Gimme Greens… The More Bitter, The Better

But not all greens are created equal.

Some of the first greens up in the spring—like arugula, dandelion and sorrel—are much more bitter than others. And, by their bitter nature, they are not only nutritious, but also promote good digestion, help us to suppress appetite and tamp down sugar cravings.

greens7Still, bitter can be hard to swallow. Other than mixing these greens with milder ones in a salad, what can we do make them more palatable? First, let’s take a look at why you should even try with a look at how good greens are for you.

Nutrition

Bitter greens are loaded with dietary fiber and phytonutrients that protect the plant from the sun’s damaging rays. Antioxidants, for example, are abundant in leafy green plants. They protect the plant’s DNA from the oxidative stress of photosynthesis, the process by which a plant basically harvests the sun’s energy to split water molecules apart into hydrogen and oxygen atoms in order to make sugars (McGee, 2007).

When we eat these leaves, our bodies use the antioxidants to protect us from free radical activity—or oxidation—in our bodies. Antioxidants available in leafy greens include the carotenoids, beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin, and chlorophyll, as well as vitamins C and E (McGee, 2007).

In addition to antioxidants, leafy greens contain thousands of different “phenolic” compounds. They are what give the plant color, fight off microbial threats and attract and repel animals. All fruits, vegetables, and grains contain some phenolic compounds, which, when eaten, offer similar protection in our bodies. For example, arugula and mustard greens, like other members of the cabbage family, contain glucocinolates, a class of phytonutrients, with cancer fighting properties (McGee, 2007, Masé).

Bitter Medicine

Not many of us are wired to love bitter. In human evolution the greens4bitter flavor traditionally meant poison. Bitter foods activate special taste receptors—TR2 receptors—in the mouth and other parts of the digestive tract. The T2R receptors send messages activating an increased production of saliva, stomach acid and bile. Because it is seen as a challenge to the system, foods with bitter flavors signal the digestive tract to slow down and digest food more completely (Masé, 2013).

Promising studies show a connection between T2R receptor stimulation and the modulations of physiological processes, largely in the liver, that keep blood glucose levels under control (Masé, 2013 & Dotson, et. al 2008). Bitter plants also stimulate the intestinal secretion of polypeptide YY, a hormone thought to be involved in controlling human appetite (Masé, 2013).

Bitter greens can also help ease sugar cravings. While simple sugars make our brains happy for a while, they do nothing to activate the gut—especially when eaten alone in foods void of fiber or bitter flavors that can stimulate digestive processes and help our bodies deal with glucose load. This is why some people might suffer from bloating, gas or odorous gas when sweets are overdone (Masé, 2013).

Introducing bitter greens to someone with sugar addiction will help stimulate taste receptors that they may not be using and change their digestion, appetite and eating habits. If you’ve overdone the sweet temptations lately, eating some bitter greens may be just the medicine you need to improve digestion and combat those wicked cravings!

Five Ways To Use Bitter Greens

Steam sauté your greens to use as a side dish or as a complete meal. Serving your greens with a little fat will make the lutein and other carotenes more available to your body. The recipe below, inspired by a recipe found in Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home (Moosewood collective, 2013) is an extremely versatile recipe that can make a great entrée, or reduce or eliminate the legumes and serve it as a side dish.

Black-Eyed Peas With Spinach

1 medium onion, chopped
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
10 ounces fresh kale, rinsed, stemmed, and coarsely chopped
1-1/2 cups drained black beans (one 13-ounce can)
ground black pepper to taste
pinch of cayenne or crushed red pepper flakes (optional)

In a large skillet, sauté the onions in the oil for a few minutes until soft. Add the kale to the skillet. Stir for a minute, or two until it wilts. Add the black beans, black pepper, and cayenne if desired. Bring to a simmer on medium heat. Serve right away.

For variety, follow the instructions above using the same amount of onion, oil, salt, black and cayenne pepper and use arugula instead of kale, and garbanzo beans instead of black beans. Be sure to give it a taste before you add the black or cayenne pepper—you might find the arugula peppery enough. If the arugula is too sharp, sprinkle a bit of Parmesan cheese when serving to soften the flavors.

Pesto is always a great way to use greens. Basil usually comes to mind for pesto, but when you think outside the box, arugula, young dandelion greens, cilantro and parsley all become fantastic candidates. Here’s another great recipe based on one found in This Is A cookbook: Recipes For Real Life (Sussman, M. & Sussman, 2012). You may have to modify the recipe a bit to balance flavors.

For example, when the arugula is sharp and spicy, or when I use a dandelion green, I will use a sweeter nut — like cashew or pistachio – and go heavier on the salt.

Arugula Pesto

1/2 cup pistachio pieces (orgreens8 1/2 cup walnuts, or 1/2 cup cashew)
1 garlic clove, minced
2 cups packed arugula leaves (or 2 cups dandelion leaves)
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (or 1/2 cup Romano cheese)
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Combine the walnuts, garlic, arugula, Parmesan and salt in a food processor. Pulse to blend.

With the machine running, Open the food tube and pour the olive oil in a slow, steady stream. Process until smooth. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

Make a sandwich filler for lunch with a little kick. If you have a mild cheese like Muenster or Swiss, adding some mustard greens, sorrel or arugula and tomato slices will serve as a great contrast and make the sandwich much more interesting. Remember, that pesto is not just a pasta topper! You can also use the pesto recipe above and spread your bitter green pesto on your sandwich to get the same effect.

Add greens to your soups. Just as I’m about to serve a bowl of soup, I throw in some greens. They wilt nicely and add some flavor. If you add them too early, they will pretty much dissolve and offer very little contrast. That said, you really can’t make a mistake here: If they do dissolve, all of their beneficial nutrients will have leached into the soup!

Green smoothies are great if you’re trying to get yourself—or your children—to eat some greens. But don’t start with the most bitter greens! Start with spinach or chard and add two kinds of fruit, like apple and banana or pineapple and pear. If you are an experienced green smoothie drinker and usually use milder greens like spinach, try adding a little arugula and increase the amount each time you make one as you get accustomed to the bitter flavor. If you want to curb bitter, you don’t have to add more sweet: Try adding lemon or lime and taste as you go to see if you need more.

greens1Basic Bitter Green Smoothie

2 cups arugula
1/2 cup yellow bell pepper
1 orange peeled and seeded

Place all ingredients in a blender. Mix until smooth. If taste is too bitter, add a pinch of salt and 1/4 banana.

Though it may take a while to get used to the flavor of bitter greens, it’s worth the effort! Adding greens to your diet helps to curb sugar cravings, improve digestion and supports liver detoxification. Fresh greens are always best – so get planting! Even if you don’t have garden space, many varieties (arugula, parsley and cilantro) will flourish in a window box.

References

Albi, J. & Walthers, C. (1996). Greens, Glorious Greens: More Than 140 Ways To Prepare All Those Great-Tasting, Super-Healthy, Beautiful Leafy Greens. St Martin’s Press: New York, NY.

Boutenko, V. (2009). Green Smoothie Revolution: The Radical Leap Towards Natural Health. North Atlantic Books: Berkeley, CA.

Dotson, C. D., Zhang, L., Xu, H., Shin, Y.-K., Vigues, S., Ott, S. H., … Munger, S.D. (2008). Bitter taste receptors influence glucose homeostasis. PLoSONE, 3(12), e3974. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0003974

Frawley, D. & Lad, V. (1986). The Yoga of Herbs: An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine. Publisher: Lotus Press: Twin Lakes, WI

Kessler, D.A. (2010). The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. Rodale, Inc.: New York, NY.

Masé, G. (2013). The Wild Medicine Solution: Healing with Aromatic, Bitter and Tonic Plants. Healing Arts Press: Rochester, VT.

McGee, Harold (2007). On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of The Kitchen. Scribner. Kindle Edition.

Moosewood Collective. (2013). Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home. Retrieved from Amazon.com.

Robinson, J. (2013). Eating on the wild side: The mission link to optimal health. Little Brown & company: New York, NY.

Sussman, M. & Sussman, M. (2012). This is a Cookbook: Recipes for Real Life. Weldon Owen, Inc. Published by Olive Press.

Wood, R. (2010). The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia (fully revised & updated). Penguin Books: New York, NY.

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Food Goal Level “Squash Blossoms” Achieved

Soon after meeting Founding Foodie Amy, some nine years ago, I realized I had so much to learn. One spring afternoon, she served me something I had no idea was a thing: squash blossoms. Little delicate beauties stuffed with a savory cheesy concoction. Mind … blown.

I thought of myself as a Padawan learner; Amy, a food Jedi master. She introduced me to so many things and I’ve learned a ton from her since then. Our bond formed over food, cooking and delicious ingredients. It’s why we do this blog together, nearly five years strong without missing a single weekly post. And still … there is much to learn!

This month’s “lesser used spring veggie” topic brought me smack right back to that warm day in Amy’s old condo. I haven’t had squash blossoms since – not at a restaurant, let alone in my own kitchen. Could the Padawan become a Jedi master? Well, I don’t think I’ll ever reach that level, but it’s always good to have goals. Perhaps I could graduate to being a Jedi knight?

Off I went on my journey to continue my training, much like Luke Skywalker when he went to the Dagobah system to run with Yoda on his back. It was a pleasant April Saturday morning, when I walked to my local farmer’s market in search of some inspiration. I met my other bestie, Julie, also on her own food journey. She’s completed her first 30 days on Whole30 and is still going strong. The farmer’s market is a great place to find new ideas. After talking to a local sausage maker she walked away with some great nitrate-free and diet approved spicy sausage, plus some ham from a local ranch.

So what did I walk home with? Squash blossoms, of course! Or, more accurately, a hanging zucchini plant flush with flowers. After a quick Google search I asked a local purveyor of produce and plants about eating the blossoms from the squash or zucchini plants. He showed me which ones to eat and directed me to a plant that had some good ones ripe for picking. As Julie looked on in like I was a crazy person (“You eat which what?”), I paid my $10 for the plant. One plus? I get to eat zucchinis from my deck. I’m not a gardener, although I have aspirations … lazy aspirations.

My internet searches wrangled up some quick guides on how to pick, prepare and cook the blossoms. The Kitchn has a a good, high level post which helped me identify which were the male and which were the female. Yes, it matters! The female produce the squash, so if you want them later on, it’s best to harvest the male blossoms. You can spot the difference pretty easily – male blossoms appear on longer stems, further from the center of the plant. They also do not have pistils and are much more slender than their female counterparts. Once cut, use fairly soon. Since they are so delicate, they don’t last long. Also, if you’ve ever grown squash or know a gardener who has, you know how out of hand they can get. Almost too many to keep up with! Eating the blossoms are a great way to keep your plants in check.

Other than the one preparation I’ve had, I wasn’t too sure what to make with them. They have a light savory flavor. Much like other flowers and blossoms they take on a hint of the flavor of the fruit or vegetable they produce. In this case, they have a light zucchini flavor. The most common preparation is to stuff and/or lightly batter and fry them. I also saw some pasta recipes, pizza topping ideas, egg casseroles and frittatas, soups and fritters, along with several quesadilla recipes. The possibilities are endless and super simple.

The idea of a delicate savory flower tucked into a cheesy, crispy tortilla got my Jedi senses all afire. Quesadillas it is! What I made was more like a tiny snack sized version, since I used the smaller corn tortillas. But don’t let that stop you from going bigger. The more the merrier and these did not disappoint.

Squash Blossom Quesadillas
I used corn tortillas, so they were more like flat, squished tacos or mini-quesadillas. You can use larger flour tortillas for a more traditional quesadilla, just increase the amounts to cover a larger surface. Note, the amounts here make 8, assuming 2 per person, to serve 4; adjust as needed.

16 squash blossoms
8 corn tortillas
2 cups Monterey Jack cheese, shredded (substitute cheddar, pepper jack or some combination)
1 spring onion or 2 scallions, roughly chopped
3 tablespoons cilantro, roughly chopped
1 avocado, pitted and sliced
1 lime, cut in wedges

Warm a cast iron or non-stick skillet on medium heat. Place a tortilla in the pan for a few seconds to warm one side. Flip and sprinkle cheese, cilantro and onion on one side of the tortilla. Place two blossoms on top of the cheese side, then fold the tortilla in half, covering the cheese and blossoms. Press down with spatula, then flip to warm/crisp the other side.

Remove from heat, sprinkle more cilantro on top. Serve with avocado slices and a squeeze of lime.

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“Never Rest On Your Morels” Risotto

I only use the title above because the Washington Post beat me to my original idea, The Morel Of The Story, in 2008. Such is life.

That would have been a perfect description of what I’ve done, though. Perfect, because this is a story about not waiting until the week before your post is due to try and find an elusive key ingredient… the star of the show… the only thing that really matters when you’re writing about the unique bounty of Spring… the morels.

Hence the “moral” of my story.

But, honestly, this WaPo nonsense isn’t such a bad thing, because the title I’ve ended up with here truly describes what I have had to do to turn this week around. You see, to “rest on one’s laurels” (or “morels” here) means “to be satisfied with one’s past success and to consider further effort unnecessary” according to this website. I’ve done posts in the past requiring all manor of strange ingredients, from kefir to pomegranate molasses. Finding those things was never as difficult as tracking down mushrooms… which grow in the ground.

Not like that was my first thought. No, first I went to Facebook after seeing writer and fellow foodie, Nevin Martell’s plea for the earthy things there, too. Clearly this guy knows his fungi. Sadly, nothing panned out. Strike one.

Next, I figured… I got this. I’ll just go out and pick some. So I started researching. I found so many awesome articles about morel hunting. Standouts include write ups on sites like Wide Open Spaces, The Mushroom Farm and Mother Earth News. Then I came upon this one in Field & Stream, which references a morel-look-alike that causes those who ingest it, “cramps or other forms of gastrointestinal distress.” Yeah. No, thanks. Strike two.

My last ditch effort included a trip to Whole Foods… where morels are sold for a premium. When they say “whole paycheck,” they are NOT kidding. Strike three. So I purchased some lovely dried porcinis for about $1o and headed home.

Thankfully, the recipe I’d chosen was originally made with porcini, anyway. But if you happen upon some morels, let me know how it turns out.

And maybe where to look next time…

Mushroom Risotto

2 ounces dried porcini
2 cups water
3 cups chicken stock
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 small shallot
1 garlic clove
1 cup arborio rice
1/4 cup + 1-2 tablespoons sherry
1 small bay leaf
2 tablespoon butter (unsalted)
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (about 3 ounces), plus a bit extra to shave on top
1/2 pound cremini mushrooms (or substitute morels and reduce porcini to 1 ounce)
2 sprigs fresh thyme
4 cups arugula
4 tablespoons fresh pesto, if desired (we love this Serious Eats recipe)

Boil water. Add dried porcini to a glass bowl or measuring cup and pour water over. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside to soften, about 10 minutes.

Drain mushrooms, reserving 1 cup of the liquid. Rinse mushroom, chop finely and set aside. Pour the reserved mushroom liquid in a medium-sized saucepan and stir in the chicken stock. Warm over low to medium heat.

Clean and slice mushrooms, then brown according to the instructions in this article, using one spring of time and sherry. Set aside.

Mince the shallot and garlic. In a large sauté or other wide-brimmed pan, heat two tablespoons of the oil until shimmering. Add shallot and garlic and cook over medium until softened and shallot is slightly translucent (about two minutes). Add the rice and porcini, stirring to coat, and allow to cook for an additional two minutes. Add the sherry and bay leaf, cooking until the liquid has been absorbed.

Add about a cup of the warm stock and cook, stirring constantly, until nearly all is absorbed. Add another cup, repeating the process until the rice is al dente and suspended in a creamy sauce. The entire process should take about twenty minutes.

Pick out and discard the bay leaf. Stir in the mushrooms, butter and parmesan cheese; season with additional fresh thyme, salt and pepper.

Lightly dress the arugula with olive oil. Spoon risotto into low-rimmed bowls and top with arugula, pesto (if desired) and fresh shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. Enjoy!

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photo credit to Aaron Otis Photography 2014


April
We're welcoming spring by giving love to the lesser known, lesser used early seasonal vegetables. Think ramps, fiddlehead ferns, garlic scapes and dandelion greens. They might be hard to come by, but they are so worth the effort!