes a little prep to make it not taste like roughage. Simply massage the kale with a little olive oil and let it sit for ten minutes to soften slightly before assembling and dressing the rest of the salad. If you don’t have time for that, slice it thin, almost like a chiffonade, so that it will really absorb the dressing and be more pleasant to chew.
One way to get around the prep for using raw kale in salads: Go for baby kale. It’s the same plant, just harvested earlier, so the younger leaves are smaller and the texture is much more tender. Use it as you would arugula or spring mix.
Spinach is one of the world’s most popular greens. It’s mild in flavor, it’s easy to prepare, and it can go with almost anything. Mature spinach leaves are larger and heftier, with a slightly earthier flavor, and usually come with stems attached. These can stand to be blanched, steamed, sautéed, or simmered in soups and stews. Just be sure to wash them well and get all the dirt off. Baby spinach is usually better for salads because it comes without the grit and with smaller, more tender leaves. Because baby spinach has a mild flavor, it’s nearly imperceptible in smoothies.
If you’ve never tried chard before, it falls somewhere between kale and spinach. Not quite as fibrous as kale but certainly tougher than spinach. Which makes it perfect for applications that might fall in that in-between, when you need something both delicate and sturdy at once. Unlike kale, though, its stems are both tasty and nutritious and can be added along with the leaves to whatever you’re cooking. Or cut them off and pickle them for later. If you can find baby chard, it’s lovely in salads. We prefer fully grown chard cooked—even if ever so gently. Try it sautéed, stir-fried, or steamed.
It may be common in grocery stores, but when you take a minute to think about it, arugula is pretty impressive. It’s got a delicate texture and a robust, peppery flavor: a satisfying juxtaposition. Arugula in salad mixes is a favorite, in part because it complements other types of greens. That pungent flavor makes it a natural fit with hearty cooked elements, like squash or grains, or when it’s added to pasta and pizzas right at the last minute so it gently wilts. It’s also a credible stand-in for basil in pesto.
When we think of collard greens, we usually think of them as a staple ingredient of the American South, with a cooking tradition that originated with enslaved people from Africa. This method usually involves cooking the collard greens low and slow, with aromatics, like onion and garlic, and cured meat, like bacon or ham hocks. That long cooking time not only tenderizes the greens but brings out a subtle minerality alongside that earthiness. It’s absolutely worth the wait. There are many other ways you can use collard greens, too. The texture is smoother than that of kale, but a lot of the same cooking instructions apply. We’ve also had success using collard greens as wraps and fermenting them.
Bok choy is one of the easiest greens to love. And if you’re new to cooking Chinese food, this is a wonderful ingredient to start with. It’s crisp, refreshing, and slightly sweet with a clean finish. It is just as delicious raw in a salad as it is sautéed, grilled, or roasted. Baby bok choy is a smaller variety that is widely available, but other varieties are gaining popularities in Western grocery stores, too. The sizes vary, along with the ratio of stalk to leaf, but they are all tasty and fun to play around with.
If you like arugula, you’ll probably like mizuna. It’s slightly less peppery with bright citrusy notes. The texture is somewhat similar to frisée, with leafy tops and long tender stems. Mizuna is a natural fit for salads, and it’s often used cooked or fermented in Chinese and Japanese cuisine. Cook it fast and hot in a wok or add a handful to soup just before serving.