Cooking greens come from several different plant families, chief among them the cabbage family. Most of these greens can be eaten raw when young and tender. As they mature, their strong flavors often benefit from brief cooking.
- Amaranth greens: Amaranth leaves taste quite a bit like spinach. They are often sold in ethnic markets as Chinese spinach or Indian spinach, and are usually served steamed or stir-fried. Amaranth leaves are best eaten young and tender.
- Beet greens: These are the green tops of the root vegetable, and may be sold attached to full-sized or baby beets, or in bunches by themselves. The long-stemmed, large, green or greenish-red leaves are significantly more nutritious than the actual beets. Beet greens are at their best and most tender when young.
- Broccoli rabe: This is a different cruciferous species than broccoli. It’s also called American gai lan, rapini, or brocoletti di rape. The greens have a somewhat bitter flavor, and are popular in Italian cuisine, usually fried or braised.
- Chinese cabbages: This is a loose term that includes such greens as bok choy and napa cabbage.
- Collards: Collards are among the oldest members of the cabbage family to be cultivated. Unlike cabbage, their large, smooth leaves don’t form a head, but instead grow outward from a central axis. Each leaf is attached to a long, inedible stalk. Collards are one of the milder greens, the flavor somewhat a cross between cabbage and kale.
- Dandelion greens: Whether wild or cultivated, these greens come from the common lawn weed, which is a member of the sunflower family. The leaves—pale green with saw-toothed edges—are picked before the yellow flower develops, and they have a faintly bitter taste, similar to chicory. The dandelion greens sold in markets have been cultivated for eating and are longer and tenderer than wild greens.
- Escarole (Batavian endive): A member of the chicory family, escarole grows in loose, elongated heads and has broad, wavy leaves with smooth edges. The flavor is slightly bitter, but milder than chicory—though the inner leaves do not have as sharp a bit as the outer leaves. Escarole can be torn and added to a salad or cooked like a cooking green.
- Kale: Kale is a cruciferous vegetable that resembles collards, except that its leaves are curly at the edges. In addition, it has a stronger flavor and a coarser texture. When cooked, kale doesn’t shrink as much as other greens. Kale is popular fresh as a salad and as a braised green.
- Malabar spinach (vine spinach, climbing spinach): Malabar spinach is not actually a member of the spinach family. It is one of many cooking greens that are called spinach because their flavor vaguely resembles the earthiness of spinach. Malabar spinach comes from a tropical vine native to Southeast Asia. There are two principal varieties: those with green vines and those with red. Though it tastes like spinach, malabar spinach is reminiscent of okra in texture, making it a good choice for adding thickness to soups and stews.
- Mustard greens: Yet another cabbage-family member, mustard greens physically resemble a more delicate version of kale with a stronger bite. They are the leafy part of the plant from which we get mustard seed. The leaves, which are light green and slightly ruffled, taste best when they are 6 to 12 inches long and are seedless. (Seeds are a sign of over maturity.) In some markets, you may also find Asian mustard greens, which are a milder variety.
- Purslane: This fleshy-leafed green is used in salads as well as cooked and is especially popular in various Latin and Mediterranean cuisines. Purslane is one of a small number of foods notably high in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential fatty acid associated with lowered risk of fatal heart attack.
- Spinach: Spinach is a member of the amaranth family, which also includes chard and beets. Spinach has a rich, hearty flavor that is delicious both raw in salads or cooked. Its broad, tender leaves as well as the tiny stems are edible.
- Stinging nettle: Commonly used in Europe as a cooking green, nettle is easily recognized by its serrated leaves. The stinging nettle is a herbaceous plant related to hops, marijuana, mulberries, and elms. Small fluid-filled hairs on the leaves of some subspecies contain histamine and other chemicals,[i] which can cause a stinging or burning sensation and/or a rash. Cooking or soaking the green, however, eliminates the stinging effect.
- Swiss chard: Swiss chard is a member of the beet family, but is grown for its stems and leaves, not its roots. Chard has a distinctive flavor that’s similar to, but milder than, beet greens. Young chard can be used to perk up a salad. Typically mature chard is sautéed, or used instead of spinach in baked dishes, soups, and stews.
- Turnip greens: The leafy tops from turnips are one of the sharper-tasting greens, and like mustard greens, some find them too assertive and tough for eating raw. It is rare to find them with their turnip roots attached, as most varieties grown for their tops don’t develop full-grown roots. If you find roots with their tops attached, the greens are perfectly edible, but may be too bitter to eat unless they are quite young.
See our recipe for: Roasted Beets and Sauteed Greens.