By The Peaceful Plate
It started out innocently enough.
Me: What’s for lunch today?
Coworker: I brought a frozen meal, but I think I might go out and get a salad.
Me [silently judging her for eating Lean Cuisine, silently scolding myself for being judgmental, remembering I used to be an LC-eater myself]: Oh, a salad would be good. I’m not usually in the mood for salads once the weather gets cool. I start to want soups and more seasonal things.
Coworker: Lettuce has a season?
When I got back to my cube, I furiously scribbled down my thoughts on our conversation. Surely dieters would applaud her meal choices. A tiny tray of prepared food or a mound of lettuce – good job! What’s the problem? The quality of food in the tray, chemicals from the tray’s plastic leaching into the food during microwaving, but mostly the fact that she, and I would bet many Americans, don’t know when lettuce grows. We don’t know because it’s always available, trucked across the country from some warmer climate. In fact, a fair number of us may not even know that some lettuce grows as a head and some as leaves because it comes pre-cut and pre-washed in those uber-convenient plastic bags. Tip: It takes less than 5 minutes to clean and chop up a head of lettuce. Anyone can do it.
Here is the lettuce lesson for the day. It is seasonal. There are many varieties, and they all taste different. It’s especially yummy if you grow it yourself or buy from a local grower. You can get some early lettuce in the Spring, lots and lots of lettuce in the Summer, and if you take out those plants and sew more seeds in mid-to-late Summer, you can have lettuce through some of the Fall. During Winter, unless you live in San Diego or Florida, you and the farmers around you probably cannot grow lettuce.
Kale, spinach, and chard – think of these as your “Winter Lettuces”. I’ll admit they are all relatively new foods to me. I haven’t always liked spinach and never thought to try the others, but with an open mind and a bit of experimenting, I’ve found delight in all manner of leafy greens. Chard currently tops my list. Preparation is simple: cut out the middle vein/stem of each leaf since it is thick and will require more cooking time. Give the stem a quick chop and throw it in at the start of cooking (when you might also be putting in things like onion, garlic, and ginger) to soften it. The chard leaves are typically put in towards the end of cooking and just heated long enough to wilt, probably 5 minutes or less. This is typical of spinach leaves as well; kale is crunchier and might require cooking twice as long to soften.
Using Leafy Greens
Add leafies using the cooking directions outlined above to stir-fries, soups and stews, or enjoy them simply sauteed by themselves. As it turns out, they go very well in lentil dishes, and I’d like to share one of my favorite lentil-and-leaf recipes:
1 lb. French green lentils (Use these because they hold their shape best once cooked. Brown lentils will do in a pinch, but don’t substitute red ones since they will turn into mush.)
3-4 carrots, chopped
3-4 celery stalks, chopped
1 yellow onion, chopped
5 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp garam masala
1 bay leaf
1 bunch of chard, 1 head of fresh spinach, or a bunch of kale. You really can’t put in too much of any of these, so I’m not providing exact amounts – go nuts.
1 dollop of olive oil
Rinse the lentils in cold water. Look for stones or other non-lentils. I usually forget this step but have been lucky so far.
Heat a large soup pot with the olive oil. Add the onion, carrots, and celery. If using chard, also add the chopped stems. Saute until things start to get soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and spices, mix well, and saute a couple of minutes longer. Add the lentils and all of the vegetable stock. Bring it to a boil and let it simmer for 30-40 minutes, until the lentils become soft. The stock will slowly get absorbed, so keep an eye on the pot and add a bit of water periodically. I normally end up adding 2-3 cups of water total, 1 cup at a time.
When the lentils are soft, add in the greens and cook until they have wilted. Remember, spinach and chard will need less cooking time than kale.
Suggested toppings: plain greek yogurt or chopped cilantro.
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