In winter, when arugula and other salad-ish greens travel thousands of miles, have been contaminated with E. coli or are too costly to be borne with good grace, I turn to sturdier greens for warm salads and robust vegetable dishes.
Mustard greens, or flowering gai lan, a Chinese form of broccoli, are assertive and blend well with strong tastes. When I want a faceful of flavours, I steam gai lan, drain it, and add a couple tablespoons of good marmalade diluted with orange juice to the pan just as the vegetables are nearly done. No marmalade? Use plum or sour cherry preserves and lemon juice.
Sui choy, Nappa or Savoy cabbage are my go-to for tender, mild cabbage. They cook the same as cabbage, but are tender and slightly higher in water content. For a milder flavour, choose baby bok choy.
For more European flavours, I turn to chard, kale or Brussels sprouts.
The Brussels sprout makes an annual winter appearance, but is often ignored as being “too cabbage-y”. Far better to find it in late autumn at a farmers’ market, when you can appreciate its garish Martian-spaceship design of balls clinging to a stalk. But by midwinter, you will only find the bulbs, those perennial keepers, in the supermarket. Like its cabbage cousins, this mini head loves the company of pork, but is reduced to sulphurous fumes if overcooked. Brussels sprouts are utterly divine roasted. Quarter or halve each head, roll in good olive oil with salt and pepper, and roast in a single layer on parchment-lined paper until slightly charred, turning once or twice. Next best is to thinly slice the little buggers, and quickly fry them with bacon, onions and garlic until tender, adding small amounts of water to create steam. Add a drizzle of cream if you like.
Think of chard as two vegetables – the dense stalk and the soft, pliable leaf. Fold each leaf in half lengthwise along the stalk, cut the stalk out, chop up the leaf and set it aside. Chop the stalk and sauté it with onion and garlic. Add the chopped leaves, a bit of water, a handful of dried cranberries, and quickly cook until the leaves wilt. Then add some toasted chopped pecans and maybe a bit of Parmesan or chevre, and toss it on linguini. It’s a riff on a classic Catalan combo of greens with nuts and raisins, so vary it however suits your pantry.
Kale soup shows up from Portugal north to Scandinavia, nearly always partnered with pork, sausages or ham, and dried beans. Be sure to cut out and discard the thick central rib from large leaves. Kale doesn’t reduce its volume as much as other greens, so one bunch is enough to add to the pot. Kale can be braised or stir-fried, but it is dense, and takes awhile to become tender. Be patient. Otherwise, soup is a convenient vehicle. Kale too is delicious roasted, so separate the leaves, toss them in seasoned olive oil and spread them out on a tray to roast until crispy.
They tell me that winter will end eventually. This year I am not so sure. But until we can pick our own arugula and romaine again, these sturdy greens will sustain us. So first we eat, then we peruse the seed catalogues.
Winter Greens in Coconut Milk
Any sturdy greens will work in this mellow Thai-style dish: my favourites are gai lan, followed by Nappa cabbage. Serve with plain or coconut rice or finely-textured noodles, or as an accompaniment to curries, grilled meats or fish. As with any stir-fry, have all the ingredients sliced and measured before you begin to cook.
Serves 6 as a side dish
1 T. sunflower oil
½ onion, finely sliced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 T. grated ginger root
4 kaffir lime leaves (use the zest of a lime if you can’t find lime leaves)
½ red bell pepper, julienned
1 coarsely grated carrot
1 tsp. finely minced jalapeno or to taste
½ head sui choy or Nappa cabbage, julienned, or gai lan, left whole
1-14 oz. tin coconut milk
1 tsp. shrimp paste, optional
1 T. fish sauce or chopped anchovies
1 T. honey
the juice and zest of 1 lime
salt and hot chili paste to taste
minced cilantro for garnish
Heat the oil in a large sauté pan, then add the onion, garlic, ginger, lime leaves, bell pepper, carrot and jalapeno. Cook over high heat, stirring, until the vegetables are tender and transparent, about 5 minutes, adding small amounts of water to prevent browning. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Cook, stirring, until the greens are tender. Cook a few extra minutes to reduce and thicken the liquid if desired. Garnish and serve.