Dark and Leafy – Know Your Power Greens

If that pallid bowl of iceberg lettuce is looking a little boring lately, push it aside and make room for some salad super-stars. Not only will these delicious, living foods give your dinner plates a color boost; they will give your body a nutritional leg up as well. Get ready to increase your health and vitality with infusions of Vitamin C, Folic Acid, Potassium, Beta-Carotene, Omega-3’s and a host of other beneficial nutrients. An added benefit from all this greenness is a world of exciting new taste adventures.

Let us examine a few of our dark, leafy friends a little more closely. What better place to start than with a mega-star like Kale. This strong man of the vegetable world has more nutrients than most other greens combined! He will give you twice your daily requirements of Vitamin A and seven times the recommended amount of Vitamin K in just one 1 cup serving. That is amazing! He is not lacking in calcium, copper, or manganese either. This earthy-tasting leaf can be a bit tough when raw but if you dress chopped kale with vinegar and oil and allow it to rest before adding to a salad, it will soften up. Kale makes a fabulous addition to soups and stews if you prefer it cooked. No matter which way you consume it, Kale provides support to the blood and bones and its rich store of minerals help the absorption of iron.

Being a southerner, this next fellow is no stranger in my house! The lowly Collard Green is a much misunderstood and maligned plant simply because it can and has been used in some less than healthful traditional southern food preparations. Collard Greens also gained a bit of a stigma as poor mans’ fare because they are cheap and plentiful in the warm southern climates. However inexpensive they may be, they are most assuredly rich in folate, a B vitamin thought to slow the decline of cognitive function as we age. One serving of collards provides approximately 45% of your daily requirement of folate. The flavor of collard greens is strong and somewhat bitter but very delicious. A favorite way to prepare collards is to remove the thick center stem, slice into thin ribbons and flash saute in extra virgin olive oil along with some minced garlic. Delicious! If using raw, prep as you would Kale to make the leaf more tender. A note about cooking your greens: never use aluminum or copper vessels. Sulphur compounds in the vegetables react with the metal and can destroy fragile phytonutrients and vitamins.

In recent years more people have begun to enjoy the crisp, sweet flavor of Romaine lettuce. It shows up on salad bars more frequently than iceberg now! That is a great thing since Romaine contains about six times more vitamin C and eight times more vitamin A than the paler cousins. The extra potassium and folic acid are a bonus as well. You can pair this versatile lettuce with just about anything. Try broadening your salad horizons with a combination of nuts, fruits, seeds and sharp crumbly cheeses combined with mellow, mild hearts of Romaine.

A personal favorite in our family is bold, peppery Arugula or Rocket. This scion of the mustard family is a leaf with an attitude! It packs an impressive list of credentials including beta-carotene, vitamin C, and more Omega-3 than any other green leaf vegetable. Raw arugula has 47 mg of heart healthy Omega-3 in a mere one ounce of leaves. Arugula is positively fabulous made into pesto!

Watercress is similar to arugula in that it has a bold peppery bite, however this delicate little green is actually a member of the cruciferous vegetable family. Members of this vital plant family are famous for their cancer fighting properties. Watercress is armed with enzymes known as isothiocyanates which are thought to fight free radicals and actually decrease damage to white blood cells. Watercress is spicy and pairs well with fruits or fruit puree based dressings.

Lamb’s Lettuce or Mache is a delicate, sage colored leaf with a velvety texture. Though relatively small, Mache is nutritional TNT! Loaded with vitamin B9, this little plant helps fight fatigue and stress with thirty times the might of spinach. The flavor is much more understated than either arugula or watercress and therefore requires subtle pairings of dressings and other vegetables. As with all dark leafy greens, eating them raw maintains more of the fragile nutrients that can be destroyed by heat.

Did you ever wonder what that strange little lacy nest of greenery tucked into your spring greens mix is? It is quite bitter when you taste it alone. That would be Curly Endive or Chicory and it is great at fighting intestinal bacteria and helping protect your from colon cancer! Because of its bitterness, chicory does tend to need sweeter partners.

Here is one that might surprise you because it is not green. Radicchio is a small purplish lettuce that looks like a baby cabbage. It grows in the shade but is still rich in lutein which helps protect your eyes from macular degeneration. Radicchio tends to lean toward bitter on the taste scale and the leaves are not soft and buttery in texture like a little head of Boston lettuce would be. The stiff-textured reddish leaves make lovely cups to hold other vegetables or pasta.

Of course, there are many wonderful, tasty emerald-colored or jewel toned marvels of the plant kingdom that were not mentioned here. I encourage you to get out to the farmers markets, cooperatives, natural food stores and anywhere produce can be found and experiment for yourselves. Several points to keep in mind when shopping for fresh produce are: buy organic when possible and support your local farmers. Be creative too. There is a world beyond iceberg and it is brimming with possibilities.

Copyright S. Jill Anderson

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